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The "expansive force of public science in the second half of the nineteenth century" transformed the reach of popular science. James Secord's essay, "How Scientific Conversation Became Shoptalk," acts as a keynote to this collection about the wide popular diffusion of science in Victorian Britain. Secord emphasizes that to speak aloud a scientific paper was more central than print publication of an idea or a discovery. Before mid-century publication mattered less than social contact and in-person presentation of new scientific work. Secord undertakes a sociology of knowledge in which he examines the nineteenth century discussion of science and critiques our contemporary tendency to privilege written science over the oral. Conversational discourse, he tells us, was particularly important in the development of nineteenth century science. In scholarship, Secord notes, "the nineteenth century has been an uneasy borderland" which has been "depicted ... in terms of decline from the supposedly golden age of conversation in the eighteenth century." He appears to wish to correct the record. Secord argues to put conversation back at the center of our understanding of science in the nineteenth century and to consider "the ways in which scientific talk was managed and how this changed."
We are given an enlightening discussion of the relationship between the conversational sociability of scientists and the publishing of scientific articles. We are invited into a reassessment of "polite science" and to consider the "shared culture" in which conversation about science moved. This was a world of "domestic settings and public meetings, taverns and theaters." It was, at least in the first part of the nineteenth century, Secord tells us, "an intellectual culture in which oral performance held such high status." It was a gentlemanly culture that placed a high value on face to face contact." Secord provides cases to illustrate this. He points out that "the final decades of the nineteenth century do mark a significant change with relations between elite society and what was rapidly becoming known as 'the scientific class.'" There was, he observes, a shift from "contact with original investigators" to work "through articles by science journalists and professional writers" and a movement from social settings to "lively exchanges in the laboratory." There was, he concludes, more at work than "the impact of specialization and professionalization." Scientific conversation can be understood within the "more general changes in the social organization of elites in Britain."
Readers with a psychological orientation may find the following essay on phrenology by John Van Wyhe interesting." Phrenology was one of the most widespread sciences in Victorian Britain," he points out. Journals and societies concerning phrenology were abundant. This essay offers a history of how these emerged after 1814 through public lectures. Phrenology held that mind corresponded to the brain and that the surface of one's head suggested "underlying brain organs and their respective phsysiological aptitudes and tendencies." Phrenologists like Joseph Gall, Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, and George Cooke are discussed, with emphasis on how lectures and printed reviews broadened public interest in phrenology.
The venues for popular distribution of science were many. To account for this, the collection is rounded out by several other well-researched and accessible essays. Graham Gooday offers reflections on the publicizing of electricity and the electric light. When Jonathan R. Topham informs us about print media in his essay "Publishing Popular Science in Early Nineteenth Century Britain," he includes a consideration of working class reading, mechanics' institutes, and the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK). Ann B. Schteir examines Victorian discussions of the Mimosa, or sensitive plant. Co-editor Aileen Fyfe considers discussions of natural history at the British Museum, the museum's natural history collections, and how the museum created an experience for visitors . She examines "The Pictorial Museum of Animated Nature," a publication which was presented to the public in parts.
Scientific lecturers recognized the prospects of lecturing to entertain as well as to instruct. This led to a diffusion of popular science. In "Lecturing in the Spatial Economy of Science," Bernard Lightman points out how John Tyndall, one key scientist at the Royal Institution, was imitated by James Clerk Maxwell ) and others. When he arrived in Boston in 1884 to present the prestigious Lowell Lectures, Robert Ball (1840-1913), astronomer royal of Ireland, was already a seasoned lecturer..." (97).
Lightman explains, "The growth of an educated middle class and literacy among members 'of the working class combined with the invention of new printing technologies gave birth to an unprecedented mass market" (98). This increased science journalism and introduced a kind of literary narrative to meet the needs of this public. This increased interest in science was met by lectures, exhibitions, zoos, aquariums, and museums. For this audience there was a dash of entertainment. Lecturing, Lightman points out, was likely experienced differently depending upon the place where a lecture was heard. These lecturers "were competing with a wide range of mass cultural forms" (98). They were able to take advantage of the institutionalization of science that was occurring at this time.
