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### 1/2 idea No. 8: Critique of ‘what-if?’ histories/Markov Chains

By Jon Agar, on 27 July 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

This idea came from a state of grumpiness. In particular, it was a response to a growing willingness among historians of science to entertain counterfactual – ‘what if?’ – histories. Examples include Peter Bowler’s Darwin Deleted: Imagining a World without Darwin (2013) and Gregory Radick’s BSHS Presidential Address ‘Experimenting with the scientific past’. Both are actually thoughtful and rather good. Hence I think my reaction was due to unfair grumpiness.

Nevertheless, before I was a historian I was trained in mathematics, and there are both simple and complicated ways of thinking critically about counterfactual histories.

The simple point is that any counterfactual sequence of historical reasoning has to be a sequence of probabilities. One way of picturing this is as a decision tree. At each node there’s a probability of taking a new path. Now take even a small sequence, well within the kinds of sequential narratives we find in history of science, say sixteen nodes. Even if the chance of taking a counterfactual path at each node was 4 times out of 5 – pretty good individual odds I think – then the chance of the final outcome would be (4/5) squared four times – less than 3%. Any realistically long counterfactual sequence results in an outcome that is deeply unlikely.

The complicated point is that there might be fields of mathematics (Markov Chains being one, although I now have reasons to doubt their applicability) which might help model historical processes, ones pictured as chains of probabilities, in perhaps interesting and useful ways. I am well aware that the very thought would make many historians run for the hills.

### 1/2 idea No. 7: Sci20 Rev

By Jon Agar, on 27 July 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

‘Sci20 Rev’ means ‘Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond revise’. Should I update my book?

The idea for the book came from Polity Press. They emailed me in 2006 to say they were commissioning a series of century-by-century histories of science, and did I know anyone who might be interested in the last, twentieth-century volume? I replied that, in fact, I was.

I have been teaching courses on history of modern science since the mid-1990s, at Manchester, Cambridge, Harvard, and, now, UCL. At Cambridge I introduced a whole suite of courses (in Cambridge parlance a ‘Paper’, then ‘Paper 10’), and co-taught the core courses of the paper with good colleagues, first Soraya de Chadarevian and then Jim Endersby. The teaching assistant was one Helen Macdonald, who went on to much greater things. Teaching a subject really hones understanding, so, in my accumulated lectures, I had a good stock of accounts of key developments, theories, and secondary literature. I also had my own research, which has jumped around twentieth-century science and technology. One of the frustrations of teaching the subject was that there was no single textbook you could point students to. That was one reason for agreeing to write Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond.

A second reason can be found in the causes of the absence of a single textbook. History of science is often, and often usefully so, reliant on the narrow case study. This situation had long been recognised – it was the prompt, for example, of the excellent Big Picture conference organised by the BSHS in 1991, later published in the society’s journal. Remedies for narrowness have been varied, from focussing on cross-cutting themes (gender, material culture, and many others), to a prominent recent turn to global and transnational history. A third, complementary way has been the synthetic account, and that was missing for twentieth-century science.

What made a synthetic account possible at all, and forms a third reason, was the spectacular growth of history of twentieth-century science as a field of study. Older hesitations over studying recent history had well and truly been overcome. New archives were opening everywhere. And the topic was just so important: how can the twentieth century be understood without a historical understanding of science’s place, influence and shaping?

So, while still patchy, there was an immense scholarship on which a synthetic account might find firm foundations. Indeed there was no other path. Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond owes a great debt to others’ work.

Nevertheless, the final reason for writing the book was the hope of novelty and surprise. When the canvas is deliberately big – a timespan of over a hundred years, a determination to cover physical and life sciences, to be global where possible and where justified – and once part of the canvas are filled, drawing on scholarship – what new patterns can be seen, what new insights emerge at scale?

When I finally delivered the manuscript, it was at least three times the size Polity were expecting (sorry! don’t do this to publishers!). I cut it down. Out went 20,000 words on the nineteenth century – ‘Send out the clones’ – that had some ideas but was, umm, on the wrong century and was really an extended throat-clearing. Out went a rather joyful skit imagining a balloon ride around the world in 1900. The remainder was still long, probably too long, but it is the book you can read.

