The first half of the nineteenth century witnessed an extraordinary transformation in British political, literary, and intellectual life. There was widespread social unrest, and debates raged regarding education, the lives of the working class, and the new industrial, machine-governed world. At the same time, modern science emerged in Europe in more or less its current form, as new disciplines and revolutionary concepts, including evolution and the vastness of geologic time, began to take shape.
In Visions of Science, James A. Secord offers a new way to capture this unique moment of change. He explores seven key books—among them Charles Babbage’s Reflections on the Decline of Science, Charles Lyell’s Principles ofGeology, Mary Somerville’s Connexion of the Physical Sciences, and Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus—and shows how literature that reflects on the wider meaning of science can be revelatory when granted the kind of close reading usually reserved for fiction and poetry. These books considered the meanings of science and its place in modern life, looking to the future, coordinating and connecting the sciences, and forging knowledge that would be appropriate for the new age. Their aim was often philosophical, but Secord shows it was just as often imaginative, projective, and practical: to suggest not only how to think about the natural world but also to indicate modes of action and potential consequences in an era of unparalleled change.
Visions of Science opens our eyes to how genteel ladies, working men, and the literary elite responded to these remarkable works. It reveals the importance of understanding the physical qualities of books and the key role of printers and publishers, from factories pouring out cheap compendia to fashionable publishing houses in London’s West End. Secord’s vivid account takes us to the heart of an information revolution that was to have profound consequences for the making of the modern world.
University of Cambridge historian Secord (Victorian Sensation) delves into a largely forgotten era in the development of scientific understanding in Britain, concentrating on seven books from the early 19th century that were written and marketed for the working classes. The fact that these scientific explanations of geology, mathematics, biology and even proto-psychology were accessible to those of modest means grew from a utopian desire for "the complete reformation of society through knowledge," and the belief that by understanding the "practices of science" people would become more civilized. One of the most read was Mary Sommerville's, "On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences," a study of mathematics blended with contemporary scientific discoveries including electro-magnetism in which she encouraged both men and women "to consider a future in which mathematical knowledge would be a commonplace." Secord contextualizes science popularization in light of radical social movements and the influence they had on later scientists like Charles Darwin while also engendering fierce opposition from some religious leaders. The period's atmosphere of open inquiry serves as one of the foundations of modern science and Secord's work will intrigue those who may not have considered how the spread of interest in science changed Britain and the world.