John Henry Pepper (1821-1900) and Frank Buckland (1826-1880) "drew upon cultural forms connected to the world of entertainment" (99). Their scientific lectures on popular science were "akin to that of visitors to the museum or the theater" (99). Pepper was the appointed lecturer and analytical chemist at the Royal Polytechnic Institution in 1848. He spoke on optical electricity, chemistry, and optical illusions. Robert Ball specialized in astronomical topics, while John George Wood (1827-1889) was a well-known lecturer on natural history. Frank Buckland was the son of a famous Oxford geologist, William Buckland, and also spoke on natural history and carried on the natural theology tradition of his father. As a devout Christian, he was a fervent opponent of Darwin's evolutionary theory. Interestingly, early on, Buckland "lectured primarily to members of the working class" (105). Lightman notes that "Buckland developed a light, entertaining style with plenty of humor" (105). Buckland's lecture "The House I Live In" included visuals, posters and ads, specimens such as a New Zealander's tattooed head, a large shell from the China Seas, a rat with huge teeth, the vertebrae of a boa constrictor, the thighbone of a lion, and a money's skeleton" (Lightman 107, citing Burgess 1968, 73). In a popularizing style, he addressed the wider world of science and the far-flung places of British colonies. Buckland brought to lecture poisoned arrows from Central Africa, a whale harpoon used by South Sea whalers, elephant and giraffe tails, head of poisonous snakes… and the shoes of a seven foot tall French giant" (Lightman 108; St. John's School 1863).
John Henry Pepper, "a lively speaker", made demonstrations of laughing gas. He is described as a "showman of science" (114). Lightman notes that whereas Richard Altick, in his Shows of London, treats the Polytechnic Institution as an integral part of the London entertainment scene, he criticizes the inclusion of more popular entertainment in the programs of the galleries of practical science." He adds, "Pepper would have disagreed." He had a strategy "to link instruction more closely to entertainment" and was "capitalizing on the theater as a vehicle for reaching general audiences" (113). He developed a "successful public cultural forum" at the Polytechnic. In 1850, Dickens's Household Words recommended that the Polytechnic offer the public more than exhibitions of industrial machinery. "There is a range of imagination in most of us," the anonymous writer said, "which no amount of steam will satisfy" (118). Pepper took up a response to this "innate love of 'dramatic amusements'" (Amusements of the People, 1850, 13).
Lightman notes: "In the early 1860's, Pepper increasingly exploited the relationship between the Polytechnic and the London entertainment scene… Panoramic and dioramic spectacle had begun to be widely used in some forms of dramatic production in London in the 1820's, contributing to the popularity of the theater" There was "melodrama, pantomime, music hall, freak show, dancing dogs and pyrodrama..." (118). Pepper took these theatrics, generating optical illusions from 1856-57 on. The Illustrated London News wrote on "Spectre Drama at the Polytechnic Institution." Pepper used this to educate the public on the principles of optics.
"Pepper's bid to re-envision the spaces of public science by incorporating more theater led to a debate in the periodical press about whether the Polytechnic had gone too far in the direction of entertainment" (123). "Pepper's Polytechnic was a new kind of hybrid scientific institution, which included elements of the exhibition hall, museum, laboratory, and lecture hall all under one roof" (125). His "audiences could be terrified by the appearance of a ghost and then calmed and edified by his scientific explanation for apparent supernatural phenomena" (125).
Buckland spoke at many sites in England. This "brought science into new spaces and thereby into the center of Victorian culture," observes Lightman (125). More popular scientific periodicals emerged, along with books, museums, and exhibitions. Often Huxley is credited with the growth of science in the minds of Victorians, moving Britain toward increasing professionalization. He certainly played a major role in this respect. However, this public diffusion of popular science adds another side of the story. As scientists moved toward increasing specialization, popularizers like Pepper and Buckland reached a wide public.
© 2008 Robert McParland
Robert P. McParland, Ph.D., Felician College, NJ