Tag Archives: history of science

Technopoly

Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to TechnologyTechnopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology by Neil Postman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Being a social critic must be a lonely job. No one wants to hear what he says, I imagine, besides those already disillusioned with the system. For those though who have a vague sense that something somewhere has gone wrong but lack the words to articular exactly what, the social critic serves an essential function. He helps diagnose the problem. Neil Postman did this in his work Amusing Ourselves to Death, which I read years ago, when he talked about the way that television has shaped public dialogue. One of the main themes in that book is that the medium is never neutral– it shapes the message and the type of dialogue that can be conducted. Whereas print allows a certain level of dialogue and reflection, the medium of television news– depending as it does on sensationalism and catering to the limited attention span of viewers, upon which their marketing model is sustained– cannot. In this book, Technopoly, Postman takes his idea of the impossibility of a neutral medium deeper with his critique of the assumptions that underlie our technological world.

Postman believes that the United States has become the world’s first “Technopoly.” In the first few chapters of the work, which was written in the 1990s, he sets out what this means with an overview of the history of technology that, though problematic in some respects, draws widely on many well-known historians of technology. (Indeed, the primary reason I read this book was because I wanted to get a sense for whether it would work for a history of technology unit in a history of science course I’ll be teaching in the spring, and these chapters indeed fit the bill for a general student reader.) Postman wants to chart the transition from societies in which tools are used by humans (a tool-using society) to a society in which those tools bring about radical social changes (what Postman calls a technocracy) and ultimately to the society we have today, one in which we no longer shape tools for ourselves but in which we shape ourselves for our tools (a Technopoly).

There are a lot of generalizations at play here, as one would expect in a three-chapter survey of the history of technology. Postman shows how the technology of writing transformed society and created an abundance of information that required institutions to manage. Schools and universities, for instance, arose in large part to help sort, organize, evaluate, and manage the new information created by the technology of printing. In the past century, Postman argues, technologies increasing the amount and immediacy of information– the telegraph, telephone, television, and finally computer– have proliferated much faster than the capacity of the institutions that exist to manage that information. The result in today’s Technopoly is a flood of information that exists without content, context, or relevancy; the assumption that information is good and valuable for its own sake; and the belief that society’s ills arise from a lack of information that only more information-generating technology can solve. One of the main threads in Postman’s argument is against these last two flawed (but overwhelmingly accepted) assumptions in today’s society.

Another complaint of Postman’s regarding technology’s role in society is the way humans become subordinate to technology. Postman’s claim is not simply that technology creates problems in today’s world; it’s deeper and more subtle than that. Postman wants to show the unperceived and unquestioned ways technology shapes thought. Against those who believe technological progress is always desired and inevitable, Postman argues technology is not value-neutral. It carries with it a host of assumptions that fundamentally change the way humans interact with each other and their environment and conceive of the natural and social world.

He provides specific examples from the field of medical and computer technology. The primary problem, he says, is the familiar adage that to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail. Machines depend for their functioning upon the reduction of things to uniformity, automated processes, and problems of efficiency. The usurpation of culture by technology, Postman argues, takes place when this becomes the lens through which all human interactions are viewed. Machines predispose us to see social interactions in these reductionist, efficiency-driven terms. In these cases, Postman says, we are no longer simply using our machines; they are shaping the way that we view the world.

Postman takes this argument further by discussing “invisible” technologies– that is, technologies we use every day but that we don’t normally think of as technologies. His big examples here are the practices of standardized testing, questionnaires, polling, and the tools of social scientists– basically the perceived ability to objectively quantify specific traits. A standardized test is a technology, and again it’s a technology that has shaped the way we perceive the world. It allows us to believe that nebulous traits like empathy, beauty, and intelligence can be reduced to a number, and it causes us to reify things like “intelligence” that don’t really exist. Intelligence, empathy, beauty– they’re not things; they’re complex qualities that exists in different ways in different people in different circumstances.

The results of all this, Postman says, is that our culture places an inordinate faith in applying the methods of natural science– quantification, empirical observation, testing– to places where they never belonged in the first place, the realm of human interaction and society. Postman has a long screed against social scientists, who he believes misuse the tools of scientific practice and have contributed nothing to the actual understanding of the human mind or human interactions. I find this generalization to be a bit dangerous, especially the division he makes between studying the processes of nature (allowable via the scientific method) and human practices (not allowable, because humans are too complex). What would Postman make of the burgeoning field of neuroscience, for instance, which combines aspects of the social sciences with biology and psychology? The divisions here are, I think, more tenuous than Postman allows.

