The Popularisation of Science: 1890-1914


Two men in a pub, one has just come from a science lecture and talks of the world before Adam:

This yer radium, Charlie, is reely life. On’y life is raely a jelly, what you find in the sea. So this jelly is radium, you see, on’y they can’t find the jelly, an radium is scarce, so they invented electricity. And there’s radium in electricity, if they could on’y find the way to get it out. But there ain’t no jelly in it see?’

This imaginary scene from the Clarion of 1905 is a neat vignette of the gulf between the science of the laboratory and the science of the street, home, factory, or indeed, pub. The mish mash of invention, electricity, radium and `jelly’ (protoplasm) exposes some of the more dominant themes in the popular imagination. The garbled account is what many have now come to expect from popularised science, and then was obviously common enough for it to be a source of humour. The science lecture, however, although still popular, was having to compete with other media as a source of perceptions and understanding of science, and not just the media but the very world in which people lived.

It was, as many commentators observed, a `scientific age’. The late-Victorian and Edwardian general public could hardly avoid science even if they had wanted to. The impact of technology upon everyday life would, in a rudimentary way, have given them first hand experience of scientific innovation, at least in its applied form. Dramatic feats of engineering and the increasingly widespread use of electricity, particularly for lighting, were transforming the environment. An expanding rail network provided an efficient distribution system for a revolution in retailing, while technology not only cheapened traditional products, but also created new ones such as the bicycle, sewing machine, phonograph, and camera, which, if not bought, could be eyed avariciously in the shops.

Also unavoidable were the many advertisements for patent medicines. Appliances and applications, pills and potions, remedies and restoratives were all on offer to help keep body and soul together. In a single issue of Pearson’s Magazine we can find:

Noses – the only patent nose machines in the world. Improve ugly noses of all kinds.
Scientific yet simple. Can be worn during sleep…

Or, to build up vitality and strength:

The `Ajax’ battery is a scientific device for saturating the nerves and vitals with a steady, unbroken current of electric life, without the least shock or unpleasant sensation.

One would also find the `Turvey cure for drink and drug habits’, a phosphoric remedy from `Dr Lalor’ called `phosphodyne’, and `Spermin’, an organic essence from the `Organo-therapeutic Institute of Professor von Poehl and sons’. there were others, and they were all in addition to the magazine’s regular advertisements for Eno’s fruit salts, Kutnow’s, Wincarnis, Tatcho, Zam-Buk and Beechams Pills.

Recreation could also have brought the public into contact with science, in a more institutional setting, although how effective this might be was open to debate. It was reported that zoos were becoming increasingly popular with the animals being given more room, and the move to realism in taxidermy had transformed many museums `from dreary sepulchres into palaces of pleasure’, an opinion, it has to be said, that was not shared by everyone. `The very word “museum” sends a cold chill to the heart’, wrote one contributor to the Clarion. `We know those museums. We know the depressing cracked clay pitchers, the dismal miscellaneous armour, the withered butterflies and beetles gone to seed…We know them, and dread them like taxes and long sermons.’ Likewise, the state of British aquaria gave cause for concern. Many were without fish, some did not even have any water. As one observer noted, a remnant of school Latin should at least bid the visitor to expect water somewhere in the definition, but at some leading aquaria there was none to be found: `He finds instead a musical hall, the walls in the distance being ornamented with a dado of tanks, with or without mostly without water in them, and one or two, maybe, containing an emaciated fish.’

Much more exciting would have been the `living picture shows’. Furthering the traditions of the magic lantern show, natural history and scientific `interest’ films were an important part of early British film culture. Charles Urban was to the fore in producing this type of film, making series like Natural History, Marine Studies, and Unseen World (this last employing new techniques in microcinematography). The continuing interest in scientific films can be seen in the numerous bird studies in film makers’ catalogues, the nature films of F.Percy Smith, and the success of Herbert G. Ponting’s record of Scott’s Antarctic expedition. It was only from around 1911 onwards that film makers became increasingly concerned with drama. Like the cinema, the periodical press combined pictures and stories, fact and fiction, in a melange of entertainment/education that was, to use the slogan of Pearson’s Weekly, designed `to interest, to elevate, and to amuse’.

