Science Hasn’t Been This Politicized Since 1676

King Charles II depicted as the President of the Royal Society.

On April 22, a vast cohort of scientists and their allies descended on Washington to take part in the DC March for Science. Researchers and educators, academics and civilians, town and gown, stood together to “express their fealty to reason, data, and, above all, the scientific method,” as a recent New Yorker article put it. Striking back at a Administration that has openly denied scientific consensus on issues such as climate change, even going so far as to purge scientific data from government servers, scientists marched against what seems to many like a sudden and shocking politicization of science.

The experts don’t get to tell us what the facts are, the new Know-nothings say, and so dismiss inconvenient truths as nothing more than the ideological impositions of a liberal elite. In response, the marchers planned less a day of protests than a public witnessing for the core values of objective truth, empirical inquiry and peer review. The event they planned would be something like a cross between a protest rally and a science fair, where researchers set up tents and hold teach-ins about just what it is that they study and why it matters to the public. Organizers intended to put pressure on politicians to heed scientific expertise, but they were also looking to put on the kind of show that would win back both the hearts and the minds of America. Nevertheless, there was handwringing among some scientists who feared the march would “trivialize and politicize the science” and turn scientists into just “another group caught up in the culture wars.”

As the Pacific Standard has rightly pointed out, we should not be so quick to assume that science has never been and shouldn’t be politicized. The scientist as a non-partisan figure is a cold war innovation, Francie Diep points out, born of a time when the government began investing heavily in university science programs, and when there was leverage in taking the position that “scientific ideas were apolitical and value-neutral.”

But there’s a much longer and complex history here. In fact, modern science as we understand it — the empirical study of natural phenomena, the accumulation of experimental facts that lead to hypothetical explanations, in short, the scientific method — was the product of a late 17th century controversy about the value of experimental knowledge. Early modern debates bout the reliability of science and the trustworthiness of the scientist are remarkably similar to the controversy we find ourselves in today. Few of us realize that in its very moment of emergence, modern science had to invent the concept of scientific objectivity in order to prevent it from being strangled in its cradle by scoffers.

It’s jarring to learn that the earliest criticisms of science are coming back to the fore today. In the Post-Truth, Post-Trump world, scientists fear that their hard-won expertise is not being respected anymore, while skeptics delight in calling bullshit on their claims to objectivity. Scientists point to data sets, experimental controls, and peer review, while deniers will say that science can be little more than a flim-flam: a dog-and-pony show that tries to dazzle us with data while pushing an ideological agenda.

It’s like its 1676 all over again.

I have only to draw the curtain, and to show you the world” cries the proselytizing Philosopher in Bernard Fontenelle’s best-selling work of popular science, Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds. This frontispiece illustration to a 1686 edition pulls back the curtain on the thrilling spectacle of an infinite universe.

For at least a generation, scholars of history, sociology and cultural studies in the emergent interdisciplinary field of Science Studies have been exploring the struggle to define science as a discourse of empirical truth. Of particular relevance to the March For Science is a body of work that reminds us of early modern science’s debts to spectacle, theatricality and performance: the modern fact had to be fabricated through the making of experiments, and those facts had to be witnessed and verified by experts in order to be approved as such. Early science really was a kind of performing art, subject to regimes of stagecraft that reverberated across the laboratory, the lecture hall, the anatomy theater, and the public stage.

This kinship was not lost on their early scientists’ contemporaries in the playhouse, which used that powerful platform for the shaping of public opinion to interrogate the new science and its radical new claims about the nature of knowledge. Indeed, the way that eighteenth-century plays depicted scientists had a massive influence on contemporary debates over the role that experimental science was to play in modern life. The new science got terrible press until it could establish itself as objective, reasonable and disinterested. But the theater shaped the very form that science itself was to take. By disciplining, and ultimately helping to legitimate, what was then called natural philosophy, the eighteenth-century stage helped to naturalize an epistemology based on self-evident facts that one need only see to believe. However, in oder to do this, scientists had to make recourse to elements of spectacle and performance that proved difficult for them to square with their need to present their work as objective, “apolitical and value neutral.”

A Shining Instance of the Scientific Method

Frontispiece portrait from a 1738 edition of Boyle’s collected Works.

To put some flesh on the bones, as it were, of this history I am trying to sketch, I need to tell the story of this man.  This is Robert Boyle, pictured here a few decades after his death, in the frontispiece illustration that appeared in a posthumous edition of his Works. The youngest son of the Earl of Cork, one of the wealthiest men of the seventeenth century, he was an aristocrat by birth but a scientist by calling. This unmarried, deeply pious son of extraordinary privilege spent his life “addicted to natural philosophy” as he memorably put it, and he was a key patron and prime mover of the Royal Society, one of the earliest scientific organizations. Indeed, Boyle was England’s most eminent virtuoso, a fashionable term adopted by Boyle and his colleagues that highlighted their supposedly selfless and virtuous dedication to the pursuit of pure knowledge.

His considerable achievements are remembered to this day in Boyle’s Law, that fundamental relationship between the pressure, temperature and volume of gases that we all learned in high school. A first-rate experimentalist, Boyle conducted foundational research into the nature of the physical world. In this frontispiece portrait, we can see to the right his chemical forge: Boyle’s work as a ”skeptical chemist” helped re-found the ancient practices of alchemy as rational modern chemistry. However, it is the apparatus on the left that we should linger over. This is an image of his celebrated airpump, and in light of the revolution it sparked in matter theory, it’s not too much to call this device the particle accelerator of the 17th century. Indeed, in his epochal New Experiments Physico-Mechanical (1661), Boyle used his airpump to overturn the ancient assumption that a vacuum could not exist in nature. He was able to contrive one under that glass dome, and in doing so discovered previously unknown properties of air — that it had weight, and that these material properties gave the air what he called “spring.”

Keeping that airpump in mind, let’s shift the scene to the night of February 15, 1672, when Boyle’s well-earned sleep was interrupted by an assistant who burst into his bedroom with some surprising news. A kitchen servant, upon going into the larder, “was frightened by something Luminous that she saw.” Intrigued, the natural philosopher leapt into action: “I presently sent for the meat into my Chamber,” he later wrote, “and then I plainly saw, both with wonder and delight, that the joint of meat did in diverse places shine.”