As a critique of a society that unquestioningly embraces technology and all the reductionist assumptions it entails, this book– published over twenty years ago– still seems incredibly relevant. No technology is value-neutral– for good or ill, using it has radical effects on human relationships (and this is where one can’t help but wonder what Postman would make of the internet today and the efflorescence of social media). Deeper than that though, Postman believes technology shapes the way we view the world. Computers, for instance, don’t simply process data for us; they give us an entirely new language. They cause us to re-conceptualize our problems in mechanistic terms, even when this is inappropriate. In some cases we start treating computers like people, and in many cases we start treating people like computers.

His conclusion– the “what can we do about it”– chapter of the book warms the heart of a historian of science. Postman says that the only place the problems of Technolopy can be address are in the schools (which are themselves a form of technology). The key, Postman claims, to helping people see the problematic assumptions of Technopoly is teaching the history of every discipline, especially the history and philosophy of science. It’s only by seeing the way in which what we know– or think we know– has changed over time that we can teach students to see and question the assumptions that today’s culture rests upon. As much as I agree with the call to historicizing knowledge (and Postman is right– this is the only way for knowledge to become more than a consumer product), the grand narrative of human progress that Postman thinks teaching should be structured around smacks of the very technological determinism that he is trying to avoid.

Most of society focuses on what we gain with technology; Postman wants to make us consider what we lose, but more than that he wants to warn against the standards of Technopoly– efficiency, information, standardization, immediacy– becoming the standards of culture. This is a warning that is just as poignant now, if not more so, than it was when the book was first written.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of GeniusLudwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius by Ray Monk

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ludwig Wittgenstein is widely regarded to be the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century. I’ve never read his first and most well-known work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, but I know something of its influence through a course on the Vienna Circle, the inter-war group of European philosophers who left their indelible mark on modern theorizing regarding science and language. Wittgenstein also shows up as a peripheral character in Logicomix, a wonderful graphic novel on the intersection between mathematics and philosophy in the first half of the twentieth century, which I reviewed here. It was my recent re-reading of Logicomix that spurred me to learn more about Wittgenstein himself. Monk’s authoritative biography seemed the place to begin.

I was not disappointed. Monk paints a vivid portrait of Wittgenstein as an individual and as a philosopher. This is the challenge of any biography, I suppose: to balance the cultural and historical background of a person’s age with the personal and emotional foreground of the individual’s own psyche and link this to an understanding of how a person creates or does whatever it is that makes her or him worthy of having a biography written. Monk does this expertly– no small accomplishment, because for Wittgenstein all three of these aspects are so complex.

Wittgenstein was born in 1889 to a large Viennese family. His father was a wealthy industrialist, and the Wittgenstein fortune (in which Ludwig ultimately disowned his portion of the inheritance) provides his initial and immediate background. Two of his older brothers committed suicide, and Wittgenstein himself struggled with emotional turmoil throughout his life. To be wealthy in Vienna before the Great War (as well as after, due to his father’s expert handling of money) carried with it a certain cultural heritage: Wittgenstein was very much a child of the twilight of the Romantic era.

But “the duty of genius,” as Monk very appropriately subtitles his work, is very clear in Wittgenstein’s life from the beginning. He was constantly pushing beyond the comfortable life that he could easily have had with his background. Throughout the book (and thus throughout Wittgenstein’s life) Monk represents him as possessing a painful intellectual honesty. This drove Wittgenstein to study the foundations of mathematics in Cambridge with Bertrand Russell, but it ultimately drove him to try to experience life fully. Pure philosophizing was never enough. When the Great War broke out, Wittgenstein enlisted as a common soldier in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was here, in the milieu of true existential crisis– both for him personally, posted alone on night duty in combat operations and for Europe writ large as the empire in which his home was the capital crumbled– that he composed his Tractatus.

Though I haven’t yet read it, Monk plays deftly enough with the second important thread of his narrative– what Wittgenstein was actually doing in philosophy– that even the general reader can get some glimpses of why this was significant. Theorizing was not enough for Wittgenstein. Experience and language were central to the philosophizing endeavor. The true meaning of the world, Wittgenstein wrote, would never be expressed in the world itself. The meaning of the system was somehow beyond the system; this was what philosophy alone could never touch, and Monk shows how the background of Wittgenstein’s religious beliefs played out against this as well. Ironically, it was this realization, that there were things on which we must pass over in silence, things that philosophy could never address, that was interpreted exactly backward by the Vienna Circle.

