London 2014

FSUHPS IN LONDON, JULY 2014

Michael Ruse

One of the iconic photographs of the twentieth century shows the two young researchers, Francis Crick and James Watson, gazing in awe at a model of the double helix, the structure of the DNA molecule. Of course it was posed but it is not quite as artificial as you might suppose. When the two scientists had the idea of the double helix, the first thing was to get the laboratory technician to cut out templates to see if all fitted together as presumed. It did, and they were on their way.

James Watson (left) and Frances Crick (right), Cambridge, 1953

What happened to the model after the photo? It got discarded and eventually ended up in the junk accumulated by a professor in Bristol. Thanks to the enterprising detective work of staff members at the Science Museum in London, now lovingly cherished by today's staff member Robert Bud (a professionally trained historian of science), it was recovered, reassembled, and exists in all its glory in the main hall of the museum, there to be seen by all including the dozen or more members of the Florida State University History and Philosophy of Science Program, on its annual trip to museums and like institutions at the beginning of July, 2014.

Previous trips have been to Chicago (twice) including the Creationism Museum just south of Cincinnati, Washington D. C., and in 2013 to France, to Paris and then to Montpellier in the South. Why do we take these trips? The title of this year's excursion - "Science in the Public Domain" - tells all. In the fifty years of its existence as an integrated discipline, history and philosophy of science has moved from internal studies of disembodied scientific ideas to externalist, culture-embedded investigations of science as part of the whole human experience.

We in FSUHPS - not the least with an eye to future employment possibilities - have always taken this shift very seriously, and one of our particular interests has been science in museums and the classroom and other places outside the laboratory. We go to major centers like Chicago and London, to look at how science is portrayed in museums and elsewhere, thinking about the implications not just for the general public but also how science itself (these days much dependent on the public purse) is affected by its need for outreach and utility. If possible, as happened both in Paris and in London, we combine our trips with mini-conferences with HPS (or related) students at institutes in our destination cities.

Our weeklong trip to London started (on the Monday after a Sunday afternoon walkabout in the West End) with a behind-the-scenes visit to the Science Museum. This is one of a number of institutions, including Imperial College (the great science university), in the South Kensington part of the city, that owes its origins to the profits made from the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the pressure by the Prince Consort, Albert husband of Queen Victoria, to improve the standing of British science. Among the many exciting and significant objects introduced and discussed by Robert Bud was one of the first Newcomen Engines, the eighteenth-century pump used to extract water from the mines (thus providing minerals and coal to fuel the Industrial Revolution) and a model for the uniformitarian geological system of Charles Lyell, the great influence on the father of evolutionary theory Charles Darwin.

Newcomen Engine

Modesty prevents the Director from mentioning that he shows himself to be a major loss to the silver screen, thanks to his twenty-second clip of a video, part of a temporary exhibition in the Museum on the work of Jim Lovelock, the British inventor who proposed the Gaia hypothesis, the idea of the Earth as an organism. Hurrying on therefore through the day, the afternoon took us around the corner to the Natural History Museum. Here we saw the great dinosaurs and also, for all that there is a rather goofy statue of Alfred Russel Wallace in a collector's outfit, we experienced the nigh-worship of Darwin. Somewhat ironically, the Museum owed it origins in the 1860s primarily to the efforts of the anatomist Richard Owen, he who clashed over human origins at the BAAS in Oxford with Thomas Henry Huxley (grandfather of the novelist Aldous Huxley) and who has generally been considered the bogeyman of the Darwinian movement. Unkind critics have been known to remark that while Darwin was a very rich man, his maternal grandfather was Josiah Wedgwood the potter (and his wife was also a Wedgwood grandchild), and hence could do and say what he wanted, Owen was a scholarship boy all of the way and had to tread very carefully around his violently anti-evolution sponsors.

 

The exterior of the Natural History Museum

 

The interior of the Natural History Museum - note the statue of Charles Darwin on the staircase

One thing that was strikingly obvious to our group was the extent to which the physical building of the Museum was modeled on a medieval cathedral. This was intentional. Scientists in the late nineteenth century were pushing to create a place for science in the public domain and as they saw it part of their task was to counter the chief rival for people's loyalties, religion. Now, instead of going to church on a Sunday morning and seeing the host raised, a testament to the Providential concerns of a Good God, one went to the museum on a Sunday afternoon and saw the incredible displays of dinosaurs and other fossils, set up to show the inevitable evolutionary Progress to humankind, a reflection of our ability to improve our lots through intelligence and effort.