Boyle didn’t get much sleep that night. Instead of going to bed, he launched into an hours-long series of experiments and observations on the shining slab of flesh, right there in his bedroom. In the eight-page letter he eventually published in the Philosophical Transactions, the house publication of the Royal Society and the first scientific journal in history, Boyle relates no less than eighteen distinct matters of fact, such as:

  1. a) the neck of veal glowed in upwards of twenty different areas, most of them no bigger than a man’s fingernail;
  2. b) the “more resplendent spots” were sufficient to read by. Boyle happened to have a copy of the Philosophical Transactions by him, and he could make out a few letters on the title page;
  3. c) the light emitted was generally “a fine greenish blewe,” kind of like glowworms;
  4. d) it did not emit heat, as affirmed by the touch of a bare hand, as well as by the application of “a seal’d Weather glass”;
  5. e) no one could smell “the least degree of stink”;
  6. f) the wind was out of the southwest that night, blustery and warm, air pressure was 29 3/16 inches of mercury, the moon past its last quarter;
  7. g) the light was extinguished in pure alcohol, but water would not quench it.

Other articles published that month presented new astronomical calculations, reviewed a recent book of “curious voyages”, and a described a “singular kind of Mushroom” whose “Milky Juice, [is] not to be endur’d upon our tongues.”

Just think about what it would have taken — in terms of time, effort and expertise — to amass this register of facts. But let’s also consider what filter, if any, Boyle placed on his research. You get the sense that Boyle believes literally every single detail could be relevant, and so he omits nothing that fell under his gaze. And why should he? Naturalists like Boyle cultivated exquisite states of affective enthrallment in spectacular natural phenomena as part of their scientific practice.

Yet the standard critical story about the emergence of modern science sounds very different notes. Mostly, we hear about the modesty and probity of early scientists, and the care they took to produce what we now recognize as scientific objectivity. Perhaps the most influential account of early experimental science, Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (1985), explains how natural philosophers carefully performed and re-performed their experiments in semi-public assemblies until all those present arrived at a consensus about the findings. They then wrote up their experiments in often excruciating detail so that absent virtuosi could “virtually witness” the new facts and thus give their approbation to new discoveries. They deliberately restricted themselves to empirical accounts of the bare matters of fact that their experiments produced, thereby avoiding the paralysis of theoretical arguments. And, crucially, they adopted gentlemanly codes of behavior that dictated how one ought to make truth claims, and indeed, who gets to speak the truth in the first place.

These forces combine to give birth to what were then absolute novelties in human history: the fact that speaks for itself, and the scientist who is merely its objective witness. And vouchsafing the two great innovations of early modern experimental natural philosophy — self-evident facts and scientific objectivity — was a new kind of man, a figure Shapin and Schaffer call the “modest witness.” Boyle, with his prolix, cautious experimental reports, with his dazzling new scientific instrument, and especially with his unimpeachable gentlemanly ethos, was of course their paragon and exemplar.

My own research seeks to trouble that story just a little bit. Once you read just a little outside the lines of the texts that 20th century science has deemed canonical — Boyle’s airpump experiments for example — we encounter scenes of experiment that seem very far from modesty or objectivity.

After all, in the case of the shining veal, Boyle postponed his sleep for what must have been hours, working through the night, mostly in the absolute dark, making painstaking observation after observation: inspecting, rubbing, sniffing, measuring, and defacing the raw and bloody neck of a calf that, on the sudden report of a servant, is whisked out of the larder and summoned to his bed-chamber. Instruments and contraptions are gathered from all parts of the house, data is recorded, trials are performed, and then re-performed, and a scrupulous account is produced. All of this makes me ask, what if the signal legacy of experimental science was not the modest witness’ modesty, but rather the irrepressibility of his witnessing? What if the scientist’s absolute dedication to observation betrays not a rational and ascetic erasure of self-interest, but rather a highly unstable, affective immersion in the spectacle of facts?

Riveted “both with wonder and delight” (his words), Boyle is a witness to something above and beyond bare modesty. Indeed, when Boyle reveals, at the end of his report, that he had to curtail his experiments upon learning that his niece was on her deathbed, the sudden and terrible news proves to be no real impediment at all. He writes of being “hastily called up before day[break]” with the news of her “gasping” condition, which he says left him “too much affected…to leave me any time for Philosophical entertainments.” Yet in the next breath he reports one last matter of fact about the specimen. Finding that it continued to shine the next morning. “Only this I took notice of, because the observation could not cost me a minute of an hour.” But it’s not simply that Boyle couldn’t help himself from making one last experiment before domestic responsibilities called him away. In fact, the entire experimental narrative was written the morning after the activities of the night before.

Such an absorption in the spectacles of science is entirely expected from someone who kept his eyes shut tight as his assistant refitted the airpump by candlelight, so as to not compromise his night vision….Or from someone who, in another set of experiments on a luminescent gemstone, reported that he went so far as to “take it into bed with him, and hold it a good while upon a warm part of his naked body.” Indeed, the scene of experiment is a fraught space, full of surprise and wonder and potentially unruly affect, where the experiments and experiences remain a perpetual lure for the imagination.

In their influential account of the origins of modern science, Wonders and the Order of Nature 1150–1750 (1998), Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park have argued that wonder, and the so-called “strange facts” that preoccupied early naturalists, was disciplined out of natural philosophy over the course of the long eighteenth century. But we shouldn’t be so sure that Boylean wonder was chiefly prized for, and necessarily lead to, a more rational and curious analysis of spectacular experimental phenomena. Indeed, that is precisely the impression Boyle’s contemporaries got, judging from a highly influential and long-lived satire of natural philosophers that first appeared on the stage in 1676.

Eager Spectators in the Theater of Experiment

A View of the Dorset Gardens Playhouse, where Shadwell’s Virtuoso was staged.

The London playhouses were powerful sites of cultural mediation. They satirized trends, made political statements, insulted public figures, and set fashions. Accordingly, over the course of the long eighteenth century, there were dozens of plays featuring crackpot scientists, sketchy doctors, randy anatomists, doltish antiquaries, and shifty projectors peddling questionable technologies (sort of the early modern equivalent of flash-in-the-pan start-ups). But the play I want to bring into view is The Virtuoso, which was a major success for author Thomas Shadwell in the style of the hard, satiric comedy favored in the Restoration.

