Peter J. Bowler, Science for All

Peter J. Bowler, Science for All: The Popularisation of Science in Early Twentieth-Century Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009). xii+339 pp. £31 hb. ISBN 978-0-226-06863-3.

In Science for All: The Popularisation of Science in Early Twentieth-Century Britain Peter Bowler seeks to redress the balance as far as studies of popular science are concerned, investigating the largely ignored educational popular science texts of the early twentieth century. Bowler’s main contention, convincingly argued, is that, contrary to popular belief, scientists continued to produce non-specialist and popular science texts even as science became increasingly professionalised around the start of the twentieth century, and that scientists were particularly well suited to the production of educational popularisations. Bowler thus seeks to reject the ‘image of professional isolation’ which, he states, ‘has crept into the literature on popular science almost without challenge’ (5). While Bowler does not deny that certain pejorative connotations had come to be associated with the popularising of science by the end of the nineteenth century, he disagrees with the extent to which this has been seen to be the case. Thus he explains that ‘Promoting science to the public was seen as worthwhile, as long as one didn’t abandon research to do it and didn’t venture into controversial issues’ (242). Bowler also provides an interesting assessment of the origin of the image of the isolated professional, seeing this image as ‘a self-serving myth’ which emerged from scientists on the political Left during the 1930s as a way of emphasising the originality of their own popularisation projects (7).

Science for All is divided into three parts: the first addresses the idea and use of popular science during the period in question; the second focuses on particular educational series, encyclopaedias and magazines; and the third explores the scientist writers themselves, with the final chapter serving as an epilogue which reflects on developments in popular science from the 1950s onwards. Bowler focuses on the educational popular science books that were aimed at those readers who were looking for self-improvement, and he describes this readership as a product of certain social conditions in Britain during the period in question, in particular the improvements to secondary education. This focus on educational texts leads Bowler to address the recent scholarly consensus that popular science is not simply ‘a top-down process by which scientific developments are simplified and transmitted to the lay readership’, but rather ‘a complex process of interaction between the scientific community, the publishing industry, and the public’. While agreeing with this view, Bowler points out that ‘Popular science can become a top-down process if there are readers anxious to be informed about the subject by writers whom they accept as experts’ (77). Bowler also addresses, in chapter ten, the less educational, more entertaining, popular science that was available for the general public, exploring the science that appeared in magazines like the Athenaeum and the Quarterly Review, in newspapers and on the radio.

Bowler covers a wide range of sciences, including geology, astronomy, natural history and technology, although his overall focus seems to lie within the broader fields of the physical and biological sciences. Bowler’s previous work in the history of the biological sciences comes to the fore in chapter eleven which focuses on various big names in popular science, including Julian Huxley and J. Arthur Thomson. While Science for All includes discussions of other big names in popular science, like Arthur Eddington and James Jeans, many less familiar popularisers of science are also present. Bowler’s appendix provides an extensive ‘Biographical Register’ of almost 550 popular science authors who were writing between 1900 and 1945, including details of their university degrees and any professional accreditations. Statistical information drawn from this register is provided in chapter twelve, indicating that 58% of those writers had ‘some expertise as indicated by a degree or professional position’ (245). Bowler goes on to estimate that in the period in question ‘something like 10 percent of the academic scientific community was involved in nonspecialist writing’, although he acknowledges that this is likely to be an underestimate as his register does not include all the authors who wrote exclusively in magazines (246). Since the publication of Science for All, however, Bowler has added to his biographical register on-line via the University of Chicago Press website so that it now includes a number of magazine authors, as well as further details for those authors included in the original register. On a different page on the same website, readers can also find details of the scientific titles that were included in the 43 publishers’ series explored by Bowler in chapter seven, including the Home University Library, the People’s Library of Knowledge, the Sixpenny Library and the Pelican series. Authors with scientific qualifications or professional affiliations are also highlighted here.

The wealth of material covered by Bowler in Science for All is staggering: at one point he reveals that his bibliography, which by his own admission ‘is substantial but not comprehensive’, includes 628 books published between 1900 and 1945 (88). The value of this book as a source for further work in the area is thus assured. However, the book’s greatest strength is also, in some ways, its greatest weakness: the wealth of material is such that the book at times feels quite disjointed, especially in the early chapters. Bowler is frequently descriptive rather than analytic, and his writing thus occasionally becomes something of a list, with the reader being left to draw their own conclusions from the material presented.

Science for All is a very interesting and readable book which provides plenty of new material for those working on early twentieth-century popularisations of science, as well as a new approach to the relationship between scientists and popular science during this period. It is a great place to start for anyone working in the area, and the overview provided here along with the extensive bibliography and biographical register are certain to provide the departure points for much future research.

Rachel Crossland, St John’s College, Oxford.