Immediately after the War, Wittgenstein trained to be a primary school teacher and attempted to live out his philosophy by teaching students in the rural Austrian Alps. This was unsuccessful, and after this he traveled between his home in Vienna, a cabin in Norway, and Cambridge, ultimately returning there to lecture in philosophy, though he was never comfortable in the academic setting. Monk here takes what could be rather tedious narrative and keeps the character of Wittgenstein alive: the wandering, tortured, emotionally isolated and yet intensely emotional philosopher who teaches philosophy eccentrically, damning the philosophical establishment the entire time. After Germany absorbs Austria and the Second World War broke out, he was quite literally a man without a homeland (and here Monk offers insightful comments on Wittgenstein’s Jewish ancestry and how this played out for Wittgenstein personally). Wittgenstein passed the remainder of his life boarding with various friends, admirers, and former students, writing, editing, and rewriting (but never publishing) his later philosophical works.

An easy response to a biography like this is to ask, so after all, what did Wittgenstein do exactly? What happened to him? Why is he worth over 500 pages? And in some ways the answer is simply: he did not do much. He thought and wrote. He lived and tried to love. He wrote angst-filled letters, which provide Monk much of his source material, complemented by interviews with many of the surviving characters in this story. And yet Wittgenstein changed the climate of philosophical thought itself. He trained philosophers to ask questions honestly, to try to understand what they were doing, and then he encouraged them to go get useful employment as doctors or laborers. He tried to do this himself but always came back to writing.

He was sure he would be misunderstood. He often was.

I don’t know enough about Wittgenstein to know whether Monk has misunderstood him. I feel like– as with Hankins’ excellent biography of William Rowan Hamilton– Monk has explained– or rather, has held up for examination– what it is that most of us can only hope for: the fertile combination of a life lived with thoughts thought. Wittgenstein is remembered for his thoughts, for what he wrote about the nature of philosophy, truth, language, and perception. But as Monk has very expertly shown, these thoughts arose from a life lived in a great deal of pain, loneliness, discouragement, frustration, and (perhaps contributing to much of the things just listed) a relentless drive to be intellectually honest. To think and to speak clearly, as Wittgenstein attempted, is often the most difficult task of all. To write the account of someone who tried to live doing just that is also intensely difficult, but Monk has succeeded here with care and with a great deal of pathos.

A Crooked Line

A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of SocietyA Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society by Geoff Eley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What does it mean to be a professional historian today? What does the landscape of the profession look like? What are the big ideas or transformations over the past half-century or so that have shaped how historians work and think? In A Crooked Line, Geoff Eley, a European historian at the University of Michigan, provides a personal answer to these questions from the perspective of a historian who has lived and worked through the shaping of the profession during this period. A Crooked Line is not quite a memoir, not quite a historiography, and not quite a manifesto for political and social engagement among historians. It is a little bit of all of these things, blending and transcending them to become something quite unique: a historian’s reflective survey of what the field looked like from the vantage point of a young historian just beginning a career in the sixties to what the field looks like today.

As a historian of science—and one who came to the field from outside history—I sometimes feel cut off or at least rather uninformed about the broader debates and transformations that have shaped the historical profession as a whole. I felt a bit out of my depth—or at least out of my fit—at a recent workshop at Bielefeld University rubbing shoulders with historians pursuing a very theory-laden sociological approach to history while I presented a talk on John Herschel’s stellar spectroscopy (or lack thereof). I had only a dim inkling of the importance of the Bielefeld School in the history of history. (On the other hand, the history students I interacted with there only asked whether Herschel’s hesitation toward spectroscopy was evidence of his resistance to a Kuhnian paradigm shift.) Clearly, we did not share a great deal of historiographical ground. I asked my roommate, a Latin American historian, for a good book that would give me a broad overview of historical theory and provide some touch-points for connecting that theory with practice. He recommended Eley’s book.

