22 December 2016

Review: Scientific London by Bernard H. Becker

Hardcover, 340 pages
Published 1968 (originally 1874)
Borrowed from the library
Read December 2012
Scientific London by Bernard H. Becker

Becker says that the purpose of his book is to "describe in a compact form the rise, progress, and present condition of those great Scientific Institutions of which London-- and for that matter England-- is justly proud" (v). To do so he visits the Royal Society, the Royal Institution, the Society of Arts, the Institution of Civil Engineers, the Chemical Society, the Department of Science and Art, and so on, talking about the personalities of the places and their members: Royal Society members, for example, are thoughtful, gray-haired, active, hard-working, constantly studying, cheerful, and serious (25), whereas the members of the Institution of Civil Engineers themselves admit that though they have the virtue of patient application, their power over numbers is of "rare [...] utility in the ordinary affairs of life" (123).

Basically, there's a lot of details here that were of little or no interest to me, but everyone now and then, Becker or one of his interviewees communicates a little nugget indicating how science was perceived and understood in the mid-Victorian period: that English engineers reshaped India, Brazil, Peru, Chile, and Japan (129); or that Huxley always assumes his students are ignorant and begins from first principles rather than "build an airy and showy superstructure upon a rickety and insecure foundation" (181); or that science started as a torrent, but has subdivided into smaller and smaller streams through specialization, but also been purged of what we now see as unscientific (231-2); or that statistics are saving humanity: "It would [...] be difficult to exaggerate the influence exercised by statistics at the present moment over every department of human thought" (278). Not exactly riveting reading, but Becker provides some insight into a key era in the institutionalization of British science.

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