The play itself is a conventionally-plotted sex comedy. The misguided scientist Sir Nicholas Gimcrack and his foolish friends attempt to keep his two young, rich and beautiful nieces out of social circulation. The impecunious Gimcrack wants power over their purses, while his friends want access to their persons. The pleasure-loving young rakes Longvil and Bruce must chisel their way into Miranda and Clarinda’s affections while extricate themselves from the sexual advances of Lady Gimcrack, Sir Nicholas’ neglected wife, who spends all her time trying to cuckold him abundantly.

As delightful as all this sounds — and this play really is a lost gem — the real draw of Shadwell’s play was the new kind of fool that Gimcrack is. The “virtuoso,” in Shadwell’s telling, is fatally distracted from his proper duties as a husband, a guardian and a citizen by his useless experiments. The play’s popularity derived from how effectively it diagnosed and demolished this new species of idiot. Indeed, the play has retained a long hold on our imaginations even if most of us are unfamiliar with the source. Shadwell’s anti-hero served as a touchstone for critiques of scientific credulity and insignificance throughout the Enlightenment — a satiric “Will of the Virtuoso” was published in the Tatler a full 34 years after the play premiered. In fact, Gimcrack is the point of origin for the stereotype of the nerd scientist, hopelessly befuddled by his narrow interests, who is socially and romantically clueless for all his vanity. The precise antitype of the mad scientist (who finds his origins in Victor Frankenstein), the ghost of Gimcrack is still very much with us, as anyone who’s ever caught a rerun of The Big Bang Theory can plainly see.

Hooke’s Micrographia afforded astonishing new perspectives on previously invisible phenomena. For some, this showed God’s awesome providence and the triumph of man’s reason. For others, it betrayed an almost pathological obsession with the mean, the lowly, the filthy, and the useless.

We know that contemporaries identified a number of satiric targets in Shadwell’s fool.  Some recognized a vicious and personal lampoon on Robert Hooke, Boyle’s former lab assistant and the author of Micrographia (1667), which created a sensation with its astonishing images of the sub-visible world.

When he finally saw the play after being needled about it by frenemies, the terse account in Hooke’s diary suggests a public humiliation of the most acute kind: “Damned Dogs. Vindica me Deus. People almost pointed.” But Hooke wasn’t the only recognizable scientist parodied and insulted in the play. The play is full sharp satirical jabs at many prominent members of the Royal Society. There are blood transfusion jokes aimed at Thomas Coxe and Edward King. There are inept astronomy jokes at the expense of John Wilkins. There are quack doctoring jokes at the expense of Jan Swammerdam and Thomas Willis. Some of the best jokes are saved for Robert Boyle himself: he comes in for a roasting when Gimcrack boasts of having weighed — and bottled — air from all over England. Oh yeah, and I probably mention that Gimcrack claims to have read a Geneva Bible by the light of a rancid leg of pork.

Shadwell’s satire goes far beyond personal insults and jokes about scientific obsessiveness and credulity, though. More than anything else, the play criticizes the virtuosi for their unmindful absorption in the objects of their curiosity, and the utter disregard they show for what the real-world applications might be. In what is probably the play’s most well-remembered scene, the young suitors ask to meet Gimcrack in his laboratory — strictly for the lulz, of course. When Longvil asks, “Were it not possible to have the favor of seeing this experiment?” he seems to suggest that the virtuoso himself is a kind of experiment staged in the theater’s laboratory of human nature.

And so, at the gallant’s request, the moveable screens obscuring the Dorset Gardens’ discovery space slide back, and the audience peeps in on a remarkable scene. The stage directions read:

 Scene opens and discovers Sir Nicholas learning to swim upon a table; Sir Formal and the Swimming Master standing by.

In a trice, the scene moves from a pleasant English garden to the close confines of the natural philosopher’s cabinet, “his laboratory…where all his instruments and fine knacks are.” There, Gimcrack is revealed, high and dry on a table, gravely pantomiming the motions of a frog swimming in a basin before him, with his fellow virtuosi earnestly coaching him along.

With this scene, the players have staged in Dorset Gardens another type of performer on another type of stage: a virtuoso caught mid-experiment in his laboratory, showing off for his friends in the theater of the natural philosophy. In staging what is specifically called Gimcrack’s “physico-mechanical excellencies” — deliberately echoing the title of Robert Boyle’s foundational air-pump experiments — Shadwell seems determined to paint early scientists as utterly neglectful of the world at large. What Boyle might say is a healthy objectivity — a pure focus on experiment, and a dedication to following a research program no matter where it leads — Shadwell unmasks as pure folly.

Ultimately, the experimental form of life lived by Boyle and other Fellows of the Royal Society valorized a mode of spectatorship that encouraged early scientists to abandon themselves to spectacle. Early modern science positively required an affective enthrallment to facts. So despite the considerable effort to portray natural philosophers as modest witnesses — and Enlightenment science as rational and systematic — what was in fact required was not a modest witness but an eager spectator in the theater of experiment.

Science as Political Theater, Then and Now

When American scientists and their allies gathered on the National Mall, they faced down an anti-science polemic, and an array of cultural forces responsible for it, that should not strike us as unprecedented. If anything, science is reckoning with a return to its origins as a highly politicized, culturally suspect practice. The scientists and their allies who marched needed to reassert their credibility even as they sought to recapture the imagination of our nation. If history is any guide, the folks lining up behind science will need to carefully weigh their methods. Reconverting the American public into eager spectators of science will have to be done in a way that scientists can simultaneously be seen as objective, rational, empirical, and credible.

The piece appeared previously at Medium and Quartz.

What the Abyssinian Liar Can Tell us about True Stories: Knowledge, Skepticism, and James Bruce’s Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile

James Bruce by E. Topham.  Etching, published 1775.  NPG D13789.  National Portrait Gallery, UK.  Used under Creative Commons Limited Non-Commercial License.

James Bruce by E. Topham. Etching, published 1775.
NPG D13789. National Portrait Gallery, UK. Used under Creative Commons Limited Non-Commercial License.