The people who were to provide this early form of `infotainment’ often remain invisible to the historian’s eye. In the weeklies very few contributions appeared with a by line giving the author’s name. The magazines seem to have been largely dependent upon staff writers and with the notable exception of the Clarion who was on the staff is unknown. The monthlies were more reliant upon outside contributions and here it was common practice to give the author’s name, or at least pen name. If we take our sample of eight magazines we find a total of 484 acknowledged contributors of science content, and I have been able to compile at least basic biographical information for 205 of them. If we concentrate on the more prominent contributors we may still be no nearer getting a clear picture of what a typical contributor was like. There was no `typical’ science writer. Their diversity makes a nonsense of any attempt to construct a single `type’ of populariser. To take some of the more prolific writers we find: F.G. Aflalo (sportsman and writer), Rev. J.M. Bacon (lecturer and aeronaut), Sir Robert Stawell Ball (Professor of Astronomy), S.L. Bensusan (writer), Emma Marie Caillard (poet and essayist), Harry Lowerison (teacher), E.K. Robinson (naturalist and author), Edward Step (naturalist and author), Dr L. Forbes Winslow (physician), and Marcus Woodward (author and journalist). There is the added complication that any one contributor might have a number of career changes, for example the Rev. J.M. Bacon’s moves from clergyman to scientific investigator to popular lecturer and writer.

Such multi-varied careers almost defy classification. What we can do though is simply divide the contributors into those who were brought to science writing through their scientific activities (`Scientists’), and those who came to it through their literary activities (`Writers’). Even so, there were still a number of contributors who could only be classified as `science writers’, and of course others who fitted none of these categories. On this basis the occupational breakdown for contributors to our eight magazines would be: Scientists 36 per cent, Writers 40 per cent, Science Writers 6 per cent, and Others 18 per cent. However, the almost equal proportion of scientists and writers belies great differences between publishers. Interestingly, the highest ratio of scientists to writers is to be found in the `religious’ Good Words. Its science content came from twice as many scientists as writers, and indeed, twice as many scientists as clergymen. Conversely, Pearson’s science came from writers rather than scientists, reflecting the magazine’s interest in natural history and technology, subjects upon which writers tended to concentrate. Scientists were more likely to write on the pure and environmental sciences, as they did for Good Words, or on health and medicine, as they did for the Cassell’s publications.

For the scientists popularisation was not a youthful pursuit. Their average age was fifty, with nearly one third aged sixty or over. They were commonly men at the height of their careers writing about the field of expertise in which their reputations had already been made, often contributing a single article, presumably at the request of an editor. Nor should it be thought that these were men of little consequence. Over one in four merit entries in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Together with men like Wallace, Lodge, and Ramsay, they included W.F. Barrett (founder of the Society for Psychical Research); Sir William H. Flower (director of the British Museum (Natural History)); and Richard T. Glazebrook (director of the National Physical Laboratory). In addition there was a high proportion of professors and lecturers supplemented by keepers, curators and assistants from museums and botanical gardens.

The `science writers’, however, were a much younger breed. Nearly all were in their thirties or early forties. Popularisation was part of their profession not something to be turned to in their twilight years. Included amongst them were men like Richard Gregory (extension lecturer and assistant editor of Nature); and Richard and Cherry Kearton (nature photographers, authors and lecturers). The non scientists were also younger men and women. The lecturer and writer Gertrude Bacon, for example, was only 27 when she first wrote for Good Words. Moreover, it is with the non scientists that the diversity of contributors is most clearly seen. Frank T. Bullen, for example, was a junior clerk at the meteorological office when he first started writing for Good Words, but later became a full time author. In those classified as being `other’ than scientists or writers we can find numerous clergymen together with barristers, members of parliament, and the keeper of oriental books at the British Museum. Among them were the ex governor of Borneo writing about the silk worm; a baronet and retired captain in the Royal navy writing about microbes; and a thirty two year old company secretary telling `The story of the field vole’.

About one in eight of the contributors were women. This may not sound much to modern ears, but for the period I believe it can be regarded as a notable proportion. Moreover, the science that these women contributed should not necessarily be thought of as being the more `soft’ sciences such as natural history. This is made quite clear if we look at the three most prolific women writers: Emma Marie Caillard (physics), Grace Frankland (microbiology), and Gertrude Bacon (technology). The subject is certainly one worthy of further study. It may be that journalism provided women opportunities to work in science that were, perhaps, denied to them elsewhere. This may even be true for all forms of journalism and not just science writing. A full survey of magazine contributors is something that awaits the attention of an enterprising researcher. In the meantime I can only offer suggestive hints. The highest levels of women science writers are found in the more proselytising publications. For the Cottager and Artisan (where over a quarter of the science contributors were women) and for Good Words it may be that a tradition of female religious activism, for example in charity work, increased the likelihood of female journalistic activity. For the Clarion on the other hand, accepting or commissioning contributions from women would have been a simple extension of its egalitarian world view.

