Here is a question: where did James Prescott Joule perform his most important work? Or if that is too difficult, who was he? Full marks if you know that he lived in Manchester and performed a series of experiments that laid the foundations for one of the most important principles of basic science - the conservation of energy. However, I am prepared to wager that many people reading these pages would not know the answer, for scientists tend to be the unsung heroes of our cultural heritage, particularly in Britain.
Most of us know the names of British writers such as Thomas Hardy and Charlotte Bront , musicians such as Edward Elgar, and even engineers such as George Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. We are also likely to be able to associate them with particular parts of the country: Hardy with Dorset, Elgar with Malvern, Stephenson with Newcastle and so on. But the only scientist's name that most people remember is that of Albert Einstein, who was German - although these days Steven Hawking is becoming almost as famous, and he is British.
Yet Britain's scientific heritage is one of which we should be proud, and perhaps one way to encourage people to find out more about science is for our home-grown scientific heroes to become more widely known. A Travel Guide to Scientific Sites of the British Isles provides an excellent starting point for anyone wishing to discover more about our scientific past, and it serves to demonstrate not only how variable are today's monuments to past scientific achievements, but also how those that do exist deserve to be known to a wider public.
While Part One of the book forms an introduction to various important breakthroughs in British science, the "gazetteer" of Part Two contains many gems worthy of a visit. For example, there is the Alexander Fleming Museum at St Mary's Hospital in Paddington. Here in 1928 Fleming discovered the bactericidal properties of the mould Penicillin, and his laboratory is now preserved as a museum. Then there is the museum in Berkeley, Gloucestershire, which honours the work of Edward Jenner who 200 years ago made the far-reaching observation that cowgirls never caught smallpox. Established only ten years ago, the museum is housed in the building in which Jenner lived and worked.
Less well known, but equally remarkable as a scientist, was the clergyman Jeremiah Horrocks, whose observation of the transit of Venus across the face of the sun in 1639 is described by Charles Tanford and Jacqueline Reynolds as a "miracle of genius". Horrocks had predicted the transit even though the astronomer Johannes Kepler had failed to do so, and he managed between his duties as curate at St Michael's church at Much Hoole near Preston, to dash to his camera obscura and make the vital observations. Two hundred years later a rector at St Michael's recognised Horrocks's achievement and the church now provides an apt memorial to Horrocks, who died a year after the transit, when only 23 years old.
Many other fascinating stories lie buried in the book. Sometimes, as with these examples, there are memorials or museums that do justice to the scientific work; in other instances, sadly, either nothing is left of the original buildings or little remains to be seen. But in all cases the authors provide useful instructions on how to find the relevant sites, and how to gain entry if access is limited. As they admit, their choice of scientists and locations is by no means all-inclusive, but they have made the effort of visiting all the places they include, so they can provide first-hand knowledge of how to find a place, and supplement this with their own, sometimes opinionated, comments. The book should be compulsory reading for all those who supply visitor information around the country, to ensure that these places of scientific interest appear in visitor guides together with the more usual attractions.
Christine Sutton is research associate, Particle and Astrophysics Laboratory, University of Oxford.
A Travel Guide to Scientific Sites of the British Isles: A Guide to the People, Places and Landmarks of Science
Author - Charles Tanford and Jacqueline Reynolds
ISBN - 0 471 950 2
Publisher - Wiley
Price - £12.99
Pages - 344