In 1773, James Bruce of Kinnaird returned to Europe after a decade of travel and study in North East Africa and Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia).  Initially, the knowledge he brought back with him was favorably received by notable figures like the great naturalist the Comte de Buffon, Pope Clement XIV, King Louis XV, and Dr. Charles Burney, ethnomusicologist, composer, and father of author Frances Burney.  But as time went on, the public began to grow suspicious of some of his stories, such as his claims that he had eaten lion meat with a tribe in North Africa or that Abyssinian soldiers cut steaks from the rumps of live cows, then stitched the cows up again and sent them out to pasture.  As Bruce became a target of satirists and critics including Horace Walpole, John Wolcot, and Samuel Johnson, his standing in the European intellectual community began to slip.  Walpole, for example, circulated a commonly cited anecdote in which, during a dinner party, one of the guests asked Bruce if he saw any musical instruments in Abyssinia.  “Musical instruments,” said Bruce, and paused—“Yes I think I remember one lyre.”  The dinner guest then leaned to his neighbor and whispered, “I am sure there is one less since he came out of the country.”[1]

Despite having been dubbed the “Abyssinian liar,” Bruce always stood by his word, and in 1790, he published a sprawling, five-volume narrative of his journey in an attempt to satisfy those whom he claimed, “absurdly endeavoured to oblige me to publish an account of those travels, which they affected at the same time to believe I had never performed.”[2]  He titled the work the Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile because locating the source of the legendary river had been the primary purpose of Bruce’s journey.  He always maintained that he was the first European to have achieved that goal, even though contemporary translations of Portuguese travel narratives indicated that Jesuit missionaries had made it there first, and even though subsequent explorers would point out that he had traveled only to the source of the Blue Nile (Lake Tana in present-day Ethiopia), not the source of the much longer White Nile (Lake Victoria in present-day Uganda).  Nevertheless, the Travels was a bestseller, and the first printing sold out in 36 hours.  His tales influenced literary figures like Frances Burney, who wrote about Bruce’s visits to her childhood home in her journals, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose dulcimer-playing “Abyssinian maid” in Kubla Khan was likely inspired by engravings of the court women who were enormously influential to Bruce’s knowledge of the region.  Although it did little to repair his reputation at the time, his work contributed significantly to Western knowledge about Eastern Africa, and examining how the narrative sits on this paradoxical point between success and failure can tell us much about how knowledge and truth were culturally defined in the eighteenth century, during a time that laid the foundations for our own understanding of such concepts.  In particular, Bruce’s situation highlights the way that heterogeneity of storytelling can come in tension with the singularity of truth, and how narratives that resist synthesis can reveal important information about what it means for something to be a true story.

Although the Nile was Bruce’s main objective, as a polyglot, diplomat, artist, and amateur scientist, he imagined advancing all areas of learning, and in many ways he succeeded.  He recorded detailed descriptions of the people, architecture, and landscape from all across North East Africa.  He mapped star patterns and recorded geographical coordinates for navigators and astronomers.  The engravings and samples of plants and animals he collected were invaluable to antiquarians as well as scholars of botany, zoology, and medicine.  He recorded a thorough history of Abyssinia’s monarchy, wrote about the Ethiopian Orthodox church, and brought the Codex Brucianus back with him—a gnostic manuscript that contained one of the first copies of the Book of Enoch circulated in Europe.  He contributed to Dr. Burney’s History of Music.  Perhaps his most significant contribution to Western scholarship is his documentation of Abyssinian court life at the beginning of Ethiopia’s “Era of the Princes.”  He recounted extensive details about Emperor Tekle Haymanot II; about Məntəwwab, the commanding Dowager Empress of Ethiopia who had ruled as regent for several decades; about her clever and ambitious daughter Wäyzäro Aster; and about Aster’s extremely politically influential husband, the kingmaker Ras Mika’el Səḥul.  Although Bruce’s tone is often characterized by a sense of European exceptionalism when he writes about the court, the power and intelligence of these individuals is evident, as is Bruce’s obvious respect and admiration for them—particularly the women, to whom he often refers as his closest friends and allies in the country.

But if Bruce contributed to all these advances in Western knowledge, and his narrative was so widely read, why did Britain’s reading public latch onto a few seemingly unbelievable details rather than the wealth of valuable information he brought back with him?  After all, it was assumed that all travelers told some tall tales, yet Bruce seems to have received more than his share of scorn.  The answer to this question illustrates the fact that eighteenth-century knowledge was extensively influenced by narrative techniques.  Despite common assumptions that mid-to-late eighteenth-century natural philosophy automatically equated eyewitness accounts with factuality, whether or not such an account was considered trustworthy still depended a great deal on how its story was told.  Samuel Johnson, for one, accused Bruce of not being a “distinct relator,” meaning that Bruce was often more interested in telling a raucous tale of heroic self-aggrandizement than in delivering objective geographical and ethnographical reports.[3]  When Bruce did include specific details, they occasionally seemed too far-fetched to be possible, such as the aforementioned live steak incident, or his claims that Abyssinians ate their beef raw.

The skepticism over Bruce’s description of Abyssinians eating raw beef reveals a second reason why his narrative wasn’t always taken seriously:  it didn’t square with people’s preconceived notions of what Abyssinia was like based on other representations of the region such as Johnson’s Rasselas, translations of Portuguese and French travel narratives, and even stories of Prester John’s land (a Christian country since the fourth century, Abyssinia had been considered a possible location of the legendary Christian kingdom amid the heathens since the Middle Ages).  According to these portraits, Abyssinia was a civilized if foreign nation, not a place where the elite would eat uncooked flesh like “savages,” even though raw beef blended with oils and spices in fact was, and still is, an Ethiopian delicacy.  In fact, the very inconsistency between details that eighteenth-century readers found barbarous and Bruce’s flattering descriptions of his friends in the Abyssinian court was a particular point of contention for one anonymous 1790 reviewer.  He writes,

To a philosopher, the greatest inconsistency of all, is the discordant picture of Abyssinian manners.  That nation is described as barbarous and ignorant in the greatest degree, as totally unacquainted with every country but their own; as liars and drunkards . . . yet, of Mr. Bruce’s Friends, some discover such discernment and force of mind, and some of the women display such delicacy of sentiment and elegance of behaviour, as would do honour to the most civilised nations.[4]

This perceived lack of coherence may have been a significant reason why Bruce’s Travels have largely been cursed to obscurity in spite of their initial popularity—seemingly contradictory stories exist side-by-side both inside the text in terms of Bruce’s descriptions and outside the text in terms of its reception history.  As the above reviewer intimates, it is hard to get a handle on what the narrative—and thus what Abyssinia—is all about because our “philosophical” heritage trains us to equate inconsistency with falsehood.  But this multiplicity is perhaps the most compelling reason for paying attention to the Travels now.

