Tag Archives: John Herschel

Visions of Science

Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian AgeVisions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age by James A. Secord

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Most people believe history is made up of people and their ideas. Maybe also the things they do. But I tend to think of history as being made up much more of books. The majority of people live and die and leave no record, no imprint, on history. You’ll never know what they thought; you’ll never have any contact with them. Great historians can get around this to some extend; I know social historians who can tease a wealth of information about the past from statistics, censuses, documents, and other clues. If you’re lucky you might find a trove of letters or journals related to particular individuals as well. But these are the fringes and margins of intellectual history, and such evidences only go back a couple hundred years at the most.

Books are a different story. Books are like the shelled organisms in the fossil record. By their very nature they leave a mark on intellectual history. They’re ideas given form, preserved, read, and interpreted. And yet they’re not static. A person’s ideas are in some way solidified in a text, but that person’s thoughts change over time, and there’s always also the question of how good a reflection of a person’s true views or ideas a book truly is. But books like the Origin of Species, for instance, or the works of Newton, leave an impact: they’re read, and their ideas spread. They’re the bones we build our intellectual histories upon.

But this isn’t enough. If we simply try to read the classical texts of the past without regard for the context in which they were written or without understanding the ways contemporary readers would have interpreted them then we’re only getting a portion of the picture. It’s this context that the historian of science James Secord brings to a cluster of pivotal texts in his new work, Visions of Science.

The subtitle of the work is “Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age.” The first half of the 1800s happens to be a period in which I’m quite comfortable, having written my dissertation on one of the authors whose work Secord examines. But it’s not an arbitrary choice of period, as Secord makes clear. The dawn of the Victorian Age was in many ways the dawn of modern science as we know it. Society was changing, particularly in Great Britain, where there was a growing middle class population, technological innovations were making texts more cheap and accessible, and scientific progress was seen as the panacea for solving social ills. The early 1800s saw the beginning of the devotion to science as a means of progress that we continue (though a bit more jaded, disillusioned, and hopefully wiser) to live within today. This is the world on the cusp of Darwin and the professionalization of science, steeped in the early enthusiasm of the industrial revolution.

Secord examines seven texts from this period: Humphrey Davy’s Consolations in Travel, published near the end of the chemist’s life as a retrospective on the progress of humanity to date; Charles Babbage’s Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, his tract against the perceived stagnation of science in England compared to the Continent, which Secord uses as a segue into the politics and personalities of practicing science during this period; John Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, often seen as the first modern text on the philosophy of science; Mary Somerville’s popularization of science, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences; the geologists Charles Lyell’s Principle of Geology, which set the groundwork for thinking of deep time and Darwin’s revolution; George Combe’s immensely popular work on phrenology, Constitution of Man; and finally Thomas Carlyle’s weird and wonderful critique of the science of his day, Sartor Resartus.

Secord has previously published a book-length treatment of another important book during this period that should be included in this list, the anonymously-written Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which created a “Victorian sensation.” In that earlier work Secord does in greater depth for the Vestiges, a text that brought ideas of naturalistic evolution to a widespread audience decades before Darwin, what he does for each of the texts listed above. His treatments in Visions of Science are brief synopses, almost vignettes, about each book, and it would have been nice to have an abbreviated version of his examination of the Vestiges among them as well for completeness; I don’t think any readers would have minded repetition with his previous study.

For each of these works, Secord is interested in showing how these primary sources– many of which students of the history of science in modern Britain would know well– was initially perceived. More than that, he dives into the structure of the physical books themselves: who published them, how they were printed, and what this meant about potential audience and cost. Secord also provides biographical sketches of the authors, but these are complete only in as far as needed to show how the writing of the particular book fit in the context of their lives. Who were these authors, what was their role in the nascent community of modern science, and why did they write? Secord’s exploration gives a clearer picture of the transitional world of early Victorian science and its rise to cultural prominence.

Visions of Science would be ideal for a course focusing on the history of science and culture in this period. Such a course would likely involve the assignment of large portions of the primary texts for reading, with the chapters of Secord’s work as supplementary material so today’s readers could do more than simply filter these works through their own interpretive frameworks. The studies in Secord’s work are a primer for a much more difficult task: seeing the works as they appeared in their own time. In this Visions of Science succeeds in making these foundational texts more three-dimensional, helping them come alive as we approach them as a Victorian reader would and seeing in a new way how foundational they were in shaping society and thought into molds we largely take for granted today.

