The Earth on Show: Fossils and the Poetics of Popular Science, 1802–1856

  • Ralph O'Connor
University of Chicago Press: 2008. 448 pp. $45 9780226616681 | ISBN: 978-0-2266-1668-1

Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences

  • Bernard Lightman
University of Chicago Press: 2007. 528 pp. $45 9780226481180 | ISBN: 978-0-2264-8118-0

The popularization of science has become a growth area for historical study. It is a natural continuation of the historian's quest to understand the social and cultural context and impact of science, and a consequence of scientists' admonitions over the past 20 years that the public should be better informed.

Implied is that the efforts of earlier generations of scientists fell short of making their work accessible to the public. But Lightman's and O'Connor's books paint a very different picture, at least with respect to the nineteenth century. Their insights come soon after Aileen Fyfe's Science and Salvation (2004) and David Knight's Public Understanding of Science (2006).

At the start of the nineteenth century, science was not an independent profession. Practitioners were often closely linked to medicine and the Church, at least in Britain, the country studied in Victorian Popularizers of Science and The Earth on Show. In France, there were more opportunities to pursue a scientific career. By 1900, science was widely practised independently in Europe and the United States, and the term 'scientist', coined by William Whewell in 1833, settled into the vocabulary. Science as a body of knowledge had become largely separated from theology.

This trajectory is tracked by Canadian historian of science Bernard Lightman in his survey of popular science in Victorian Britain. He begins with the Anglican ascendancy, in which most scientific work was undertaken by members of the Church of England, frequently those in holy orders. He moves on through showmen such as John Pepper (of Pepper's ghost fame), to biologist Thomas Huxley and evolution, and the astronomer Robert Stawell Ball.

Lightman maps the careers of some 30 popularizers, many sparsely covered before, who derived their income from writing science books, including Rosina Zornlin and John George Wood. Strikingly, many of these were professional writers or journalists and not scientific practitioners. Lightman reveals that the print runs of these now obscure figures were roughly the same as those for books published by well known scientific practitioners such as Ball, Huxley and natural philosopher John Tyndall. This suggests that the contemporary reading public could not easily distinguish between material written by a practising scientific figure and a professional writer.

Because the history of popular science has been studied only recently and has concentrated largely on Victorian Britain, there is little to compare it with in terms of other periods or countries. But the large number of editions of Jane Marcet's various Conversation books from the early nineteenth century — and not discussed by Lightman, being pre-Victorian — indicates that there could have been a steady growth in science books before the Victorian boom.

Lightman has only one chapter on how scientific information was displayed, and uses images simply to enliven his text. By contrast, every image Ralph O'Connor uses advances his argument on the popularization of just one science, palaeontology. What Lightman gains in breadth, O'Connor makes up in depth.

O'Connor integrates the many genres that made fossils popular in the nineteenth century, using images from newspapers, books, magazines and pamphlets — including a striking one from 1828, where books were arranged to look like geological strata (pictured) — as well as John Martin's paintings, lecture illustrations, displays, dioramas and panoramas (for advertisements and handbills). O'Connor shows that promoting knowledge about geology was then similar to the marketing of other types of literature and art — science was an integral part of culture.

Books such as these, and Peter Bowler's eagerly anticipated history of popular science literature during the first half of the twentieth century, have much to offer today's debate about science education and engagement. Many of the 'public understanding of science' initiatives launched in the 1980s came to grief when the 'real' rather than the 'evaluative' world intervened. Looking back at the Royal Society's 1985 report on the subject, one wonders whether some historical perspective might have helped. History, full of contingency as it is, will not, of course, repeat itself. But the present boom in scholarship on the history of popular science should ensure that we come to appreciate our predecessors' efforts.