However, most of the contributors were historical nonentities. For most of them (58 per cent) even basic biographical information is unavailable. They do not merit any references in biographical dictionaries, and many do not even rise to the heights of a single publication listed in the British Museum catalogue, or a single article recorded in either the Poole or Wellesley index. But the lack of evidence is indicative in itself. For here we seem to be in `New Grub Street’, the world of literary hacks, wraiths of the reading room at the British Museum mechanically producing their quota of words before disappearing into the shabby gentility of late-Victorian London.

We can get some idea of how the Grub Street scientists worked from the advice to would be authors given by an old hand. `How I write my Pearson’s Weekly articles’ appeared in 1903 and sets itself the task of researching a piece on `Why we don’t sneeze in our sleep’. True to form the place to begin is the reading room of the British Museum where the author consults the Index Catalogue of the Library of the Surgeon General’s Office of the United States Army:

Here, as I expected, I find innumerable references to the bibliography of sneezing. Books have, it would appear, been written about it, around it, and concerning it, in almost every language under the sun.
But they are mostly too technical.
`On the inhibitory arrest of the act of sneezing, and its therapeutical applications.’ No good that.
`Sneezing, an obstinate case cured by the galvanocautery, and the cold wire snare.’
Worse and worse
Ah! `Sneezing, snoring, and sleep a monograph.’ This looks promising.

Getting the book and about a dozen others (unspecified) the author then turns to Poole’s Index to Periodical Literature to gain a more general point of view. Fanciful as this account might seem, it may not be too far from the truth. Poole’s Index was also one of the reference sources listed by one of the Pearson’s staff when they described `Books writers write from’. Other sources included the Zoological Record, the Catalogue of the Royal Geographical Society, Quain’s Dictionary of Medicine, Tuke’s Dictionary of Psychological Medicine, and Taylor on Poisons.

Paradoxical as it may seem, journalistic practice was not necessarily conducive to simplification. It was not uncommon, for example, particularly in `scissors and paste’ productions like Tit Bits, to lift reports from Nature, source unacknowledged, often reduced to a single sentence, and degutted of all but the barest details. Methodology and experimental data would be discarded. Only the result, the `fact’, would remain, copied verbatim from the original complete with all technical terminology and void of all explanation. Such rewrites were usually taken from Nature’s `Societies and Academies’ section or from its `Notes’ column, these being less specialised and less technical than other sections, and more concise, more readable, and presumably more accessible to the average journalist. Consequently, since the work of British scientists received fuller coverage in the rest of the magazine and tended not to appear in these sections, the impression one gets from these lifted pieces is of science being an activity peculiar to foreigners. How far this might have fuelled the debate over the `bankruptcy’ of British science is a matter for conjecture.

Naturally such down market science journalism did not find much favour with the more up market periodicals devoted to popular science like Science Gossip often took great delight in pointing out the inaccuracies of newspaper `scientists’. Usually there was a supercilious air about the way it reported the scientific errors of others, but a more serious tone was struck when the editor John T. Carrington reproached the Daily Mail for a `silly’ article on butterfly hunting:

There is, however, a responsibility as a teacher of the crowd attached to the editing of such a paper….We would recommend the writer to get his facts before committing his teachings to the wide world. When will there be a science censor for news papers?

Journalistic ignorance, however, was regarded as a vital element in the process of popularisation. The editor W.T. Stead gave the following advice to readers of Cassell’s Magazine:

In editing a newspaper, never employ an expert to write a popular article on his own subject, better employ someone who knows nothing about it to tap the expert’s brains, and write the article, sending the proof to the expert to correct. If the expert writes he will always forget that he is not writing for experts but for the public, and will assume that they need not be told things which, although familiar to him as ABC, are nevertheless totally unknown to the general reader.

One contributor put it more succinctly. He always asked people lots of questions, he said, because, `a healthy ignorance is useful to the purveyor of hastily collected facts’.

How much the readers understood is almost impossible to judge. Certainly, public ignorance was noted by the magazines. Both Pearson’s Weekly and Tit Bits found it worthwhile to print articles on `popular errors’ like believing that stones grow, that drowned bodies float when the gall bladder breaks, or that shingles is fatal if the rash encircles the body. Some were probably genuine errors, and can still be found today, but the intention of the articles may simply have been to flatter the reader into thinking that they knew better, didn’t they.