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.

Calendar of the Correspondence of Sir John Herschel

A Calendar Of The Correspondence Of Sir John HerschelA Calendar Of The Correspondence Of Sir John Herschel by Michael J. Crowe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

John Herschel was the most famous scientist you never heard of. His name may sound familiar (especially if you’ve spent much time around me), but if so you’re likely thinking of his father, the astronomer famous for discovering the planet Uranus. Yet during his lifetime John Herschel, whose life and career spanned most of the nineteenth century, was Britain’s leading scientist (though the term itself is a bit anachronistic here) and a prime player in the international scientific community. I tell people he was the Stephen Hawking of the nineteenth century: an astronomer himself and the person people thought of when they envisioned the epitome of the scientific life. His generation considered him second to Newton in English science, so much so that he was buried next to the famous physicist in Westminster Abbey upon his death.

So why has no one heard of him today? There are lots of likely reasons. Though his career spanned decades, he was the last of the natural philosophers, the scientists who could still expect to have a mastery of all scientific fields. In astronomy, he was the first (and perhaps the only) to closely survey the entire northern and southern skies with a large optical telescope. But despite his influence he had no single large discovery (like his father’s planet), and his work was quickly overshadowed by the developments of spectroscopy and photography. In mathematics, he is largely the reason we use the Continental form of calculus instead of the Newtonian fluxions that held sway in England until the early 1800s, but the history of mathematical analysis doesn’t make great cover. He did important work in optics, chemistry, and photography as well, before they were considered separate fields. He coined the phrases snapshot, negative, and positive. His very omnicompetence may have helped efface his memory. He doesn’t have one specific theory or field of speciality to attach to him, like Maxwell or Darwin.

This breadth also contributes to another aspect of Herschel’s current anonymity: lack of a good biography. An adequate biography of Herschel would be a huge undertaking. The only attempt so far is a book-length sketch by a German librarian, which has been translated into English (Gunther Buttmann’s The Shadow of the Telescope). Herschel is starting to get more treatment though. He features prominently in Laura Snyder’s The Philosophical Breakfast Club and Richard Holmes’ Age of Wonder. In both of these however, Herschel himself is not the primary focus.

Several years ago Dr. Michael Crowe, a scholar on my dissertation committee, decided he would attempt a Herschel biography. What he realized very quickly though was that the amount of material that needed to be processed for such a project was immense. Correspondence to and from Herschel alone (not to mention his published works and his journals) amounted to more than 14,000 letters scattered in repositories, libraries, and archives all over the world. The first task would be to assemble and organize this correspondence, and the results (after a decade of work involving dozens of graduate students) was the massive Calendar of the Correspondence of Sir John Herschel.

This is not a book to be read straight through (unless you’re writing your dissertation on Herschel). It is truly massive, for one thing, weighing in at over 700 pages. And the content is not narrative but instead chronological summaries of all of Herschel’s correspondence. Every letter (known at the time) that he wrote or received has been read, dated, and summarized. And then indexed, which is perhaps the most useful thing of all. Because Herschel really was at the center of an immense network of scientists, and if you are interested in any aspect of what might loosely be termed Victorian science (and why wouldn’t you be, because this is the age of steam, electricity, exploration– science becoming the science we know today) you’re likely to find that Herschel corresponded with someone about it. Pretty much every big name (and several smaller ones) in the history of nineteenth-century science makes an appearance.

For a Herschel scholar, this is an absolutely essential resource. Besides a complete guide to his letters, Crowe also includes very large and very useful appendices listing all of Herschel’s published works as well as a bibliography of secondary works on Herschel up to the time of publishing (and while there is still no book-length treatment of Herschel’s life, the huge amount of papers and essays written about him shows his enduring influence on a wide range of fields). Though the book is currently out of print, the information entailed is available in an even more useful form, fully searchable and online, as a database hosted by the Adler Planetarium.

Venture forth: http://historydb.adlerplanetarium.org.