18 November 2016


James A. Secord. Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age. Oxford, 2016.

On 15 September 1830 the world's first inter-city passenger railway, operated solely by steam locomotives, was opened between Manchester and Liverpool. Britain, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, was undergoing radical transformation.
Steam power was everywhere: in factories, mills and coal mines, vastly increasing productivity and lessening the need for human labour.

Steamships were already voyaging routinely across the Atlantic. The pace of change was exhilarating to some yet terrifying to others, threatening their livelihoods and ways of life. Social unrest manifested in many places across the country. In Kent and parts of East Anglia mobs of agricultural workers went around destroying newly-invented threshing machines for the very reason that they would replace human labourers.

In some ways it could be said that the decade of the 1830s was the dawning of the modern age, marked by the arrival of Queen Victoria to the throne in 1837. Rapid communication became possible through the invention of the electric telegraph, and soon the new railways would permit masses of people and goods to be transported across the country at much greater speed than ever before. In addition, steam-powered printing presses were now producing newspapers and books to feed a mass market of readers hungry for information and self-improvement at prices that even a labourer could afford. All of these developments arriving together created a social revolution.

In Visions of Science James Secord, a Professor at Cambridge University, takes a deep and scholarly look at the new ideas, inventions and attitudes of this dynamic period in history. There are seven main chapters, each devoted to a book written by a leading 'natural philosopher' of the day. They are, in order, Humphry Davy, Charles Babbage, John Herschel, Mary Somerville, Charles Lyell, George Combe and Thomas Carlyle. Secord's particular interest in the social side of scientific progress is the thread that runs through this highly informative and at times engagingly amusing piece of work.

For example, at the time there was some debate as to what epithet was appropriate for these pioneers of new knowledge and technology. In general, the term 'natural philosopher' was used. The distinction between philosophy and science is at the heart of the invention of the word 'scientist', which is now the term used for such specialists. At the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1833, Samuel Taylor Coleridge complained that they were unjustly usurping a higher authority to identify themselves as philosophers when their expertise was in utilitarian disciplines such as chemistry and geology. A new word was needed. The polymath William Whewell responded at the meeting with a suggestion of the word 'scientist', drawing on the word 'artist' for one who practices art. 

Clearly the word had pejorative overtones because Whewell could not resist further analogies with 'journalist', 'sciolist' 'atheist', and 'tobacconist', "roles scarcely to be emulated". The word 'sciolist', probably as unfamiliar to the reader as it was to me, means a superficial, pretentious attitude towards scholarship. As Secord goes on to explain: "Given its character as a put-down, it is unsurprising that 'scientist' did not catch on". However, in the 1840s it did catch on across the Atlantic in the United States, where "those engaged in practical work in laboratories and observatories were less troubled by philosophical aspirations. Only several decades later did 'scientist' travel back across the Atlantic to be used in Britain, and it remained controversial well into the twentieth century".

Clearly, there was a great deal of intellectual snobbery, or at least intense rivalry for status, going on in Britain during those years. Times were changing and established authority was being challenged as never before. Leading figures argued with each other, verbally in debates and textually in print. Charles Babbage's Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830) was a savage work of pique that upset a lot of people. He was very much in favour of machines taking over human labour and thought the authorities were holding back progress towards that goal by not adequately supporting scientific research and development.

The brilliant polymath Mary Somerville's On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834) was an attempt to demonstrate the unity of the observable world, and indeed the universe beyond. It became a key work in transforming the 'natural philosophy' of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries into the 'physics' of the nineteenth century. There was already a trend to separation and specialisation of physical sciences. What was needed was an inclusive approach. Mathematics was considered to be the most promising source of unity. But electricity and magnetism did not seem to fit into the mathematical model. Here was a paradox: the book did not include a single mathematical equation. Was a unifying synthesis of all physical science even possible? The intention was good, but many thought it could never be done. What is quite remarkable in those male-dominated times is that a woman could attain a position of great respect in the field of the sciences. Somerville College, Oxford, was named after her.

As it turned out in the 1830s and ensuing decades, the scientific method was gaining supremacy over the old established orthodoxy. The God of the Bible was about to be de-throned from his perceived role as supreme arbiter of truth, just at the time when Princess Victoria was about to ascend to the throne of the greatest empire this world has ever seen, and that, of course, was the British one.

Charles Darwin did not publish his most famous and world-changing work On the Origin of the Species until 1859, but there can be no doubt he was greatly influenced by the books and ideas in the years around 1830 when he was studying for a BA at Cambridge University. Ironically, his general aim aim after graduating was to become a country parson. Books such as Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (published in 3 volumes 1830-33) and John Herschel's Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1831) helped to hone his critical reasoning skills with regard to evaluating hard physical evidence. Lyell's book gave absolute proof that the Earth was very much older than the approximately 6,000 years estimated from the Bible record of Genesis. Secord's chapter on Principles of Geology opens with this quotation from Charles Darwin himself: "The great merit of the Principles was that it altered the whole tone of one's mind, and therefore that, when seeing a thing never seen by Lyell, one saw it yet partially through his eyes".