Rather than give too much credence to such flattery and prejudice a better guide to scientific literacy (although still an inadequate one) might be to see what contributors assumed their readers already knew. The writer of an article on Edison’s work on X rays, for example, thought it necessary to explain the term `fluorescent’, but not `specific gravity’ or `atomic weight’. Similarly in Pearson’s Magazine a feature on underwater telegraph cables explained the term `ohm’ and put `conductor’ and `resistance’ in quotation marks as if they might be unfamiliar, but an article on astronomy mentioned `spectroscopic studies of the stars and nebulae’, `variable stars’, `motions of the sidereal system’ and `double stars’ all without further explanation. Good Words seems to have been the magazine that expected most from its readers. A series of articles by Professor A.W. Rucker on underground magnetic rocks, which appeared in 1890, was a complex and abstruse argument with complicated diagrams and tables of figures. Likewise, articles on `Phosphorus and phosphorescence’ and `Natural mineral waters and bacteria’ were both quite technical and used difficult language.

The problem of literacy, in a more narrow sense, was a real and important one since language was often seen as separating scientist from layman. Common to all magazines was an association of science with strange, technical language, the use of which was frequently accompanied by a qualifying `to put it scientifically’ or `termed by scientists’. We find, for example, a reference to the aniline compound methyltribromofluorescine immediately followed by an apology for the `eccentricities of chemical nomenclature’ and a promise not to inflict on the reader the scientific name for `methyl violet’. In Pearson’s Weekly Thomson’s description of cathode rays was reproduced with the suggestion that it could be used as a sinker to drown a cat, and even in an article on cave exploration we find the cry `Speleology! The word has a forbidding scientific look.’ To the ordinary man, claimed an advertisement for the Harmsworth Popular Science, the jargon of science was `a meaningless arrangement of words that neither impress nor instruct.’ Nonetheless, it could amuse. Botanists might assert that roses do not have thorns only `modified setaceous processes of the epidermis’, but as E. Kay Robinson pointed out in Good Words: `It is good moral training, when you have a few buried in the epidermis of the back of your hand, to try and remember this.’

Language not only separated scientist from layman, but also presented what seemed insurmountable difficulties for the populariser. `It is not easy to make so very dry a subject as structural botany interesting,’ confessed John J. Ward, `It is too full of terrifying technical terms.’ Modern meteorology may have explained old weather lore, but as one writer lamented, `unfortunately these explanations can never be popularised. The philosophy of weather prognostics can only be known to those who are prepared to grapple with the difficulties of “isobars”, of “cyclones”, and of “anti cyclones”.’

The solution was to avoid all `nomenclature’ and to simplify `technicalities’, a process which, in the eyes of scientists, could leave the populariser open to charges of adulteration and distortion. It was after all by no means an easy task. As one contributor noted, science was too often expounded by writers who either could not write simply or could only attain simplicity by stripping their subject of all its interest. The limitations this imposed upon contributors was clearly recognised and acknowledged. Professor Andrew Gray admitted that Lord Kelvin’s scientific discoveries `do not lend themselves easily to popular description’. Undeterred, he pressed on with his biographical article on Kelvin’s theoretical and abstract work with the caveat that `of course only the very slightest discussion, couched in the most general and untechnical terms, will be possible’. Nonetheless, he still managed to explain the conservation of matter and of energy, dynamics, thermodynamics and the dissipation of energy.

But given that there was so much else to read in the magazines articles on the royalty of Europe, on politics, on the stars of music hall and theatre, as well as fiction for all tastes is it likely that there would have been much interest in the features on science and the natural world? Robert Blatchford at the Clarion certainly had his doubts. Reviewing Mutual Aid he urged the common man to read not only Kropotkin but also Darwin, Morris, Kidd, and Robert Ball to awaken the public conscience and arouse social and political energies. However, for all his belief in his readers’ interest in science, he was not so optimistic as to think this would happen. Ask the first hundred men you meet some simple questions like what is a star, what was the glacial epoch, what is socialism, what did Darwin teach, what is protoplasm:

and you will find that they can only tell you about Mr Balfour and Mr Chamberlain, the famous football and cricket players, the price of jute on the market, who played Topsy Gigglewick in `The Bohemian Boy’, and the winner of the Mudshire Handicap. The knowledge of the British crowd is a full century behind the times.

