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Victorian popularizers of science : designing nature for new audiences

by Bernard V Lightman

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Victorian popularizers of science   (2011-02-05)


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by wppalmer

Review of Victorian popularizers of science: designing nature for new audiences.

Author: Bernard Lightman.

Publisher: Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Reviewer: Dr Bill Palmer: Associate Curtin University.

Originally online at Academici: [...]

This is a scholarly work of 502 pages with a further 43 pages of bibliography and indexes in a hardback edition. It contains about 68 black and white illustrations most of which are clear and relevant, though a few are unduly dark; the book cover is nicely coloured which might lead some to expect internal coloured plates, as part of the joy of the Victorian texts being described is their colourful illustrations, but there are none, nor is there an index of illustrations. Victorian popularizers of science was priced at a very reasonable $ 45.00.

Bernard Lightman is an experienced author in this field; he edits Isis and Victorian Science in Context and co-edits Science in the Marketplace, so Victorian popularizers of science is backed by extensive scholarship and is authoritative in the picture it presents of Victorian popularizers of science. The book consists of a preface, acknowledgements, eight chapters and a concluding chapter to summarise the conclusions (Remapping the Terrain). Who will use this book? Some readers will wish to see the whole picture of the popularization of science discussed, whilst others will wish to use it as a reference work as they follow some personal interest in one of the popularizers of science whose oeuvre is discussed in detail. The author of this review has written about some of the popularizers mentioned and has found that Lightman's focus on them as popularizers is an excellent source of additional information about them.

The first chapter sets the scene for the whole book and is the only part of the book where popularizers of the first half of the nineteenth century receive any mention. The reviewer would have liked to see more about Jane Marcet and Jeremiah Joyce, as their books remained in print so long after initial publication and Joyce, in particular, because his complete text was revised in the 1860s by John Henry Pepper, who features prominently in Chapter 4. The reviewer, being interested in the physical sciences sees Michael Faraday as being more significant than the few paragraphs that he receives. In his opinion, James Rennie also deserves at least some space on account of the large number of scientific books he wrote (mainly in the period 1830-1835). In a later period (1870s), the Manchester lectures held annually and featuring many scientists of the time such as Roscoe, Odling and Carpenter, is said to have been influential in the popularization of science in the North of England. In general, the book does relate more to the biological than the physical sciences, but perhaps the biological sciences were more popular at that time.

So much for the niggles! In the first chapter Lightman sets out his overall purpose: `My purpose in this book is to complicate the historians mapmaking task even further by finding a place for popularizers in the topography of Victorian Science'. The aim is a worthy one and there is considerable debate about who is the better positioned to write about scientific issues, the scientist or the less qualified science writer. In the end, the discussion has little effect, writers of all sorts emerge to grab a seat at the table, though Lightman is excellent throughout the book with actual figures, showing that being a popularizer was not economically viable as a career path except for those with some other source of income.

Chapter 2 concerns the first of these groups ' Anglican clergy. Quite a number of clergy supplemented their income by writing. Lightman considers Anglican clergy writing in the fields of natural history and astronomy an important group in the popularization of science. They differ in the topics about which they write and the degree to which they directly oppose Darwin's evolutionary views. Lightman states `The growth of a reading public eager to learn about natural history created an opportunity for members of the Anglican clergy to pursue their scientific interests as popularizers.' Clergy chosen as major popularizers are Francis Orpen Morris, Charles Alexander Jones, Thomas W. Webb (for amateur astronomy), Ebeneezer Cobham Brewer and Charles Kingsley, with William Houghton and George Henslow as late nineteenth century representatives. In their writings Darwin's theory of evolution was generally seen as atheistic, but only Morris confronts Darwin head on.

Chapter 3 is entitled Redefining the maternal tradition in which Lightman mentions some twenty female writers a dozen of whom he considers major popularizers of science in the nineteenth century. Generally these women expressed views about science similar to those of the Anglican clergymen. One of the features of this book that this reviewer appreciates is the relations between popularizers and working scientists or with other authors. For example, Arabella Buckley was secretary to geologist Charles Lyell, and through that position had contact with Darwin, Wallace and John Murray, though some of this story is told in Chapter 5. The women had a lot to contend with, as scientists such as Huxley attempted in every way possible to diminish their input which tended to be amateur and religious in nature, both an anathema to Huxley.

Chapter 4 considers just two popularizers of science, John George Wood and John Henry Pepper, under a heading of `the visual spectacle' as it is not immediately obvious what connection there is between these two men. As there are only two main characters in this chapter, there is considerably more detail about each of them, though there was unfortunately not room to mention Pepper's later career in Australia, where he provided some spectacular entertainment (Palmer, 2005). Pepper made his reputation as Director of the Royal Polytechnic Institution with his use of `Pepper's Ghost' in a series of dramatic plays and his books for children are amongst the best of the period. John George Wood wrote books popularizing natural history and was a gifted lecturer. He used gigantic freehand sketches to illustrate his lectures, becoming successful enough to forego his clerical income. He seldom mentioned Darwin's theory of evolution, and tended to ignore it rather than criticise it; evidently one of his books Common objects of the country outsold Darwin's Origin of species.

In Chapter 5, we are introduced to the popularizers of science who supported Darwin's theory of evolution or cosmological evolution generally. There is a section on David Page and more on Arabella Buckley. Edward Clodd is introduced as a liberal Christian who became increasingly more radical. He wrote on a wide range of topics including astronomy and anthropology. Grant Allen was another successful popularizer of science and was a strong supporter of Darwin who helped Allen when he was ill and unable to earn an income from his writing. The last section of this chapter deals with Samuel Butler who was initially a strong supporter of evolution but eventually put forward his own ideas of evolution which received little support and considerable public ridicule; this caused his popularity as an author to suffer.

Chapter 6 considers the career of Richard Anthony Proctor who moved into popularizing science as a result of financial and other problems. Proctor's strength was astronomy and over his career he wrote some sixty books, writing both quickly and well. He also started a journal `Knowledge' as a rival to the journal `Nature', which was already well established. Knowledge was successful from 1881 for about seven years, but eventually it collapsed.

Thomas Henry Huxley (Darwin's Bulldog) and Robert Stalwell Ball are the joint subjects of a very interesting seventh chapter. The reviewer has just finished a piece on Huxley and physiography so this chapter was especially relevant to him. Huxley's views and influence are felt throughout the book as he fought for the professionalisation of science often to the discomfort of those who were amateurs or religious. Robert Stalwell Ball effectively took over the mantle for the popularization of science from Proctor after his death in 1888.

Chapter 8 concerns the science popularizers, mainly women, of the closing years of the nineteenth century. Lightman sees Agnes Giberne and Eliza Brightwen as continuing the maternal tradition as described in Chapter 3, whilst he sees Henry Neville Hutchinson as continuing the work of the clergymen-naturalists of earlier in the century. The work of Alice Bodington (evolutionary biology) and Agnes Mary Clerke (astronomy) were well qualified and well informed and continued the style of popularization pioneered by Mary Somerville.

The final chapter concludes interestingly with figures of the actual numbers of the most popular books printed, judging that the science popularizers of the latter half of the nineteenth century forever changed the topography of Western Science.



Palmer, W. P. (2005) The appeal of Pepper: John Henry Pepper (1821-1900) and his contribution to science education in Teaching science, (Journal of the Australian Science Teachers Association) Vol 51, No 2, Winter 2005, pp.14-20.

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