The Ripening Of Science In England

The Age of Science. David Knight. Basil Blackwell, New York, 1986. 240 pp. $24.95. This new book by David Knight, senior lecturer in history of science at the University of Durham, might plausibly be described as a popular survey of English science and its cultural role from 1789 to 1914. "Survey," however, scarcely does justice to Knight's program. Rather than scaling historical peaks for the perspectives they offer, Knight leads his reader on a brisk ramble through overgrown byways of Victoria

By | March 23, 1987

The Age of Science. David Knight. Basil Blackwell, New York, 1986. 240 pp. $24.95.


This new book by David Knight, senior lecturer in history of science at the University of Durham, might plausibly be described as a popular survey of English science and its cultural role from 1789 to 1914. "Survey," however, scarcely does justice to Knight's program. Rather than scaling historical peaks for the perspectives they offer, Knight leads his reader on a brisk ramble through overgrown byways of Victorian culture. One sees outlines of the great thought-systems looming in the distance—Darwinism, field theory, progress—and catches occasional glimpses of great figures traveling history's thoroughfare. But Knight's attention is really on the more homely, and in his view more revealing, monuments beside the path.

The book contains delightful chapters on the history of scientific illustrations, the fortunes of natural theology, the relationship of science and spiritualism, and the grab bag of themes that constituted the public lectures at the Royal Institution. The careers of second-rank figures like William Swainson, Edward Forbes and William Crookes are narrated in detail, while those of atypical greats are passed over in silence.

The book has a thesis only in the loose sense that a nature-walk has a destination. Knight suggests that science assumed a major role in English culture in the 19th century, while previously it had been merely "a programme, a blank cheque drawn upon the future." The Victorian world did not possess "two cultures"; science was intimately interwoven with politics, theology and art, and scientists themselves labored to make their findings accessible and relevant to all intellectuals. Science was a force for vigor and certainty, and retained through much of the century its old connotation of "realistic assessment and sound judgement."

In The Age of Science, Knight also relates with nostalgia the breakdown of this idyll. By the later 19th century the cultural enterprise of science was fragmenting in the face of disciplinary specialization, the imperatives of technology and bureaucratization, and the epistemological uncertainties initiated by modem physics.

There is much to admire about this book. The prose is brisk, economical and clever, and the scholarship on which it lightly rests is solid and up to date, as is the bibliography.

On the other hand, the book takes too much for granted, and like many efforts at sophisticated popularization, it is likely to be appreciated most by those who already know the story.

The book's conclusions are disappointingly modest. Was the place of English science in its national culture unique in Europe, and if so, how did that unique place 2 affect the progress of science or the consciousness of Englishmen? Was the "age of science" passing at the end of the 19th century, and if so, what new cultural roles did science assume?

One wishes that David Knight's expedition had ended with a lecture in the fieldhouse and the significance of the specimens been more fully explained.

J Turner is a professor in the Department of History at
the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, Canada E3B 5A3.

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