Nevertheless, believing that the road to socialist salvation lay through education, he was keen to associate science with socialism and the working man. In a glowing review of Sir E. Ray Lankester’s Science from an Easy Chair he makes reference to the number of copies of the Science History of the Universe bought by Clarion readers, and comments that `In a paper whose readers have bought 20,000 scientific books in a few months, science is an important matter’. This may well have been true. In 1907 a poll of the magazine’s readers to find `Britain’s greatest benefactor’ came out with Darwin the clear favourite and other scientists high on the list.

Outside such socialist fervour others were more sceptical. Giving advice on how to sub edit a daily paper, one contributor to Pearson’s Weekly told how he learnt to cater for the public taste in news. The opinion of a learned professor on the bearing of Radium on the fiscal problem was worthy of a short paragraph, but an article on `Should society women play marbles’ was marked for half a column. Radium, however, like X rays before it, was one discovery that did appear to have caught the public imagination. In 1904 it was noted in Cassell’s Magazine that next to the fiscal question and the Russo Japanese war it formed the very topic of the day, although interest in the substance was thought to be because of its extreme rarity or costliness and the fact that it was obtained by a method new to science, for `it is scarcely probable that the non scientific mind is particularly impressed with the importance of the latest contributions to science as such, and, generally speaking, to human knowledge. A state of affairs bemoaned by Professor G.G Henderson in Good Words, `The British public with all its virtues, can hardly claim for itself that interest in scientific progress which all who have their country’s welfare at heart would fain to see.’

The lack of interest, however, may have been due to a basic lack of understanding. In 1898 a book offer of 100 of the world’s most famous books listed only one which might be regarded as scientific (White’s Natural History of Selborne) explaining that some, presumably including many science books, were left out because the public would not read them and would not understand them if they did. An advert for the Science History of the Universe was, understandably, more optimistic, believing that there were few people who did not long to know something of the wonders of science, but felt that in the mind of the average person there was `a quite unfounded dread of difficulty an idea that the study of science requires some extraordinary cleverness such as is not required for any other study.’ Opening a new science series Pearson’s Weekly recognised that to many people the very name of science was repellent. There was, it believed, a prevalent mistake of supposing that science was `dry, difficult, and uninteresting,’ and that practical science was `an expensive and rather dangerous pursuit’.

Only very rarely did the magazines invite their readers to be more than passive recipients of the information that they were peddling. The boldest attempt at readership participation was the series `Science for the unscientific’ launched in Pearson’s Weekly in 1894. Through simple experiments to be performed at home the series explored such topics as electricity, air pressure, optical illusions and the chemistry of salt. However, one series in twenty five years of eight magazines was hardly a record of feverish activity, and after appearing regularly every fortnight for a year the series degenerated into a collection of tricks and games. Later articles in Pearson’s Magazine, `Playing tricks with science’ and `After dinner science’, merely picked up where Pearson’s Weekly left off. As far as doing science was concerned it was, in the end, to be a form of entertainment, instructive to be sure, but above all simple, inexpensive, novel and amusing.

Common to all the periodicals was the presentation of science not as an approach to the world, but as a collection of facts and feats. In the late-Victorian consumer revolution science was another commodity, to be received not participated in. It was not a process, but a product. In its simplest form `science as product’ joined together technology and consumerism in a marriage which will be more fully discussed in chapter eight. In a more general sense it was a preference for result over method. Science was, perhaps above all else, practical and useful. For many Victorians any grounds for unease about science were more than offset by its apparent material successes. Scientists themselves may not have looked at their work from a purely utilitarian point of view and may have been, as one article in Pearson’s Magazine put it, `more concerned in patiently unravelling the many mysteries by which we are surrounded’, but, as the article continued, `in fact there is hardly a scientific discovery that has not been followed by practical applications of great importance.’ Elsewhere in Pearson’s we can read of the work of the Greenwich Observatory and its use for navigation, and `see how the most abstruse of the sciences is made of such practical effect that, working hand in hand with commerce, it has conduced to the cheapening of figs and to the putting of tea on the poor man’s breakfast table.’ The esoteric was firmly rooted (or reduced to) the mundane.

