Science for All: The Popularization of Science in Early Twentieth-Century Britain

January 7, 2010

Victorian scientists were eager popularisers when building the standing of their new profession. The likes of Thomas Huxley were as likely to be found lecturing to working men or dashing off an essay for the Athenaeum as actually doing research. Come the 20th century, the story goes, and this enthusiasm for addressing laypeople faded. Their status secure, scientists retreated from the public realm and looked down on those who wrote for non-specialists.

Not so, says Peter Bowler in this wide-ranging study of popular science in Britain. Although their work may not have endured, if you look seriously you can easily find hundreds of scientists who worked hard at science writing in the first half of the past century - and often earned a decent bit of extra cash in the process.

The idea that they turned away from popularisation is a myth, created by a small group of left-wing popularisers in the 1930s who wanted to contrast their efforts to make science socially useful with their colleagues' indifference to the wider world.

Bowler makes a strong case for this interesting correction to the cultural history of science. He has sought out the forgotten books - most of them part of the "long tail" of early 20th-century publishing - investigated their authors and added details culled from archives, publishers' histories and contemporary reviews and advertising. His survey also touches on popular science magazines, and says a little about newspapers and the early days of radio, when talks were simply voiced essays.

A few authors produced writing for all these media. Some, such as Julian Huxley and James Jeans, are still remembered. Others, including the prolific Arthur Thompson, are familiar to students of popular science. But the majority are obscure figures who combined solid careers in science with more modest efforts to communicate it to others.

Science for All looks first at the topics that were written about, then reviews the types of publication, and finally comments on the authors. Although this entails some repetition, it makes it easy to locate material of interest. There is little space to discuss content, which is summarised with brutal economy and with no investigation of the readers. The main focus is on the demand publishers and authors thought they were serving and the kinds of products on offer, with close attention paid to the differences between Britain and other countries. Here, amid the usual efforts to extol the wonders of science and technology or to advance claims about the significance of science from pro- or anti-materialist camps, the main market was readers interested in self-improvement.

This called for relatively high-level expositions, always trying to find the right balance between authority and accessibility. It was a world of serials that became substantial books, and of publishers' series such as the Home University Library and its rival People's Books, volumes written "by specialists with letters after their names for laymen who only have letters in front", as the publisher of the former promised.

Plenty of other cases that would reward further study are touched on, and the new context Bowler has supplied for thinking about popular science in this period will be the essential backdrop for other new work in this area. His fresh look at the early 20th century follows the publication in 2007 of Bernard Lightman's somewhat weightier Victorian Popularizers of Science. It remains for someone to take on the still-larger job of an overview of the rest of the 20th century.

Bowler comments on this briefly in a tantalising epilogue. He suggests that there really was a dip in scientists' involvement in popularisation in Britain after the Second World War, largely because the self-education market shrank as access to formal education in the sciences increased. This is not entirely convincing because it makes it hard to see any logic in the authors - and readers - apparently coming back to popular science in the past 30 years. But that takes nothing away from the value of the fascinating job he has made of the period that is his main business here.

Science for All: The Popularization of Science in Early Twentieth-Century Britain

By Peter J. Bowler. University of Chicago Press. 352pp, £31.00. ISBN 9780226068633. Published 18 September 2009

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