Bernard Lightman, Victorian Popularizers of Science

Bernard Lightman, Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). 564 pp. £31 hb. ISBN 0226481182.

If there is one text that should be compulsory reading in science and literature in the nineteenth century, it must surely be this. It may have taken fifteen years to produce but that is evident in its unquestionable quality as a work of research. While it offers scholars a vast range of references and areas for further exploration, it is also extremely readable. With characteristic elegance, Lightman relates nineteenth-century science to changing readerships and publishing territories, to reveal the central influence of all three on public perceptions of intellectual, scientific and literary authority. In doing so, he illustrates the true depth and intricacy of those connections as broader cultural influences.

In the first chapter, Lightman carefully interrogates the term ‘popularize’ and explores its apparent separation from specialist, professional scientific discourse. From the outset, we are reminded that the term dates back to 1593 but also of Raymond Williams’s observation that its meaning has shifted from ‘belonging to the people’ to ‘presenting knowledge in generally accessible ways’. The book focuses primarily on how the notion of popularization changed in the nineteenth century, as part of the period’s communications revolution in science. However, it also makes coherent the relationship between ‘indigenous science’ as a product of popular culture and the products of elite culture. This is achieved by reviewing publication contexts in sections, separately devoted to the 1840s, mid-century and second half of the century.

Women’s participation in science-writing is examined in the third chapter, ‘Redefining the Maternal Tradition’. That positioning is particularly refreshing: rather than relegating women writers to the margins, as an afterthought or inclusion made on the basis of political correctness, it asserts their importance in disseminating scientific knowledge. Indeed, the second half of the nineteenth century is later described as the “golden age of female popularization of science.” (488) Women writers also dominate chapter eight’s discussion of science writing on New Grub Street, featuring figures such as Agnes Giberne, Eliza Brightwen, Mary Somerville, Alice Bodington, and Agnew Mary Clerke. Overall, women constitute around half the figures dealt with and, in addition to detailing the obstacles they faced, Lightman makes insightful distinctions about the purpose of women’s writing about science. He makes clear the diversity of their social and financial backgrounds, and points out how they often sought to explore a variety of narrative formats and innovations, for example, in using both colour and illustrations more extensively than men did. As well as these textual considerations, what emerges from his discussion is just how diverse women writers were, not only in terms of their social position, financial or family circumstances, but also in their ambitions as writers. Without pushing any particular gender politics, Lightman resists clumping women together as a faceless group of writers; instead, each figure is examined in her own right.

The subsequent chapter on visual spectacles offered by ‘The Showmen of Science’, such as John George Wood and John Henry Pepper, shows that recognising the power of the visual in communicating science was vital. In order to attract audiences, both writers and lecturers “had to satisfy the craving for visual images that was the hallmark of mass culture in this period”. (168) Lightman’s examples add substantially to those offered by Iwan Morus’s already extensive scholarship on the growth of scientific spectacle during this period. In mentioning Wood’s “alliance” with the publisher Routledge, Lightman connects the discussion of new reading audiences and mid-century market conditions to the dominance of visual culture and the ways in which science was communicated. Indeed, as Lightman suggests, many writers who popularized science only managed to do so because publishers saw markets for their work. As he also points out, publishing institutions were the chief source of power and authority for popularizers, rather than those of science. Wood’s choice to popularize science rather than become an Anglican clergyman is a particularly good example for the purposes of the book, connecting well with an earlier chapter on Anglican clerics. At the same time, the precariousness of Wood’s chosen livelihood links neatly to the discussion of women’s writing, by showing how men’s contributions could be equally subject to financial, domestic and even bodily trials and pitfalls.

Lightman gives proper consideration to the importance of lectures as a way of communicating scientific ideas to the public and as an activity opposed to the professionalization of science by Tyndall and Huxley. What is demonstrated is that popularizations of science drew on a much broader range of interests than the purely scientific. Certainly, the sketches Wood projected on screens during his lectures or the ‘ghosts’ conjured up by Pepper drew just as much on visual, artistic and sensational mediums. Lightman relates a delightful anecdote about how Tyndall accidentally knocked over a piece of equipment and deftly rescued it, something he then practised repeatedly for incorporating in his subsequent lectures. With this and other examples, Lightman shows that such devices were not used arbitrarily but as part of the competition for contemporary audiences. Yet the more altruistic and philosophical motivations of lecturers are also considered, fuelled as they were by the desire that audiences view the natural world with “a reverent eye” and understand that even lowly insects like earwigs, cockroaches and fleas could be “aesthetically pleasing in some way”. (193)

The penultimate chapter deals with scientific ‘practitioners’, particularly Huxley and Ball. Lightman recalls how Huxley was urged repeatedly by Charles Darwin to write for wider audiences, in the belief that “general and popular Treatises are almost as important for the progress of science as original work.” (355) The explanation of how practitioners increasingly adopted the role of popularizers points to an important distinction: that practice focused on science, whereas popularizing was a role that could be played by a variety of actors. Originality was, therefore, central to scientific work, while popularizations tended to be considered derivative. By 1870, however, imperialism altered that view so that popularizing became a form of “national service” (366) by practitioners, to help maintain Britain’s lead in science and the arts. It is a shift of perspective that demonstrates just how significantly individual scientific activity was influenced by public perceptions of science, a dynamic further supported by the new importance Huxley placed on popularizing science later in his career.

In the final chapter of the book, Lightman reflects on his own attempt to create a distinctive space for popularizers, asserting it to be one that constitutes a “transformation of the landscape, not merely a matter of adding new territory to an old map.” (494) As he points out, the boundary between popularization and ‘professional’ science is never entirely distinct. That realisation means that, in future, the development of popularizations should always be a feature in scholarship about professional scientists.

It is apt that the final chapter’s title is ‘Remapping the Terrain’, for this is precisely what Lightman achieves with this book, as well as his numerous other contributions to nineteenth-century studies. Like so much of his previous work, Victorian Popularizers of Science reveals his extraordinary depth of understanding about the period, as well as providing a genuinely pleasurable and rewarding read.

Stella Pratt-Smith, Balliol College, Oxford