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Jan Golinski on the Personas of Humphry Davy April 30, 2018

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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The time of Ether Wave Propaganda has come and gone, but happily its archives remain available, and conveniently it can still serve as a place to drop a post should the need arise.

golinski davyProbably a couple of years ago now, I received in the mail an unsolicited copy of Jan Golinski’s book, The Experimental Self: Humphry Davy and the Making of a Man of Science (University of Chicago Press, 2016). This was no doubt because I’d previously written about Golinski and Davy on this blog, particularly here. But by this time I’d moved on from academic history and did not get around to reading the book. (Currently, if you want to read me, I’m regularly writing with a talented four-person team about U.S. science policy for the American Institute of Physics here.)

However, the opportunity has come for a brief revival of EWP. I had to have a surgery on April 16 — don’t worry, I expect to be fine — and have been forced to stay home to recuperate. This means I had time to plunge back into the world of early 19th-century science, and so here at last is my review of The Experimental Self.

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Primer: The British Association December 17, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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In 1830, Britain was on the cusp of one of its most famous eras of scientific activity.  The year before Charles Darwin unassumingly set out aboard the Beagle, the first volume of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology came off the printing press to wide and immediate acclaim.  The experimentation of Michael Faraday and James Joule in the 1830s would help spark the development of modern electromagnetic theory and thermodynamics in the ensuing decades.  The Cambridge Mathematical Tripos was already beginning to churn out rigorously prepared physical theorists.

Charles Babbage (1791-1871)

However, the future, as always, was unclear, and there were a number of people who were gloomy about the state of affairs in British science.  One was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, Charles Babbage, who was frustrated in his search for funding for a calculating engine he had designed (and for which he would be most remembered thanks to the folk history of computing).  In 1830 he gave vent to his gloom and frustration through a book entitled Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of its Causes, which was picked up by the Edinburgh experimentalist and scientific journal editor David Brewster (best known today as the name behind Brewster’s angle), who ran extracts in the Edinburgh Journal of Science, and published his own screed in the Quarterly Review.

Babbage and Brewster were concerned that British science, unsupported by the state (which had just dissolved the Admiralty’s floundering Board of Longitude in 1828), was well behind the Continent, particularly France, where post-Revolutionary governments generously supported science and (more…)