Where many a debate is sparked

Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical
April 22, 2005

On an early-morning train, I overheard a fragment of a conversation of striking acuity and subtlety between two women and a man, a conversation about genetic modification. I had begun to think about ways in which I might join the fray when I realised that the arguments and the examples that were being used to support them were familiar to me from an article published the previous week in a glossy Sunday newspaper supplement. It might have been the occasion for a moment of intellectual superiority, particularly as none of the participants was acknowledging the source of their opinions, had I not realised that the line I would have taken was borrowed from the same article.

All of this is nothing new; we read newspapers and magazines (as our 19th-century forebears did) "not to agree with them, but to think with them", in the words of historian of science James Secord. Since the 18th century, newspapers and magazines have acted as mediators of knowledge - particularly scientific knowledge. Moreover, in complex and diverse ways, they have played an important part in producing conversations in which new knowledge is not just assimilated but also applied, mulled over and contested.

This fascinating book is one of several publications based on the in-depth research of the Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical (SciPer) project. This project is a joint venture between the universities of Leeds and Sheffield that is about to launch an online interpretative electronic index to the scientific content of 16 periodicals formed by an inclusive reading of the entire periodical texts.

This will be a remarkably rich (and free) resource for 19th-century historians. The SciPer index, together with the project's book publications, which also include Culture and Science in the Nineteenth-Century Media (2004) and Science Serialised (2004), will change the way we understand how science was assimilated, debated and challenged in the 19th century. It will also further our understanding of the interdisciplinary nature of 19th-century intellectual history.

The object of this collection of essays is, in the words of its editors, "to analyse the representation of science, technology and medicine, as well as the inter-penetration of science and literature, in the general periodical press in nineteenth-century Britain... by combining insights from the history of popular science, cultural and literary studies and periodical studies". Individual essays take generic and thematic approaches and include studies of science in the satirical pages of Punch and the development of scientific biography in the periodical press.

This book testifies to the strength of the project's collaborative and multidisciplinary tactics in its production of fine-grained and revisionary historical and cultural analysis. Its introduction provides a detailed analysis of the growing range of periodicals in the period, their changing forms and audiences and an analysis of the key historiographical questions entailed in reading periodicals in this way. No other project has examined such a broad range of types of periodical or integrated literary critical and historical methods for their interpretation in such innovative ways.

By increasing the number and the range of periodicals examined, the project team has been able to challenge one of the paradigms of 19th-century intellectual history: that of Robert Young's theory of the "fragmentation of the common context" assembled in the 1960s. Young's line is that until the last two decades of the 19th century, British periodical literature reflected a common intellectual context in which the sciences were fully integrated. This common context disintegrated through the increasing specialisation of periodicals in the 1880s and 1890s, a trend that in effect put in place modern disciplinary boundaries. The editors argue that Young's concentration on a small number of highbrow periodicals created a false picture. They show that debates about science were more complex than Young's model allows. They use more sophisticated literary critical methods to analyse scientific articles in relation to, for instance, the periodical as a whole and to the range of generic forms within a particular periodical. They argue that the "repeated shifts in the forms and audiences of the 19th-century periodicals rule out any progressive history from a 'common intellectual context to its fragmentation'".

SciPer draws together the best historical and cultural practice with the best literary critical methodology. It promises to reinvigorate contemporary intellectual practices. Newspaper and periodical texts are rarely just mirrors of what people might have known at a particular time.

They made conversations possible between writers and readers through which new knowledge and understanding were forged in complex ways.

Rebecca Stott is an affiliated scholar, department of the history and philosophy of science, Cambridge University.

Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical: Reading the Magazine of Nature

Editor - Geoffey Cantor, Gowan Dawson, Graeme Gooday, Richard Noakes, Sally Shuttleworth and Jonathan R. Topham
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 329
Price - £45.00
ISBN - 0521 83637 9

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