History and Philosophy of Science, Reviews

Two books in Nature

jacket imageNature magazine is currently running a review of two recent historical accounts of popular science in the Victorian period, Bernard Lightman’s Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences and Ralph O’Connor’s The Earth on Show: Fossils and the Poetics of Popular Science, 1802-1856. Writing for Nature, historian Frank A. L. James notes how both books make important contributions to our understanding of how science has influenced the western public and perhaps some insights into current debates about public education and engagement with the sciences. James writes:

The popularization of science has become a growth area for historical study. It is a natural continuation of the historian’s quest to understand the social and cultural context and impact of science, and a consequence of scientists’ admonitions over the past 20 years that the public should be better informed.
Implied is that the efforts of earlier generations of scientists fell short of making their work accessible to the public. But Lightman’s and O’Connor’s books paint a very different picture, at least with respect to the nineteenth century.
Lightman maps the careers of some 30 popularizers, many sparsely covered before, who derived their income from writing science books.… O’Connor shows that promoting knowledge about geology was then similar to the marketing of other types of literature and art—science was an integral part of culture.