It is obviously significant that the first volume of Lyell's book was given to the 22 year-old Darwin by Robert FitzRoy, captain of HMS Beagle, just before they set out on 27 December 1831 on a voyage of discovery that would eventually last nearly five years. For most of his time on land, during the expedition around the world, Darwin, as expected, studied the geology and natural history of the places visited. He found fossils of extinct creatures and studied variations in living animals and insects that shook his belief in fixed species, which eventually led to his theory of evolution by natural selection. One of the major keys to this discovery was the observation that geological change occurred over enormously long periods of time.

Returning to the fundamental question of whether ultimate truth was divine in origin and philosophical in nature, or material, practical and measurable, some 'natural philosophers' managed to bridge the void between both extremes. Although celebrated as a great chemist, Humphry Davy was also a poet and a dreamer. Secord provides an amusing biographical sketch of his eccentricities. He was often portrayed as an effeminate 'fop' or 'dandy', and one newspaper article ridiculed him for not noticing that on one occasion he was wearing five shirts at once. His Presidency of the Royal Society was not a success, criticised for autocratic behaviour. He certainly had his work cut out trying to control the Society's warring factions. 

But one of his greatest legacies is his final work Consolations in Travel, written virtually on his deathbed at the early age of fifty and published posthumously in 1830. It is a curious and romantic mixture of thoughts about the afterlife, eternity, universal mysteries, and the meaning of life on earth. Using the device of a dialogue between various entities, one of which is the Unknown, Davy seeks to find a harmonious answer to all of the great questions. The outcome may be described as ambiguous, and indeed there was some sneering criticism from some quarters when the book appeared, but Secord rightly gives Consolations its place as a major source of inspiration to the reading public of the early Victorian period.

Each of the seven books selected by Secord are in their way individual and radical. George Combe's Constitution of Man was revolutionary and controversial. Combe, an Edinburgh lawyer and lecturer, proposed that the human mind was dependent on the brain's physical qualities. The new science of 'phrenology' had become popular during the early part of the nineteenth century. Like other parts of the body, different parts of the brain could be seen as organs controlling specific functions and propensities. Equating the physical brain with the mind itself caused offence and alarm throughout British society.

Giving primary emphasis to the physical properties of the brain negated one's spiritual nature and even challenged the need for Christ's atonement and the doctrine of original sin. It seems absurd now, but this was heavy stuff around 1830. Constitution of Man was denounced from pulpits, removed from libraries and even occasionally burned. The book became a target for those who feared that the laws of nature revealed by science would replace the need for a caring God. No doubt it was all of this controversy that caused the book to become a massive best-seller by the standards of the day.

In the seventh and final chapter, 'The Torch of Science', Secord examines an immensely influential and unusual book by Thomas Carlyle: Sartor Resartus ('The Tailor Re-tailored'). Carlyle set out to write a parody of scientific thought towards the end of 1830. It was first published as a serial in Fraser's Magazine in 1833-34, and was finally published as a book in 1836. Ostensibly presented as a scientific analysis of clothes, it was purported to be based on a treatise by a German professor of 'things in general' at the University of Weissnichtwo (know-not-where). The professor's name was Diogenes Teufelsdrockh, which, literally translated would be 'God-born Devils-shit'.

Actually fiction but partly factual, serious but satirical, scientific yet also speculative, the book uses many devices to show the difference between appearances and inner reality. Just as clothes change with fashion or the taste of the wearer, so do beliefs. Everything changes over time. Many famous writers who came later, both British and American, acknowledged their debt to Carlyle for stimulating their thoughts and perceptions. It became a guide and a beacon to many. The ironies and contradictions of Sartor Resartus appealed to seekers of truth. In it many found a way to reconcile the quest for spiritual fulfilment with the belief in scientific progress towards a better world. One could in fact be both a 'natural philosopher' and a 'scientist' at the same time.

All of these books present a society and nation in ferment. The machine age had well and truly dawned in Britain, and Charles Babbage had invented a 'calculating machine' that prefigured computers. Science was on the march, bringing constant change and the promise of more to come, usually for the better but not always. If human history really does proceed in cycles, as seems to be the case, the 1830s provide much material for useful study as to how British society somehow 'muddled through' its challenges then, even with much argument and complaint. We cannot stop progress. The question is how we can influence and use it to fulfil our own needs and aspirations. Professor Secord's Visions of Science is masterful compendium of intellectual and philosophical thought from a critical period in our history. – Kevin Murphy

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