I’m sure A Crooked Line didn’t go all the way toward addressing my ignorance, but it certainly helped. Eley tells the story from his own perspective as a historian coming of age at the eve of history’s first large shift from building traditional narratives to using the tools of sociology to address large-scale questions of the development of society and class relations. This is the portion of the book he titles “Optimism,” chronicling his own excitement as a historian realizing the possibilities of the social sciences to help answer big questions in history, primarily from a Marxist, materialist perspective. Here, the work that he cites as indicative and exemplary of this approach is Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963). British Marxist historians led the way with utilizing the empirical tools of social science to provide an explanatory framework for the evolution and the conflicts in society at large. For a historian, this held the promise of understanding, engaging, and perhaps even shaping social change.

In the second portion of the book, Eley focuses on the particular challenges of German historiography and the ways in which it illustrated the limits of a materialist approach. In particular—and here the section of the book is called “Disappointment”—the historiographical puzzle of Nazi Germany, the failure to explain the atrocities of World War II using the materialist, structuralist tool bag of social history, tempered early optimism regarding this approach. Tim Mason’s studies of Nazism in the 1970s, according to Eley, illustrated the difficulty of building up a complete history of the Third Reich from the foundation of class relations.

In “Reflectiveness,” the third portion of the work, Eley discusses the “linguistic” or “cultural turn” in history that took place in the 1980s as the field of history became influenced (or infiltrated, depending on your point of view) by anthropology, literary and art studies, oral histories, and the prioritizing of the unique, local, or small-scale, resulting in a historical approach much more open to cultural studies. This was tied to the realization that categories such as gender, race, and colonialism could be used in new and important ways for understanding history. Eley touches on the culture wars that resulted, as traditional historians cleaved to more social historical approaches and resisted what they saw as a “dissent into discourse.” Here the keystone text is Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (1987). Eley takes a bright view of the efflorescence of such cultural approaches, asking why such tools and methods should not be used to compliment the historian’s work. Cultural studies, he convincingly argues, bring new questions and methods to the table and moreover make heard historic voices that have been silenced in the past.

Throughout the book, in his survey of the two great turns in history of the course of the second half of the twentieth century—first the turn toward the social sciences and then toward cultural studies—Eley wants to map these changes to outside influences, particularly political. One of his primary claims is that history should be politically engaged. Perhaps though because of my own hazy grasp on the political history of the 1960s-80s it wasn’t always clear to me how this was the case, either proscriptively or descriptively. History as an explanatory tool for society, a critical self-remembrance, and as a counterpoint to flawed and potentially destructive global narratives, yes, but Eley seems to claim that the influence was often the other way—the political situation influenced the sorts of questions and methods the historical field itself pursued. I needed these dots connected more clearly for me.

The big omission (for me) in this historiography was the history of science. Where does Eley see the history of science as playing a role (if any) in the turns he’s outlined? Historians of science certainly played a role in the culture wars, and cultural studies of science abound today, as in an earlier generation did social studies of scientists and their research schools. I would love to find a similar survey of the field written from the perspective of a historian of science. The closest thing I know of is Helge Kragh’s An Introduction to the Historiography of Science, which, while helpful, lacks the personal flavor and the evident passion that made Eley’s book such a pleasure.

The Invention of Clouds

Invention of CloudsInvention of Clouds by Richard Hamblyn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I finished this book on an overcast evening. By the time I was done, the setting sun had broken through the clouds to reveal a strikingly three-dimensional panorama of torn vapor and gold. It was a cloudscape, the kind I try to capture in my stories “Unborn God” and “The Wizard’s House”—part of a series I’m calling Cartography of Clouds that will be published shortly in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It was also a fitting backdrop to the conclusion of this book on the history of attempts to name and categorize these most fleeting of natural phenomena.

The nineteenth century was a heyday of classification schemes in natural philosophy. If one could accurately name and organize objects, one could ensure that observations of them were uniform around the world. In astronomy this involved attempts to measure star positions as accurately as possible, but it also led to schemes for measuring double star positions and stellar brightness and developing a more rational way to divide up the heavens into constellations. (I discuss a lot of this in my dissertation, which I will be defending very shortly.)

In biology, a similar categorizing impetus gave rise to the Linnaean system of classifying organisms. Hamblyn’s The Invention of Clouds tells the story of doing the same thing for the changing skies. If weather observations were to develop into a uniform science of meteorology, there needed to be some way to accurately designate and compare cloud forms. But the clouds are by their very nature always changing and each one seems different. What sort of natural scheme of division could be devised for these objects?