Bruce’s narrative is still the primary source of much of our knowledge today about east Africa during the mid-to-late eighteenth century.  For one, understanding how such knowledge was produced can help us understand its limitations.  Returning to the text, we are reminded that Bruce’s subject position as member of the eighteenth-century British gentry necessarily influenced the way he wrote about the non-European cultures he came in contact with.  As such, proto-colonial discourse and British exceptionalism shaped much of what he saw and wrote about, and paying attention to these aspects reminds us that no knowledge is ever entirely neutral.  Yet, the Travels are not reducible to these limitations—returning to the text can also open up how we think about how such knowledge was gathered.  Take, for example, Bruce’s admitted debt to the women of the Abyssinian court for enabling his mobility both through the court and the kingdom itself. Bruce’s impressions of Abyssinia’s politics and even its geography may be as much a product of their worldviews than they are of his, and his text offers an opportunity to consider how such seemingly marginalized figures in the eighteenth century as African women may have in fact played a significant role in shaping Western knowledge.  He similarly relied on his native guides and Gondar’s Greek and Muslim populations for much of his information not only about the city but also the surrounding countryside, not to mention the scholars, writers, and travelers—European, African, and Arabic—who paved the way for Bruce’s achievements long before he ever set foot on African soil.

In a 2009 TED talk, the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about the danger of the single story, about the incompleteness that results when we—like the anonymous author from the Monthly Review—seek homogeneity from representations of people and places rather than opening ourselves up to the many narratives that comprise both our pasts and our presents.[5]  While Bruce and his paradoxical narrative may seem just a vestige of the past, from an era when the fields he helped advance—from geography and anthropology to theology and more—had not yet reached their full maturity, revisiting his story can help us reconsider how the production of European knowledge about the world may have in fact been a global affair.  In spite of Bruce’s tendency to characterize himself as a solitary, intrepid traveler standing alone at the head of the Nile, from the Scottish traveler to his English critics, his Continental supporters, and his African friends, Bruce’s narratives bear the marks of the fact that modern knowledge has always been shaped by how multiple stories of the world are told and by the many people who have a hand in their telling.

Further Reading:

J.M. Reid, Traveller Extraordinary:  The Life of James Bruce of Kinnaird.  London:  Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1968:  310.

Charles Withers, “Travel and Trust in the Eighteenth Century.”  L’invitation au Voyage:  Studies in Honour of Peter France.  Oxford:  Voltaire Foundation, 2000:  47-54.

Paul Hulton, F. Nigel Hepper, and Ib Friss, Luigi Balugani’s Drawings of African Plants:  From the Collection Made by James Bruce of Kinnaird on his Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile 1767-1773.  New Haven:  Yale Center for British Art, 1991.

Notes:

[1] As cited by Arthur A. Moorefield, “James Bruce:  Ethnomusicologist or Abyssinian Lyre?”  Journal of the American Musicological Society 28.3 (1975):  503.

[2] James Bruce, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile.  Vol. 1.  London, 1790:  iii.

[3] James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson.  London, 1827:  243.

[4] The Monthly Review, from May to August, Inclusive.  Vol. 2.  London, 1790:  188.

[5] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story.”  TED Talks.  Web. 29 Jan. 2015.  <http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.>

“An Unknown Arc into the Future”: An Interview with Daniel Lewis, Curator of Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World

Joseph Wright of Derby, Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery.  ca. 1768. Oil on canvas. 17 5/8 x 23 1/2 inches (44.8 x 59.7 cm).  Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Joseph Wright of Derby, Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery. ca. 1768. Oil on canvas. 17 5/8 x 23 1/2 inches (44.8 x 59.7 cm). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Have you ever wanted to look through Galileo’s telescope, compare Hooke’s illustrations in Micrographia to the specimens he depicted, or turn through the pages of Diderot’s Encyclopédie with your own hands?  Or to see a first edition of Vesalius’ On the Fabric of the Human Body, Descartes’ Discourse on Method, and Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity, preferably without having to travel from library to library?  Within the Huntington Library’s exhibition, Beautiful Science:  Ideas that Changed the World, these and many more objects are on view and clamor for your attention.  Opening in 2008, the exhibition is beautifully in tune with the recent resurgent interest in Enlightenment and Romantic science, most notably with the success of Richard Holmes’ The Age of WonderI recently visited Beautiful Science for a tour with its curator, Daniel Lewis, as a student of the California Rare Book School.  I later interviewed Lewis about the curatorial choices facing him in developing Beautiful Science and his goals for the exhibition.  Below is an edited version of our emailed conversation.

 

Beautiful Science grew out of an enormous donation of the “Burndy Library,” 67,000 volumes of books and manuscripts from the Dibner family, which then drove you back to the Huntington’s own history of science collection.  What was the shape of that collection?

 

The Huntington’s history of science collections, as they existed before the arrival of the Burndy, were substantial.  A small handful of items were on display in the “New Worlds” section of the Main Library Exhibit Hall, but there was nothing like a public history of science exhibit presence before the arrival of the Burndy collection from the Dibner family.  Enlightenment science, however, was certainly of great interest in the research side of things at the Huntington.  We are one of the world’s great repositories for early modern British history, and the history of science, medicine and technology has been an important aspect of scholarly investigations for at least a quarter-century.

 

There’s a real emphasis in the exhibition on engaging the senses – visitors are invited to look through replica microscopes, reenact experiments with light, and open stoppers to sniff medicinal herbs.  Was there something about the material you were displaying that invited this particular approach?  Was there any resistance to it?

 

I wanted very much to find a way for visitors to engage in a very low-level tactile fashion with the exhibit — what I call “interactive light.”  I didn’t want people to misunderstand the exhibit to be a science center.  There’s nothing for people to jump up and down on; nothing to throw or no mild electrical shocks to receive.  It’s a library exhibit, above all else, and almost everything in the exhibit is designed to reinforce this.  But that doesn’t mean we didn’t want to engage people with the olfactory, the tactile, and the experiential.

 

Speaking of the exhibit’s tactile quality, you have on display an original volume of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, which visitors can sit down and page through at their leisure – a truly rare event!  How in the world did that happen?

