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Book Reviews


Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences
Author: Bernard Lightman

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

ISBN: 978-0-22-64811-80

Price: £31 (Pb), 568pp


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It was in Victorian Britain, with its increasingly literate population, abundant discoveries and inventions, that the provision of science for popular audiences first assumed a serious cultural significance. And while Bernard Lightman in this detailed and scholarly study deals with a wide spectrum of popular science, it is his chapters dealing with the popularisation of astronomy which will be of special interest for AN readers.

Professor Lightman traces the changing ways in which science was communicated and especially the problems inherent in making intelligible the new sciences of the mid and late 19th century, such as nebular cosmology and spectroscopy. Modern day readers might also be surprised to find that the Victorian age was also fascinated by the idea of there being life on other worlds, and popular communicators such as Thomas Dick, Richard A. Proctor, and Sir Robert Ball lectured and wrote extensively upon it.

What comes over so powerfully in Lightman’s book, however, is the imaginative power and energy that was devoted to scientific popularisation of science in Victorian Britain. Yet most striking, is the way in which many debates that are still ranging in eduction circles today were first seriously aired in the context of Victorian science popularisation. Such as, do elite scientists have a duty to communicate with the public and how much is it necessary for science to be ‘dumbed down’ by full time popularizers putting on ‘wonder shows for the masses’? And all of this 80-odd years before TV.

Controversial by the 1870s was the very funding of elite research. Should new disciplines like solar physics be paid for out of public money or left to wealthy ‘amateurs’? High quality popular lecturing on astronomy, for instance, could be very lucrative especially if combined with accessible journal and book writing, sometimes generating thousand of pounds in a single year for a star performer. Yet when Proctor died suddenly in 1888, his widow Sallie (herself an astronomer, writer and lecturer) found it necessary to apply for a Royal Literary Fund grant to help tide the bereaved family over. One suspects that the high-profile lecturers, just like modern media celebrities, lived rather expensive lifestyles. Victorian Popularizers is clearly and elegantly written, to the highest historical scholarly standards. It is jargon-free, well illustrated and with extensive bibliographical details. A must for anyone interested in the history of popular science teaching.

Allan Chapman

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