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Jonathan Rose

Diffusers of Useful Knowledge

Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age
By James A Secord (Oxford University Press 306pp 18.99)
A lecture on phrenology, 1826

For a moment in time, just before Victoria became queen, popular science seemed to offer answers to everything. Around 1830, revolutionary information technology - steam-powered presses and paper-making machines - made possible the dissemination of 'useful knowledge' to a mass public. At that point professional scientists scarcely existed as a class, but there were genteel amateur researchers who, with literary panache, wrote for a fascinated lay audience.

The term 'scientist' was invented only in 1833, by the polymath William Whewell, who gave it a faintly pejorative odour, drawing analogies to 'journalist', 'sciolist', 'atheist', and 'tobacconist'. 'Better die ... than bestialise our tongue by such barbarisms,' scowled the geologist Adam Sedgwick. 'To anyone who respects the English language,' said T H Huxley, 'I think "Scientist" must be about as pleasing a word as "Electrocution".' These men preferred to call themselves 'natural philosophers' and there was a real distinction. Scientists were narrowly focused utilitarian data-grubbers; natural philosophers thought deeply and wrote elegantly about the moral, cosmological and metaphysical implications of their work.

Today the role of natural philosopher has passed largely to academics like James Secord - professor of history and philosophy of science at Cambridge and director of the Darwin Correspondence Project. Secord has devoted his career to studying what published scientists usually don't study: their readers. His prizewinning book Victorian Sensation (2000) tracked the response to Robert Chambers's Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), which postulated a vast evolutionary progress from the beginnings of the cosmos to the dawn of man. It was more journalism than hard science, but Charles Darwin acknowledged that it prepared the Victorian public for the shock of On the Origin of Species.

Visions of Science offers vignettes of other pre-Darwin scientific writers who generated considerable buzz in their day. Consolations in Travel, a collection of meta-scientific musings by the chemist Humphry Davy, published in 1830, played a salient role in the plot of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), with Anne Brontë being reasonably confident that her readers would get the reference. The general tone of such works was exemplified by the astronomer John Herschel in Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1831) - clear, empirical, accessible, supremely rational and even-tempered. These authors communicated a democratic faith that science could be mastered by anyone, perhaps even a woman.

Mary Somerville's On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834) pulled together mathematics, astronomy, electricity, light, sound, chemistry and meteorology in a grand middlebrow synthesis. She even promised her readers that the sciences were converging on some kind of unified field theory, though that particular Godot has never arrived. For several decades the book sold hugely and was pirated widely, but as scientists became more specialised and professional, it began to look like a hodgepodge. Writing in Nature in 1874, James Clerk Maxwell could find no theme in her pudding, calling it a miscellany unified only by the bookbinder.

The same scientific populism made possible the brief supernova of phrenology. Anyone could learn the fairly simple art of reading bumps on the head once the basics had been broadcast by new media. The first edition of George Combe's phrenological treatise The Constitution of Man, priced at six shillings, sold barely a hundred copies a year. But when the state-of-the-art steam presses of Chambers's Edinburgh Journal (the first mass-market periodical) produced a much cheaper version, 43,000 copies were snapped up in a matter of months. What the phrenologists could not produce were research papers backing up their claims, and a decade later the movement was moribund.

Charles Babbage, in designing his 'difference engine', anticipated all the basic principles of the modern computer - including 'garbage in, garbage out'. In Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830) he accused his fellow scientists of routinely suppressing, concocting or cooking data. Such corruption (he confidently insisted) could be cleaned up if the government generously subsidised scientific research. That may seem naive today, when we are all too aware that scientists often fudge results to keep the research money flowing. Yet in the era of the First Reform Act, everything appeared to be reformable. Babbage even stood for parliament in Finsbury, on a platform of freedom of information for all. But he split the scientific radical vote with Thomas Wakley, founder of The Lancet, and the Tory swept home.

After his sketches of these forgotten bestsellers, Secord concludes with the literary bomb that blew them all up. In Sartor Resartus Thomas Carlyle fiercely deconstructed everything the popular scientists stood for. Where they were cool, rational, optimistic and supremely organised, he was frenzied, mystical, apocalyptic and deliberately nonsensical. They assumed that big data represented reality; he saw that it might be all pretence, fabrication, image - in a word, 'clothes'. A century and a half before Microsoft's emergence, Carlyle grasped the horror of universal digitisation: 'Shall your Science proceed in the small chink-lighted, or even oil-lighted, underground workshop of Logic alone; and man's mind become an Arithmetical Mill?' That was a dig at the clockwork utilitarianism of both John Stuart Mill and Babbage: the latter called his central processing unit a 'mill'.

The scientific populists sincerely aimed to democratise information. But when the movement was institutionalised in the form of mechanics' institutes and the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, did it aim at anything more than making workers more productive? Babbage never completed his difference engine, in part because he treated human beings - including the artisans who were supposed to execute his designs - as programmable machines. And he was certain that Homo sapiens was not the highest form of intelligence in the universe. On another planet somewhere, he suggested, the Divine Programmer must have created Humanity 2.0.

James Secord always excellently recreates the milieu of the past. He is not so much concerned with drawing parallels with the present, but any reader will see them. From every lip today we hear demands for 'education that will prepare young people for a competitive global economy' - and not much else. The ministry that manages British universities - the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills - tellingly omits the word 'education' from its title. In America massive open online courses (MOOCs) promise to enable a single instructor to reach thousands of students through digital technology. MOOCs don't allow much room for classroom discussion, answering questions, close reading of complex texts, or any real individualised instruction, but they can achieve economies by eliminating faculty. And they are exactly what Charles Babbage had in mind.


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Jonathan Rose is William R Kenan Professor of History at Drew University. His books include The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes and, most recently, The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor.


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