 

One of the most common requests I get when doing show-and-tells for visitors and potential donors, is, “Can I touch that?”  The answer is usually no — but I wanted people in an exhibit setting to understand what old paper felt like — its long fibers, its soft, pliable nature, its smell, and any other characteristic that people wanted to investigate (non-destructively!).  So I located an eighteenth century work — old enough to be made from old cotton rags, rather than more modern wood-pulp paper — that was very common.  Diderot’s Encyclopédie was printed in large numbers, and we have three pristine sets — and I thought it an appropriate use for the work to be put on public display.

 

Do you see Beautiful Science as intervening, or taking a stand, in any particular curatorial or pedagogical disputes?  What do you think the public duty of an institution like the Huntington ought to be in the communication or preservation of ideas?

 

In some ways, Beautiful Science is a love letter to beauty and science.  It doesn’t particularly critique the very numerous things that science has not done well, or scientific knowledge that has been submerged for various reasons, nor does it make comment on, say, the horrors of modern warfare that science has made possible.  But that kind of critique wasn’t my goal for the exhibit.  The goal really was to show the different ways that science could be beautiful, simply put.  I think if I took any obvious pedagogical stance, it’s that there’s an immediacy to original library materials that can’t be replaced by the digital or the analog facsimile, and that to be in the presence of books is to see the power of big ideas that can be widely distributed over space and time.

 

You mentioned during my visit that an exhibition catalogue is in the works.  What particular considerations does the catalogue require?

 

I’ve been creating the catalog as a superset of the exhibit — it has the same major themes and subthemes, but I’ve stretched my legs a bit to show other items in the catalog for which there was no physical room in the brick-and-mortar exhibit.  The catalog will also contain considerably more text.  Books are different creatures than exhibits, as there are no time constraints on a “visit” to a printed catalog in the way there usually are in an exhibit setting.

 

The exhibition’s rooms each have their own theme: astronomy, light, medicine, and natural history.  If you were to add a fifth room, what area would you pick?  Are there some alchemy and chemistry holdings in the wings?

 

I’d have a room full of dusty computers.  NOT!  I suppose I’d like to have a section on civil and military engineering — both great strengths of ours.  Applied science is a beautiful thing.

 

It struck me when I visited that Beautiful Science was remarkably accessible – that it would be equally appealing to school kids, folks seeking shade while wandering the Huntington grounds, and eighteenth-century enthusiasts.  How did you go about striking a balance?

 

I stared at my computer screen until beads of blood appeared on my forehead.  Writing label text that’s sufficiently brief, not overly self-involved or navel-gazing, accurate, accessible, and reasonably eloquent is a very difficult task.  I’m probably most proud of the text in the exhibit; I conceived and wrote it all myself.

 

What would you say is the importance of remembering the outmoded ideas on display — the models of the universe we know are incorrect, the animals we know don’t exist (I’m looking at you, manticore)?

 

I think those things reinforce an idea that I make explicit on my title wall text as you walk into the exhibit:  that we’re on an unknown arc into the future, and that our ideas about the physical world are likely to change, be stood on their head, and then change again.

 

Are there any particular items that the eighteenth century enthusiasts should be on the lookout for?

 

Sure, plenty.  I suppose my favorites are the early notions of transmutation or fixity of species — the concept that we live in an evolving natural world was actually more widely considered than people give early natural philosophers credit for.  But you do have to reach further back before that period to get a more modern view, ironically.

 

A silly question, but if you were to choose a single favorite historical item on display, what would it be?

 

That’s a tough one, akin to “which of your children do you love the best?”  Three leading candidates:  Gersdorff’s 1517 Fieldbook of Wound Surgery¸for its dramatic and bloody renderings of medical assistance; or Darwin’s 1859 On the Origin of Species, for its world-changing views of nature; or the early nineteenth century French natural history manuscript — untitled — by a trio of French illustrators about whom very little is known.  The illustrations are absolutely breathtaking. 

Daniel Lewis is the Chief Curator of Manuscripts and the Dibner Senior Curator of the History of Science and Technology, at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. He is also a Research Associate Professor of History at Claremont Graduate University and a faculty member at the California Rare Book School.

 

Further Reading: 

 

Benedict, Barbara.  Curiosity:  A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2002.

 

Blom, Philipp.  Enlightening the World:  Encyclopedia, The Book That Changed the Course of History.  New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

 

Dolnick, Edward.  The Clockwork Universe:  Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World.  New York:  Harper Collins, 2011.

 

Dugatkin, Lee Alan.  Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose:  Natural History in Early America.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2009.

 

Hamblyn, Richard.  The Invention of Clouds:  How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies.  New York:  Picador, 2001.

 

Holmes, Richard.  The Age of Wonder.  New York:  Vintage Books, 2008.

 

Hoskin, Michael.  Discoverers of the Universe:  William and Caroline Herschel.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2011.

 

Jardine, Lisa.  Ingenious Pursuits:  Building the Scientific Revolution.  New York:  Random House, 1999.

 

Moore, Wendy.  The Knife Man:  Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern Surgery.  New York:  Broadway Books, 2005.

 

Porter, Roy.  The Greatest Benefit to Mankind:  A Medical History of Humanity.  New York:  Norton Books, 1999.

 

Ridley, Glynis.  The Discovery of Jeanne Baret:  A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe.  New York:  Random House, 2010.

 

Shank, J.B.  The Newton Wars and the Beginning of the French Enlightenment.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2008.

 

Shapin, Steven and Simon Schaffer.  Leviathan and the Air-Pump:  Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2011 [1985].

 

Stalnaker, Joanna.  The Unfinished Enlightenment:  Description in the Age of the Encyclopedia.  Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 2010.

 

Stott, Rebecca.  Darwin’s Ghosts:  The Secret History of Evolution.  New York:  Spiegel and Grau, 2012.

 

Withers, Charles W.J.  Placing the Enlightenment:  Thinking Geographically about the Age of Reason.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2007.

 

 

 

Poetry of Attention in the Eighteenth Century

Poetry of Attention in the Eighteenth Century by Margaret Koehler (Palgrave 2012)

Poetry of Attention in the Eighteenth Century by Margaret Koehler (Palgrave 2012)

I would like to speak enthusiastically for the affinity of Cognitive Science and Eighteenth-Century Studies, with the stipulation that we acknowledge a reciprocal gain.   The point of a dialogue between these two disciplines is not that contemporary cognitive models can somehow verify what eighteenth-century accounts of cognition primitively conjectured.  The literary and historical texts that serve as “data” for Eighteenth-Century Studies look nothing like a modern laboratory experiment or brain scan.  And yet these earlier accounts of cognition can be just as extensive, precise, and applicable to diverse realms of human experience.  In the case of my own area of interest, attention, historical accounts are especially valuable because contemporary theories often emphasize attention’s involuntary and automatic function and sometimes question whether attention is even a valid concept.

