2.11.09

THE HISTORY OF POPULAR SCIENCE

Peter J. Bowler. Science for All: The Popularisation of Science in Early Twentieth Century Britain. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

 In the interwar period radical scientists such as J. B. S. Haldane complained that few scientists were willing to write for the general public, and from this the idea has grown up that this was a dearth period between the popular science writing of the Victorian period and the kind of mass popular science writing of today. Peter Bowler, known mainly for his studies on the reception of the theory of evolution and the development of the Victorian idea of progress, demonstrates that this perception is quite incorrect, as he surveys the vast field of popular science writing from the period 1900-39

Many of the themes and issues have many modern parallels. There was a sharp division between those who portrayed essentially mystical views of physics, as in the case of Jeans, Eddington and the spiritualist Oliver Lodge, or the neo-vitalist biology of J. Arthur Thompson, and those such as the renegade Catholic priest Joseph McCabe and the anatomist Arthur Keith who proposed a much more rationalist world view. This has echoes even today in the various approaches to quantum physics, and to a rather lesser degree in the disputes between the role of contingency and parallel evolution in biology. Though Lodge has now been confined to the dusty shelves of spiritualist libraries, Jeans and Eddington are still held out as oracular authorities by a wide variety of paranormalists and cranks. The mantle of McCabe and Keith is taken up the likes of Paul Kurtz and Richard Dawkins

Another feature which we still see today is the rather sniffy attitude some scientists adopt towards those of their colleagues who take up popular writing. Julian Huxley's feared that his popular writing would prevent him getting elected to the Royal Society for example. In more recent years similar attacks have been launched against such media scientists as Carl Sagan, Stephen J Gould or Stephen Hawking.

This is clearly a book aimed primarily at an academic or at least student audience (the need to have an introductory piece describing the pre-decimal British money system is clearly indicative of that), and should be of value to historians of science, the media and British life in general. The lay reader, (and the large majority of students who do not have instant access to a major deposit library) would probably have found this book more useful had there been extensive illustrative quotations from the author's discussed. -- Peter Rogerson


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