The book focuses one individual, the Quaker merchant and natural philosopher Luke Howard, and how Howard devised, promoted, and propagated the cloud divisions (cumulus, stratus, cirrus, etc.) that have since passed into common and official usage. On one level, Hamblyn’s work is a fairly simple (though at times romanticized) tale: Howard developed his classification, presented it in a lecture, published it in a philosophical magazine, and ultimately found success. It is a straightforward story but one that illustrates what the scientific endeavor looked like in the early nineteenth century.

This is a popularization of the history of science. There’s no discussion of previous work done on Luke Howard (a figure I admit I had never heard of before this book) or discussion of the archives or source materials the author utilized. As a popularization though, it does a good job of using Howard’s life and work to illustrate how science worked during this period. The reader gets a sense of the popular interest in amateur science—in particular meteorology—and the world of scientific periodicals through which Howard rose to fame. More compellingly for me though was what it showed about the impetus for classification and categorizing during this period, the drive to obtain a uniformity of observations that could bring objectivity to nature.

Besides Howard’s cloud classification scheme, Hamblyn also touches on quantitative measurement for wind speed, though he does not discuss earlier attempts to gather worldwide temperature and barometric observations or the instrumentation that made this possible. These early attempts (partially coordinated by John Herschel during his time at the Cape of Good Hope) had much in common with contemporary attempts to gather global data on the Earth’s magnetic field and worldwide tidal levels. These were important aspects in the narrative toward uniformity and quantification that Hamblyn is constructing in this work, and I would have welcomed more discussion of how Howard’s own endeavors related to these activities of “big science”.

Hamblyn represents Luke Howard as a romantic hero of science, someone who brought scientific rigor the clouds without sacrificing their sublime aspects. This claim is buttressed by his discussion of the ways in which Howard’s work influenced the writings of such varied and prominent figures as Goethe in Germany and the English landscape painter John Constable. In parts of the work, however, this romanticization of Howard’s life and work is taken a bit far. In the sense of literary effect, this is not too much of a problem. It becomes more difficult, however, when Hamblyn takes liberties with his source materials to connect dots related to the influence or motivations of his characters. Phrases like “Howard surely thought” or “certainly felt” litter the narrative.

Whether you’re interested in the history of science or simply want to know more about how the clouds were brought within the remit of natural philosophy, this is an accessible and compelling work. If you’re hoping to learn more about the physical nature and structure of the clouds themselves though, this may not be the place to start. The focus is on Howard and the human aspect of science—showing how the scientific is often tied closely with the ascetic. It is a book about the naming of clouds, only secondarily about the physical understanding of clouds. As with so many things in science though, Hamblyn effectively shows how objects must be named before they can be understood.

The Cult of Pythagoras

The Cult of Pythagoras: Math and MythsThe Cult of Pythagoras: Math and Myths by Alberto A. Martinez

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Everyone knows that Pythagoras was an early Greek mathematician, that he proved the Pythagorean theorem, and that he was one of the first to glimpse our modern conception of the world– that the universe can be described by numbers. Everyone “knows” this, but is there actually any historical basis to these claims? What do we really know about Pythagoras and what he did, and how much of what is taught about him in math classes is actually myth? Apparently quite a bit, according to Alberto Martinez.

The Cult of Pythagoras could have as easily been titled The Myths of Pythagoras. Martinez, a historian of science at the University of Texas, Austin, convincingly argues in the first two chapters of this work that the foundation on which we’ve built the myth of Pythagoras and his accomplishments is very thin indeed. Martinez does what generations of math historians and popularizers of science have failed to do: drill down to the source material and examine what ancient authorities actually have to say about the man. What he finds is that the earliest accounts are vague, contradictory, and emphasize Pythagoras’s mythical attributes– his teachings as a religious figure and his reported miracles– as much as they do his mathematics. What fascinates Martinez is the way that these accounts have been distorted and magnified over the centuries until we get the Pythagoras of modern conception today: the veritable father of mathematics.

Pythagoras actually takes up only fraction of this book. The subtitle, “Math and Myths,” gives a better indication of the bulk of the work. Besides Pythagoras, Martinez debunks other famous myths from the history of mathematics. Gauss finding the sum of all integers from 1 to 100 during a grade school exercise. Euler getting imaginary numbers wrong. Galois’ tragic tale. The golden ratio popping up everyone where in nature and art and architecture. If the book was simply a historian of science plumbing the depths of the historical source material and making modern promulgators of these stories look foolish, it would be worth the admission alone.