My book, Poetry of Attention in the Eighteenth Century (Palgrave, 2012) , makes a case for the relevance of eighteenth-century models of attention.  Because the discipline of Psychology only turned to attention as an area of research in the late nineteenth century, studies have tended to ignore attention’s earlier conceptual history.  My book attempts to fill one part of this gap by tracing debates about attention during a period of intense interest and significant revision of its meaning.  I then look to poetry for documentation of the workings of attention.  Literary texts are rich but surprisingly unexplored sites for tracing—and, for a reader, reenacting—the precise operations and recurring dilemmas of attention.  To overlook the sheer range of attentive scenarios explored by literary texts and the meticulous evidence they record is to miss a unique set of data.

Mrs. Arabella Hunt (c.1706) by John Smith, 1652-1743, British; After Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1646-1723, German, active in Britain (from 1676).  Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Mrs. Arabella Hunt (c.1706) by John Smith, 1652-1743, British; After Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1646-1723, German, active in Britain (from 1676). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

I began this project wanting to understand the frequent references to attention in eighteenth-century poems.  I had been particularly struck by a line from a 1692 ode by William Congreve, “On_Mrs. Arabella_Hunt_Singing.”  In this line a listener wills himself to be fully absorbed in the song:  “Let me be all, but my Attention, dead.”  It seemed to me that this plea embodied a wider aspiration in the poetry of this period to experiment with perception—both to portray a poet’s states of awareness and to elicit a vicarious experience in readers.  Eighteenth-century poems again and again stage scenarios of experimental attention.  In addition to a moment of determined focus like Congreve’s, they explore a range of perceptual puzzles:  How is it different to encounter something novel versus something familiar?   How does perception shift when you are on foot, scanning the landscape while in motion, and then you suddenly zero in on some small detail?  How does darkness enhance the other senses?  How can a poet render the cacophony of a busy London street?

I found myself wondering if the framework of attention might finally name a quality of eighteenth-century poetry that I had noticed but struggled to formulate.  My dissertation had focused on the relationship between literal and figurative tendencies in eighteenth-century poetry, particularly on the way that certain images seemed to “fluctuate” (as I put it) between the two states.  But these terms had come to feel inadequate.  What if I could articulate a related phenomenon more accurately as the poet’s—and the reader’s—shifts of attention?  Part of the reason I had first become a fan of eighteenth-century poetry was because it prompted me to notice and appreciate small details in the natural world.  Right around this same time a student in my eighteenth-century literature had made an offhand comment that seemed to capture the challenges of teaching this material:  “I don’t like reading poems where I have to keep stopping to think about every word.  I like it when poems just flow.”  In other words, he was frustrated by the attentive demands and had expected poetry to offer easier, more passive pleasures.  My teaching and research were dovetailing in a rare and exciting way around questions of attention.

My immediate impulse was to turn to contemporary theories of attention for explanation.  Working through recent studies of attention by psychologists, I found myself at first assuming that eighteenth-century accounts offered embryonic accounts of phenomena that contemporary researchers had gone on to explain more fully and correctly.  Then when I returned to the eighteenth-century texts, I was in some sense looking for the twentieth and twenty-first-century models:  attention as selection versus attention as enhancement, attention as a set of distinct processing resources.  I had for example been fascinated by a 1950s lab experiment in “dichotic listening,” (subjects listened to headphones that fed one sound input on the right and another on the left).  Subjects were told to attend deliberately to one particular side, then later had to report on what they recalled from the “unattended ear” (early versions of the study found that they recalled almost nothing; later versions found more).  This notion of the “unattended ear” felt richly applicable to eighteenth-century poetry, which often challenges readers with competing inputs—high and low, vast and minute—and asks them to reconcile the incongruity.  But rigidly applying the processing model to poetry felt both formulaic and inaccurate.  The more useful insight was that eighteenth-century poetry complicates and mocks the very possibility of allocating attention dichotically.

The most exciting discoveries in this project came when eighteenth-century accounts of attention complicated or expanded contemporary perspectives.  Probably the most salient example was the greater emphasis eighteenth-century accounts placed on voluntary attention.  Here I was inspired by the work of art historian Barbara Stafford , who diagnoses a widespread contemporary fascination with “autopoietic” systems—self-assembling systems that operate spontaneously and automatically.[1]  The current model of the human brain, 90% of which is estimated to function automatically, is one such autopoietic system.  Stafford argues that the current understanding of brain/ mind as a largely automatic system reverses eighteenth-century epistemology, which likened cognition to seeing.  Her critique casts the discrepancy explicitly in terms of attention: “What’s left of selective attention?”[2]  She expresses reservations about the view that attention is mostly unconscious:  “what are the macroconsequences of putting attention almost wholly in the service of microcircuits, cerebral localization, processing-perceptual systems, and other inbuilt constancies?”[3]  Stafford does not refute neuroscience’s claim that the brain operates mostly automatically, but she contends that the imbalance exerts “special pressure on…the remaining empirical 10 percent.”[4]  In her remedy for the autopoietic daze and her formula for maximizing the remaining 10 percent, she extols the dividends of deliberate attention:

Creativity may well lie in escaping, not giving in to, our autopoietic machinery and focusing carefully on the world.  This proactive proposition defies a hyper-Romantic theory of consciousness…that we can never perceive the real world but only our mental representations.[5]

One way to escape a hyper-Romantic theory of consciousness is to look back to earlier models.  I would argue that this call for a new aesthetic commitment to “outward-directed attentiveness” finds a vital precedent in eighteenth-century poems.[6]

Unlike their successors the Romantics, eighteenth-century poets did not view active, detailed attention as hostile to aesthetic experience.  Possibly the plainest articulation of the eighteenth-century model of attention emerges as it is undone by an early Romantic theorist.  Near the end of the century, Archibald Alison argues that focused attention stifles the imagination and that aesthetic  experience requires the surrender of voluntary attention: 

When we sit down to appreciate the value of a poem or of a painting, and attend minutely to the language or composition of the one or to the coloring or design of the other, we feel no longer the delight which they at first produce.  Our imagination in this employment is restrained, and instead of yielding to its suggestions, we studiously endeavor to resist them by fixing our attention upon minute and partial circumstances of the composition.[7]

While Alison explicitly opposes attention and imagination, eighteenth-century poetry demands their co-existence.  Attending to details of a scene is part of the imaginative response to it.  This aspiration is one of the reasons why eighteenth-century texts can seem difficult and alien to contemporary readers, who have inherited a Romantic aesthetic.  My book repositions eighteenth-century poems as a collective model for assiduous reading and supple, wide-ranging attention.  It identifies a genuine insight that Eighteenth-Century Studies has to offer about cognition:  that active, deliberate, and demanding attention is a crucial component of imagination.


