Lara Karpenko and Shalyn Claggett (eds), Strange Science: Investigating the Limits of Knowledge in the Victorian Age

Lara Karpenko and Shalyn Claggett (eds), Strange Science: Investigating the Limits of Knowledge in the Victorian Age (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press,2017) 312 pp. 8 B&W Illustrations. $60.00 Hb. ISBN:9780472130177

Strange Science is a thoughtfully compiled collection of essays exploring various intersections of Victorian fringe science and mainstream culture. The essays are grouped into three sections, "Strange Plants," "Strange Bodies," and "Strange Energies" with a foreword by Dame Gillian Beer. Despite the wide-ranging subject matter contained within these essays, (ranging from the abjection of orchids to the study of psychophysics), there is much interaction between the chapters, with the authors variously referencing and engaging with the other essays contained within this book. Whilst there is much of interest in this collection, particularly interesting chapters are explored below.

In the first chapter Lynn Voskuil investigates the literature of Victorian orchid fanciers, exploring how this discourse both reinforced and challenged the centrality of European humans. Whilst confirming that nineteenth-century authors understood orchids as an imperial commodity, Voskuil shows that orchids also occupied a liminal conceptual space between plant and animal, or even between plant and human. She investigates a wide variety of sources from botanic textbooks to the genre fiction, showing how orchid studies evidence “sophisticated forms of ecological awareness that suggest new models of agency and human responsibility” (33).

Megan Kennedy continues this theme of emergent manners of relating to plants through her discussion of the 1843 defence of botany as an integral part of medical education by the surgeon Edward Forbes (1815-1854). Contrary to contemporary associations of botany with “theoretical discord, sexual immorality, popular science, and (paradoxically) genteel womanhood” (43), Kennedy shows how Forbes was driven by the contagion paradigmatic shift and the professionalization of medical tuition in the mid nineteenth century. She interestingly shows that botany was understood as a morally purifying subject, countering the narrow-minded focus on the body and filtering the malevolent air of hospital theatres.

Narin Hassan provides the third contribution to the "Strange Plants" section, writing about the travel narratives of Marianne North (1830-1890). Hassan here shows how North complicated the binary understandings of botany in this period as either a domestic activity for ladies or an imperial profession for males. North is shown to engage with wild environments such as the tropics in an atypical way, and conversely, her participation in such spaces is argued to permit her to engage in atypical behaviour for her class and gender.

Elizabeth Chang explores late-nineteenth-century representations of carnivorous plants, approaching these narratives with the lens of current “notions of plant sentience and intentionality” (83). In this detailed and intriguing essay these discourses are seen to be engaging with imperialistic concerns, experimenting in representations of fractured consciousness, and building on the widespread cultural interest in plants and the scientific discourses surrounding their sensitivity and irritability. Chang persuasively argues for a depth of concern resounding from within these representations that fittingly concludes the first section on "Strange Plants".

The second section, "Strange Bodies" opens with Danielle Coriale’s analysis of the writings of Francis Galton (1822-1911) and his studies in psychophysics. Coriale examines the impact that Galton’s deafness had on his work, showing how it prompted him to explore the “shadow world of 'below-threshold stimuli'” (107). Coriale argues that Galton’s experience of deafness led him to speculate that barely perceptible stimuli could be supplemented by the imagination, and that this accounted for the power of poetry.

The next chapter in this section focuses on the development of the International Phonetic Alphabet. Here James Emmott convincingly argues that this was informed by a mechanistic understanding of the body, showing “how the fields of physiology, phonetics, and phonography [were] mutually determined in the 1860s and 1870s” (126). He connects this to Pygmalion (1912), reading this as a criticism of such a mechanistic approach and contextualising this with contemporary eugenic attitudes towards deaf people.

Barri Gold initiates "Strange Energies," the final section, with his interrogation of the spontaneous combustion of Mr. Krook in Bleak House (1852), using this to explore the process by which fiction “transform[s] statements into facts” (182). Gold argues that, counterintuitively, this unscientific account of spontaneous combustion popularised thermodynamics, and helped disseminate ideas of entropy. The description is linked to contemporary scientific developments leading to chaos theory and contextualised by popular understandings of recapitulation theory and of scientific continuity.

In her fascinating chapter Sumangala Bhattacharya then examines the efforts of the Theosophical Society to determine the structure of the atom clairvoyantly. She understands the feminist, freethinking, anti-imperialist aspects of the experimenters as a challenge to “post-Enlightenment scientific values of rationality and objectivity” (198). In doing so, she reads the varying popularity of the resulting publication (Occult Chemistry [2015]) as indicative of both the politics of late nineteenth-century scientific authority, and early twentieth-century developments in atomic theory.

Tamara Ketabgian provides the final chapter in the collection, analysing Unseen Universe (1875) as a response to nineteenth-century materialism. She contextualises the text with the popularisation of the laws of thermodynamics, showing how the first law was construed to predict eventual mastery of the universe through endless convertible energy, whilst the second law was understood to predict constant dissipation, entropy, and heat death. Unseen Universe is shown to navigate these two responses, anticipating current multiverse theories, challenging this understanding of the second law of thermodynamics. Ketabgian shows that in Unseen Universe, energy is argued to dissipate from our universe and into a connected “invisible universe” (259), providing a model of endless entropy and endless energy that “revived natural philosophy” (261).

Overall there will be much to interest the general reader in this delightful collection of Victorian obscure scientific approaches. Whilst the wide-ranging content trades on the oddness of the practices involved, what is consistently reinforced is the connection to our own models of science. The reader is not left gawping at the figures involved as if at some zoo or freak show. Instead where erroneous reasoning is employed this is contextualised by contemporary concerns. The undeniably eccentric is shown to be surprisingly similar to mainstream thought, often resulting in beneficial innovation. In this well-informed discussion of Strange Science then, it is not the Victorians that are shown to be strange, but ourselves.

Joe Holloway, University of Exeter