The next day, Tuesday, saw us on an excursion to the seaside town of Brighton, on the coast south of London. Notable here was a visit to the Royal Pavilion, that incredible faux Indian palace - with an even more incredible faux Chinese interior, that the Prince Regent (son of mad George III and future George IV) built so he could enjoy life with Mrs. Fitzherbert. He married her, but because he did so without his father's consent and more importantly because she was a Roman Catholic, the marriage was declared null and void. The Prince then entered into a disastrous public marriage, assuaged by multiple mistresses. When he died, at his own request he was buried with Mrs. Fitzherbert's eye miniature around his neck. A testament to the Prince's other main occupation is the kitchen of the Pavilion, with an original menu with 98 courses!


This is not the Director of FSUHPS
Brighton Pavilion designed by John Nash (completed around 1820)
The Banquet Hall of Brighton Pavilion

Wednesday was conference day at University College, London, the institution started in the 1820s by the reforming utilitarians as a secular rival to the older universities at Oxford and Cambridge. Our group expresses its great appreciation for the hospitality of UCL, especially the head of the Science and Technology Studies unit, Professor Joe Cain. It was wonderful also to be welcomed by the former FSUHPS member, now a doctoral student at UCL, Elizabeth (Dobson) Jones. The day concluded with a supper for students from both institutions. The Director cannot forbear remarking how incredibly difficult it has become to satisfy the dietary needs and desires of the modern American graduate student. There are vegetarians. There are vegans. There are those who are dairy intolerant. There are those who are wheat intolerant. And then there are the just plain fussy. Why wouldn't mushrooms be on the menu of an Italian restaurant? Oh for the days when one ate what was put in front of you and sat there until the plate was empty. How long, one wonders, would have been the career of the proto-human who complained to his elders and betters: "I don't eat dinosaur"?

Typical member of FSUHPS (Actually, they are not vegan, although it is true that gorillas are not into flesh eating to the extent true of chimpanzees.)

 

Thursday saw us on the train to York, the Roman city two hundred miles north of London. The big attraction here was the Railway Museum, with some wonderful specimens from the age of steam. Also, somewhat amusingly the coaches used by the Royal family in past years. (We had already seen the two major engines from the earliest days of locomotion, Puffing Billy and the Rocket, in the Science Museum.) Important for us were the social implications of the railway. Because of its arrival, in 1840 Rowland Hill was able to start the penny post - you could send a letter anywhere in Britain for just a penny, and it would arrive the next day. (There was even Sunday delivery. The British Post Office was nearly two hundred years ahead of Amazon.) Charles Darwin, sick at home in rural Kent, nevertheless kept up a correspondence that rivalled today's teenagers and the internet. His work would simply not have been possible without the postal service.

Towering over York is the cathedral, the Minster, with the greatest display of stained glass in England. We noted with some interest the extent to which a House of God nevertheless functions primarily as a war memorial, with numerous monuments to past feats of military prowess. As it happens, on the day of our visit, the Church of England was using the Minster to enthrone two new bishops and, to our surprise, as we stood outside the main doors opened and a display of finery unknown outside a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado was presented for our enjoyment. It was noted with some interest that when they sang a hymn, several of the more distinguished members had need of a text.

As a former Quaker, the Director could not forbear making judgments about how far the opulent bishops seem to have come from the poverty of Jesus of Nazareth. This did not stand in the way of the Director's hypocrisy, for he then took the group on a tour of the Quaker boarding school he attended in the 1950s. The generosity of its patrons - not the least the manufacturers of Kit Kat bars, the Rowntree family - supports an establishment that raised envy even in the member of our group who had been an undergraduate at Yale. Somewhat to the Director's embarrassment, our tour-guide dug out some short stories that he had penned when a student at the school. Contrary to rumor, neither began: "It was a dark and stormy night…" But they were at that level.


Bootham Bar, York, the medieval gate into the city from the North. The Minster can be seen in the background.
Bootham School, the front. (York is noted for its fine Georgian architecture of which the front part of the school is a notable example.)

Friday saw us back in London. We started the day at St Pancras Station. Today it is the starting point for the Eurostar, off at high speed to Paris and Brussels. It is housed in a Gilbert Scott designed hotel, the most magnificent Victorian building in the world -- Schloss Neuschwanstein in Bavaria doesn't even start to compare. It is hard to imagine that fifty years ago the station - which being located right next to King's Cross had fallen somewhat out of use - was a prime candidate for demolition. (The philistines had already done their worst on Euston Station just down the road.) Few had a kind word for the building, although to his very great credit the Director - then spending a summer in London between school and university - used to stand on Parliament Hill Fields (at the bottom of Hampstead Heath and a popular place to fly kites) and look down on the city and admire the spires of St Pancras.

St Pancras Station

 

Then the people's poet, John Betjeman, took up the cause. I speak somewhat sardonically because the literati had no time for him even though - or perhaps because -- the general public loved his work:

Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish'd and burnish'd by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament - you against me!

Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,
With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won,
I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn.

Ending, many verses later, in the car park of the golf club:

Around us are Rovers and Austins afar,
Above us the intimate roof of the car,
And here on my right is the girl of my choice,
With the tilt of her nose and the chime of her voice.

And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said,
And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead.
We sat in the car park till twenty to one
And now I'm engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

Well, okay, maybe the literati did have a point, although I will never forgive F. R. Leavis for drawing up the great tradition of English novelists and leaving out Dickens. To his credit, he did recant.

What is unambiguously clear is that whatever the worth of his poetry - actually if you look at the whole poem there is an underlying eroticism that quite escaped the notice of the Director but that was apparently very obvious to the younger members of our group -- the world owes a huge debt to Sir John, because a great lover of Victoriana he took up the cause of St Pancras, and helped to save it. He is commemorated by a statue in the station and the HPS group is standing around it. It looks as though we are transfixed by a vision of the Virgin, but in fact there was nothing, not even a pigeon since the railway authorities have taken up hiring falcons to keep the spaces clear. (Betjeman was very fond of the ghost stories of M. R. James and one blushes to say that one of the pieces of directorial juvenile fiction was much influenced by such stories. The other piece owes an equal debt to the ironic short stories of Evelyn Waugh that typically end with total disaster and humiliation descending on some poor person who has striven mightily to do good and help others. There are those, who knowing the Director today, feel that some things never change, although whether it was James or Waugh who had the greater influence is a matter of debate.)

Moving next door from the station is the British Library, with the great collections of books and manuscripts. The "Treasures" room has two copies of the Magna Carta. It also has a wonderful display of the envelopes and other scraps on which the Beatles wrote their famous songs - "I want to hold your hand" and so forth.

Oh yeah, I'll tell you something
I think you'll understand
When I'll say that something
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand

Perhaps there is something to be said for Betjeman after all.

My sense is that the group enjoyed this visit to the British Library perhaps more than any other, although I confess that the Brighton Pavilion never ceases to amaze me - and because I have written on the Newcomen Engine and its significance that is a great thrill. Is it silly that the Beatles are right up there with the Magna Carta, pandering to the lesser tastes of the Great British Public? Perhaps, or perhaps it is real genius, showing that a country, a culture, a civilization, is more than just the great events or the posh literature - D. H. Lawrence and that rather tedious stuff about forget-me-nots beloved of Leavis - but also the popular work, the music halls and the pier at Brighton (a great place to sit late in the day, rather tired, and drink a pint of that supposedly warm British beer), and even a group of Liverpudlians who could use haircuts.

After the British Library down to the British Museum and those Marbles - of which the British say to the Greeks as President Reagan said to the world about the Panama Canal - "We built it, we paid for it, it's ours, and we are going to keep it.". Actually, the Brits did not actually build the Parthenon, but they did get the Marbles when no one else gave a damn and they are keeping them. Sometimes moral issues get rather short shrift.

Saturday the final day saw us at the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square. The British are poets and playwrights and novelists - overall, they are not great composers or painters. But there are exceptions, Elgar's Cello Concerto for example, and anything by Turner or Constable. Or Stubbs or Wright of Derby for that matter. As it happens, though, the biggest attraction is a rather sentimental, huge painting by a relatively unknown, nineteenth-century, French artist of the execution of Lady Jane Grey. She was the unfortunate who was put on the throne at the death of Edward the Sixth to prevent the accession of the rightful heir, Mary. Jane was a Protestant like her cousin Edward, unlike she who became known as Bloody Mary, a Catholic. Jane lasted only nine days and then went off to the Tower to have her head chopped off. Mary lasted five years and then died, probably of cancer, to be succeeded by her half-sister, still one of the most beloved of all Britons, the Protestant Elizabeth the First, Good Queen Bess.

Why an art gallery for an HPS group? Was it just the Director cramming a little culture down the throats of his bumpkin victims? Not quite. We are interested in audiences, and who attends different institutions and why and what effect it has on the displays. Go to the Science Museum - go to any science museum - and it is wall-to-wall children. In the week, school parties and at the weekends families. Go to an art museum and it can be a very different group of people. It is true that there are school parties but at the weekends the families drop like stones. It is a different age group entirely. It is often different nationalities with far more foreigners at art galleries - comparing and contrasting? - and different ethnic groups. (Compare the Science Museum in Chicago with the Art Institute.)

This said, any time the Director can get a graduate student in front of a Vermeer or a Renoir he feels he has done his job. By Saturday night, after serving everyone afternoon tea and cake at the funky hotel that he and his wife always use when in London (Hazlitt's in Soho), that is how he felt.

Legacy Sort
1
Legacy Priority
0