[1] Barbara Maria Stafford, “The Remaining 10 Percent:  The Role of Sensory Knowledge in the Age of the Self-Organizing Brain.”  Chapter 2 in Visual Literacy, ed. James Elkins (New York:  Routledge, 2008), pp. 31-57.

[2] Barbara Maria Stafford, “Neuroscience and the Future of the Art Museum.”  Talk at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA (March 2007).

[3] Stafford, Remaining 10 Percent, p. 33.

[4] Stafford, Remaining 10 Percent, p. 42.

[5] Stafford, Remaining 10 Percent, p. 45.

[6] Stafford, Remaining 10 Percent, p. 45.

[7] Alison, Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste (Edinburgh:  J.J.G. and G. Robinson,1790), p. 7.

18th-Century Balloonomania!

An exact representation of Mr Lunardi's New Balloon as it ascended with himself 13 May 1785

An exact representation of Mr Lunardi’s New Balloon as it ascended with himself 13 May 1785. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder describes the balloonomania that seized France and England in 1783 when competing impresarios ascended in the first hot-air balloons.  Beyond Holmes’ chapter, there is even more balloonomania to explore.

Today, Thomas Keymer examines the venerable Samuel Johnson’s interest in balloons and human flight throughout his career in a post for the Oxford University Press blog:

Initially, Johnson saw huge potential in balloons for advancing human knowledge, and subscribed to a scientifically motivated scheme for high-altitude flight, which, he wrote, would “bring down the state of regions yet unexplored.” He was fascinated by thoughts of the view from above, though he couldn’t imagine seeing “the earth a mile below me, without a stronger impression on my brain than I should like to feel.” But in time Johnson grew more sceptical about the value of balloons—fragile, combustible, impossible to direct—for either transportation or science, and disease preoccupied him instead: “I had rather now find a medicine that can ease an asthma.” He never makes the analogy explicit, but it’s clear from his last letters that, consciously or otherwise, he came to associate his bloated, dropsical body with a sinking balloon, and his difficulty in breathing with an aeronaut’s struggle to stay inflated. In a gloomy, earthbound message just weeks before death, he seems to glimpse the void in Montgolfier shape. “You see some ballons succeed and some miscarry, and a thousand strange and a thousand foolish things,” he tells the enviably youthful, mobile Francesco Sastres: “But I see nothing; I must make my letter from what I feel, and what I feel with so little delight, that I cannot love to talk of it.”  [Read Keymer’s complete post here. ]

Gilbert King recently described the life of Sophie Blanchard, the first female aeronaut of the balloon craze in a post for Smithsonian Magazine’s website.

You can explore the Smithsonian Museum’s array of ceramics, textiles, paintings, furniture, and other objects commemorating and capitalizing on the balloonomania by browsing the collection The Birth of the Balloon at the National Air and Space Museum website.

Paul Keen’s new book Literature, Commerce, and the Spectacle of Modernity, 1750-1800, (Cambridge University Press, 2012) includes a chapter on Balloonomania; you can read a brief extract of the chapter here.

Cognitive Science and the Humanities in 18th-Century Studies

Characters and Caricatures: subscription ticket for 'Marriage à la Mode' (1743).  William Hogarth

Characters and Caricatures: subscription ticket for ‘Marriage à la Mode’ (1743). William Hogarth. Yale Center for British Art, Yale Art Gallery Collection, Gift of Chauncey B. Tinker, B.A. 1899

“This is your brain on Jane Austen…” declared the recent Stanford news description of the work of Natalie M. Phillips on fMRI brain images of graduate students reading Austen both attentively and in a more leisurely mode.  The story of this research collaboration among “neurobiological experts, radiologists and humanities scholars” was featured by news outlets around the world, indicating the broad appeal of research that applies the newer tools of cognitive neuroscience to humanities analysis.

Phillips’ work with cognitive scientists develops that of cognitive humanities scholars such as Alan Richardson, Jonathan Kramnick, Blakey Vermeule, and Lisa Zunshine.  These pioneers in the field of what some call “Cognitive Cultural Studies” ask how the new research on the brain should impact our analyses of cultural production in the eighteenth century.  Phillips augments this work by actually producing some of the new research on the brain.  While this collaboration between literary and scientific scholars seems exciting and new, in some ways it actually returns to the eighteenth-century model of discourse in which poetry and chemistry, music and astronomy mingled interactively (as Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder amply details).

The 18th-Century Common seeks contributions to a Collection on Cognitive Science and 18th-Century studies in which scholars engaged in this work–as well as those who critique it–will give readers tantalized by Natalie Phillips’ research on “your brain on Jane Austen” opportunities to learn more.

Meanwhile, here are some preliminary avenues of exploration:

Happy (Recent) Birthday, Sir William Herschel!

Sir William Herschel, detail of an oil painting by L. Abbott, 1785; in the National Portrait Gallery, London. © National Portrait Gallery, London

November 15 was the birthday of composer and astronomer Sir William Herschel (1738-1822).  As a musician who also discovered the planet Uranus, Herschel plays a starring role in Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Knopf, 2009), a book that is one of our points of departure at The 18th-Century Common.  On November 15, 2012, the radio program Composers Datebook played Herschel’s Oboe Concerto in C; you can listen the program here.  A short biography of Herschel can be found here.  A collection of the papers of William Herschel, Caroline Herschel, and John F. W. Herschel are housed at the Royal Astronomical Society.   You can see a picture of the 20-foot telescope Herschel built here.  You can explore Herschel’s accounts of his astronomical findings at 18thConnect.org, where I’ve created an “Exhibit” of 4 texts.  Tristra Johnson examines the representation of gender in Holmes’ account of William Herschel and his sister Caroline Herschel for The 18th-Century Common here.