But Martinez has a deeper program here. There’s a fundamental myth about mathematics that he uses many of these other minor myths to explode. And that is the Platonic conception of mathematics as something somehow independent of the physical world itself, existing beyond our own mental constructions. This is the perception of mathematics existing eternal and unchanging, of mathematical discovery as not inventing new systems but instead discovering truths that were there all along. What Martinez sees instead, when he looks at the history of mathematics, is the story of things being formalized and formulated, not discovered. In particular, Martinez examines the nature of imaginary numbers, the problem of dividing by zero, and the rules regulating multiplication by negatives. These are not mathematical properties written in stone, Martinez argues, though they’re often taught that way. They are instead conventions that developed slowly over time.

Against a mathematical Platonism on the one hand and a radical constructivism on the other, Martinez ventures into philosophy and poses his own system of mathematical pluralism. Some fundamental tenants of mathematics are true independent of human though. 2 + 2 will always equal 4, for instance, whether or not there is anyone around to see or discover this fact. But other mathematical principles are constructed, like William Hamilton’s quaternions. The problem is, Martinez doesn’t provide us with any way of distinguishing which portions of mathematics fall into which category. Are the principles of Euclidean geometry independent of human thought? Would the Pythagorean theorem hold for all right triangles, regardless of whether there were humans around to mentally construct them? Or does the construction of self-consistent non-Euclidean geometries argue against this? There’s fertile ground for philosophical speculation there, which I would have liked to have seen Martinez follow up on.

At the end of the book, Martinez returns to Pythagoras. Why is it so easy to hang accomplishments on this man’s name without any secure historical basis? Beyond mathematics, Martinez explains, Pythagoras also gets attributions from religion, new age thought, philosophy, alchemy, astronomy, and more. Here Martinez ventures into sociology, explaining how accomplishments (whether actual or not) tend to accrue to people who are already “famous.” The very paucity of real data regarding Pythagoras, Martinez concludes, makes him a sort of vessel in which all these attributes can be poured, a well-known cipher from antiquity for our own values that we wish to project into the past.

In sum, The Cult of Pythagoras, though the prose is in places is uneven and the book itself wanders in the multiple points it makes, is a powerful argument for expelling myth from the teaching of mathematics. The history of mathematics itself, based not on unfounded stories but on the real historical events and accomplishments, is far more interesting and compelling than the unhelpful myths that are propagated regarding mathematicians and the practice of mathematics itself. Martinez’s scholarship is grounded on what the texts actually tell us, and I heartily recommend to anyone teaching mathematics. The chapters on Pythagoras alone make this worth any mathematician’s bookshelf.

Dioptrice

DSCF3924

And this is me with my best (and unfortunately completely unintentional) mad scientist face. I presented a poster on the Dioptrice project, a database of pre-1775 refracting telescopes that I’ve been working on as a research assistant for the past few years at the Adler Planetarium as part of my graduate program in the history and philosophy of science at Notre Dame. I didn’t win the student poster presentation, but I did garner some good publicity.

A writer for ScienceNOW, the online publication of the AAAS, picked up the story and wrote up a summary of the Dioptrice project you can view here.

I got a call a few days later from another writer, this time for the science news site motherboard.tv, who wanted to do a piece on the project. His story is here.

Essays from the Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews

Essays from the Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews by John F.W. Herschel

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Historians of Victorian science often speak about a common intellectual context that fragmented in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The growth of scientific disciplines, the specialization of fields, and the proliferation of specialized journals made it difficult to stay abreast of all developments in science or maintain a synthetic view of the entire field. What’s more, as science became professionalized, science writing moved to periodicals and publications written specifically for scientists. There arose a divide between science and popular writings or cultural criticism that largely remains to this day.

The Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews represented what popular, high-brow literature looked like before these changes took place. In their glory days at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Reviews were a place to discuss politics and culture– including science. This collection of essays and poems by John Herschel illustrates the place that science held in popular culture. Though largely forgotten today, Herschel was arguably the leading popular figure in science in the generation before Einstein. In these essays he discusses everything from Laplace’s celestial mechanics to Whewell’s philosophy of science to Quetelet’s statistics. What’s fascinating is the detailed (though largely non-mathematical) treatment he goes into for a “popular” audience. These essays, important for historians of Victorian society in general and astronomy in particular, are recommended reading (or, more likely, skimming) for anyone who is interested in the sort of treatment science was given in the Victorian period for the general, educated reader.