It was just the kind of utilitarian science that all attempts at popularisation would degenerate into, or so the British Association had feared. More important for the Association was the public understanding of scientific method. A focus on method, it believed, not only was recommended on moral and educational grounds, but also, as Richard Yeo has argued, `offered a point of consensus in the midst of increasing specialisation and allowed the scientific community to promote a unified public image.’ However, by the end of the century disagreements on the definition of method, particularly within the Darwinian debates, meant that method was no longer a point of consensus but a point of controversy. Increasing specialisation continued to undermine the unity of science and made it more and more difficult to separate the methods of science from the esoteric knowledge it produced, knowledge which, as we saw earlier, was alien and inaccessible to the general public. In short, for all the hopes of the Association and leading scientists, a focus on method could not narrow the gap between scientific advance and public understanding. Consequently what persisted in the magazines were the most simplistic notions of what constituted scientific practice. Kumatology, or the study of waves, was, said Marcus Tindal in Pearson’s Magazine, vast, deep and absorbingly interesting, `yet it is to a great extent made up by the observation of the commonplace’. Science, explained Pearson’s Weekly, `is simply a kind of ordered common sense, and scientific observation is little more than making the most of the perception of the senses’.

Science was empirical. It was observation and experiment, Baconian and inductionist. It was only in comparatively modern times, wrote Emma Marie Caillard, that it had become `considered necessary to verify a scientific theory by systematic observation, or put it to any experimental test.’ It was one thing to state a scientific fact, said Sir Robert Ball, it was quite another to establish that fact with a `train of reasoning, founded on observation and experiment.’ J. Holt Schooling took a similar line in his investigation into dowsing. Urging his readers not to be too sceptical, he argued that the usual process of scientific advance was that `before a fresh bit of knowledge can be added to the store, its validity is commonly heralded by purely experimental evidences, brought about by empirical tests’. And how was this store of knowledge to be expanded? `One gets facts before one finds out how the facts come to be facts, and this finding out process properly belongs to science, while the facts may be, and often are, laid hold of by persons destitute of all scientific knowledge or thought.’ The Baconian distinction between empirical research and theoretical speculation was clear, so too was the division of labour.

By the end of the nineteenth century the `finding out process’ had increasingly become the preserve of professional scientists. The consolidation of the scientific community was reflected in an increasing emphasis on the conjectural and conceptual features of scientific thinking, thus excluding `amateur’ inductiveness and further enhancing the privileged status of the `expert’. The role of the amateur in the scientific enterprise had, by and large, been relegated to that of the collector whose function was descriptive not speculative, In mid century Robert Chambers could challenge the intellectual authority of the nascent professional scientific community by asserting the rights of the lay public to hypothesise and generalise, but by the 1870s the institutional and educational status of science had become more secure. In the first half of the century popular science periodicals were permeated by an ideology of amateur participation. Emphasising the universal accessibility of the scientific endeavour, the magazines encouraged amateur activity and invoked the image of a Republic of Science open to all. By the 1860s, however, as Pyenson argues, `a younger generation of scientists began to try to mould the Republic of Science’s amateur practitioners into sympathetic supporters of professional high science.’ The editors of the magazines, once architects of an alternative `low scientific culture’, became accomplices of the high scientific community, `replacing the “entrepreneurial ideal” of the self made science worker with the “professional ideal” of the scientific expert.’

The professionalisation of science and the alienation of the scientists from the public were in line with other developments in popular culture. With the establishment of a segregated professional elite in science, sport and entertainment, the role of those excluded from such circles was reduced to that of spectator, relegated to the touchlines or filling in pools coupons, joining in the chorus but not appearing on stage, and leaving experiments and theories to the `experts’. Natural history presents a necessary qualification to this general ambience of scientific passivity, and the Clarion field clubs are a notable exception to the disinclination of family magazines for encouraging their readers to indulge in scientific pastimes. But the pursuit of nature had wider ramifications than simple participation in the process of science and the proposals of Arthur Tansley for `scientific natural history’, or ecology, were as clear a statement of the demarcation between professional and amateur as one could expect to find. Amateur naturalists may well have felt they were being made redundant before then. `Complaint is made again and again of the approaching extinction of the old fashioned “field naturalist”,’ wrote one correspondent to Science Gossip in 1897 in an attack on `would be monopolisers of science’. He had approached a high ranking official of one scientific institution asking for help in drawing up a list of flora and fauna of endangered areas around London, only to be met with the reply that `the members of the society would be much better occupied in counting lamp posts’.

In the end, it seems, `Science’ was best done by `Scientists’ and popular accounts of science reinforced the idea of a great gulf between the scientist and the public. Inductive amateurs were to leave the `real’ work to be done by theorising professionals. Excluded from the process of science the common reader was left to consume the products of science. Ironically, by setting apart expert from laity the process of popularisation was in effect a process of alienation.

Chapter taken from Media Science Before the Great War


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