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Visions of Science: Books and readers at the dawn of the Victorian age Hardcover – 27 Mar 2014
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It is a useful reminder that science does not always advance in straight lines. (Dame Athene Donald, Book of the Year 2014, Times Higher Education)
concise and engaging survey of the popular science literature that transformed the book trade during the 1830s (Mike Jay, London Review of Books)
Visions of Science follows the progress of scientific ideas in the charged years surrounding the Reform Bill of 1832. More than anything, however, it is about the way ideas were exchanged. The result is a compelling work of book history that sheds as much light on the intricacies of the nineteenth-century publishing world as it does on geology or astronomy, and the dual project at the heart of Visions of Science is one of its many strengths. (Ushashi Dasgupta, Times Literary Supplement)
lucid and lively book ... This book will appeal not only to historians, but to literary scholars keen to move beyond the familiar canon of poetry and prose. And for many other readers, the book will be a fascinating introduction to the first generation to believe that the modern disciplinary sciences could transform the human condition. (Jo Elcoat, Chemistry World)
Visions of Science is a wonderfully lucid account of a complex and often misunderstood era that poses important questions about the way we understand both science and history. (The Guardian)
well-written and handsomely produced volume. (Graham Farmelo, Times Higher Education)
Elegantly written, Secords Visions of Science provides its readers with fresh insights into the turbulent decade around 1830, when science was changing from "a relatively esoteric pursuit" into one that would have a huge impact on "the everyday life of all men and women." (Science)
In an accessible style, and with a scholarly grasp of his protagonists, Secord examines seven works which recast the way that science was understood, setting their trajectories within a cultural and social context still dominated by a strongly Christian viewpoint. (Cambridge Online)
James Secord provides insightful analyses of seven works published at the dawn of the Victorian age ... He offers a compelling argument that his seven chosen works forged a new reading public that believed scientific knowledge was useful not only in narrow economic terms, but also in its potential for personal fulfilment, moral guidance and wider social regeneration. (Jo Elcoat, Science and Education)
Secords superb perspective as a historian opens up and amply justifies the value of examining the publication, materiality and reception of scientific literature in an understudied period of change. (Verity Burke, The British Society for Literature and Science)
Visions provides readings of canonical works that are both accessible to novices and illuminating for experts. (Ruth Barton, Isis)
About the Author
James Secord is Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, Director of the Darwin Correspondence Project, and a fellow of Christ's College. His research and teaching is on the history of science from the late eighteenth century to the present. He has published several books, including Controversy in Victorian Geology (Princeton, 1986) and editions of the works of Mary Somerville, Charles Lyell, and Robert Chambers. Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (Chicago, 2000), an account of the public debates about evolution in the mid-nineteenth century, won the Pfizer Prize of the History of Science Society and the award for the best book in history from the Association of American Publishers' Professional/Scholarly Publishing Division.
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To illustrate these themes, the author has selected seven important volumes to discuss in individual chapters. Among these, several stand out in effective chapters. For example, Charles Babbage "Reflections on the Decline of Science in England" (1830) despaired over what science could do if it were released from corrupt scientific societies, the presence of fraud, and more precise observational methods were employed . He also argued things would improve if scientists were drawn from Oxbridge graduates who had not been molded by study of the classics and theology. So, this was meant to be an "eye-opener" and really had that impact because all manner of reform was in the air (for example, the Reform Act of 1832). In John Herschel's "Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy" (1831), the author carefully explained the principles and practices of the physical sciences. If one were interested in research in this area, Herschel in effect laid out a "conduct manual"as how to proceed which also enunciated guidelines for everyday living. Herschel moreover was the inventor of the term "scientist" and had a hardy battle to get it accepted.
Since mathematics was so central to science, a most interesting chapter examines Mary Somerville's "On the Connexion ofthe Physical Sciences" (1832). The goal here, in the author's words, was to deliver "Math for the Millions." Published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, that such a substantial scientific work was written by a woman was somewhat surprising to Victorians. Once again the crucial role in Victorian scientific publishing of John Murray is evident, long before he published Darwin. Somerville avoided conflict with religion by assuming that mathematical principles were one pathway to God. For this book and other scientific achievements, Somerville College at Oxford University was named in honor.
The author also covers other important books from this period. His chapter on Charles Lyell's "Principles of Geology" (1830-33), probably the most influential book on science up until Darwin, is particularly perceptive and full of insights. Ironically, while Lyell definitely attacked the idea of transmutation of species in his book, he nonetheless later played a key role in publicizing the early Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace essays announcing the discovery of evolution by natural selection (in 1858). George Combe's "Constitution of Man" (1828), although focused on phrenology broadly raised the issue of what mental states caused human action.
The book contains some helpful extras, including a chronology, guide to further reading, extensive endnotes, and a "Bibliography of Works Published after 1900." There are also valuable figures or diagrams, as well as a color section of fascinating plates drawn from the period under study. A short epilogue nicely sums up some of the book's basic themes. A good companion volume is Bernard Lightman's "Victorian Popularizers of Science" (also reviewed on Amazon). The author is one of the best scholars in this area and his expertise and breadth of experience are evident on every page as he serves as our guide to these important scientific books.
The one surprise was the single woman in the book, Mary Somerville who was a mathematician.. She presented the thing called "science" as a subject based on mathematics. She was pretty clear about it, too.
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