In practice I was quite pleased with the result. ‘Working worlds‘ was an analytical concept and insight that emerged once the the history of twentieth-century science was viewed as a whole.  I was able to cover physical and life sciences, even though my own research had been predominantly on the former. It also fed back into my research. For example, it was clear early on the long 1960s was a pivotal period, but one I knew I couldn’t quite figure out. I decided that it needed the help of a separate test, and wrote a paper ‘What happened in the sixties?’ that benefitted immensely both from writing and from peer review comments and criticisms.

On publication it was, I think, well received by my peers. (Here’s one of the longer reviews.)

So why think about revising the text?

First, it has built-in faults. The coverage of the social sciences is woefully inadequate. I would now write the global connections in different ways, with different emphases and different content. The working worlds concept, which emerged late in the process, can and should be exemplified throughout the text.

Second it was published in 2012, with some parts written in 2007. The field of history of twentieth science does not stand still. There has been much great work published since, and I wonder how, or if, the scholarship might fit the picture.

Finally. the canny ‘and Beyond‘ was deliberate. I’d like to make sense of the twenty-first century and its sciences.

But it may not be the right thing to do. Either of the tasks – fixing the faults, or triangulating with more recent scholarship – may well break the text, while I found writing very recent history (of the past ten or twenty years) very reliant on journalistic sources, good on their own terms, but their use meant the last chapter felt like a second draft of history.

### 1/2 idea No. 6: Weed theory

By Jon Agar, on 27 July 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

As well as being a historian of science and technology I am a keen amateur botanist, and the two can overlap.

There’s no need to go to the countryside to find nature. Cities are full of wild plants. Each plant species has a history. They can therefore be primary sources for understanding the urban past, so long as the skills are learned to answer the key question: what’s that plant?

In my third-year undergraduate course, Nature, Technology and the Environment, I run an exercise that, I have found, at first bemuses students, then provokes them, and then, when they get it, is often the best teaching experience ever.

I ask them to bring in a weed to class.

I then identify the plant (introducing the basics of classification and taxonomy), and draw out lessons, biological and historical.

For example, Shepherd’s-purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) is an ‘archaeophyte’, probably arrived with Neolithic farming, but also has a very long-lived seed bank, adapted well for cracks in city pavements. Likewise, annual meadow-grass (Poa annua), a native plant, flowers all year round, exploiting urban niches. Oxford ragwort (Senecio squalidus), a native of Mount Etna, escaped from Oxford botanical garden in the 1790s, a voyage that parallels, not coincidentally, the 18th century Grand Tour. Shaggy-soldier (Galinsoga quadriradiata, from Mexico), Buddleja davidii (from China), and Conzya canadensis Canadian (native of North America) tell stories of global trade.

UCL was once one of the world centres of botanical education. The life sciences have long since moved away from natural history. Today science students might intensively study one species, the Thale cress Arabidopsis thaliana, a model organism for plant science, but would be highly unlikely to have been taught field identification of other plants. My minor revival of botanical identification at UCL therefore makes another connection to understanding the past.

But what is this to do with weed theory?

Weeds are good to think with. Weeds are plants in the wrong of place. Just as Mary Douglas showed we could think deeply about ‘dirt’ as matter out of place, so weeds can tell us about how we categorise the spaces and kinds around us. Weeds are category transgressors, and by doing so reveal the categories’ existence. One of our best nature writers, Richard Mabey, argued that ‘how and why and where we classify plants as undesirable is part of our ceaseless attempts to draw boundaries between nature and culture, wildness and domestication’. There is a philosophy here.

I am also deeply interested in the ways that nature and technology intersect. City weeds are part of, and a response to, an urban environment formed by technological systems of transport and building. They exploit artificial niches. They are also subject to our chemical technologies, and evolve accordingly – one of the plants my class learn to recognise, Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris), became herbicide-resistant, apparently the first of its kind, by 1990. The distribution map (illustrated) of Danish scurvy-grass – originally a seaside plant, which received its name from its antiscorbutic properties – now traces out the UK road system, because of winter salting.

But weeds are not part of the technological system even as they trace it. Other plants (think of arable crops) certainly are – modern agriculture is a machine for moving biological material from seed to plate.

One of the first steps I have taken in thinking about this subject is, very broadly, to classify the ways that nature and technology intersect. I proposed eight types (of which weeds appear in Type 4, ‘Environment as something alongside an artificial world’), in my paper that appeared in an collection, edited by myself and Jacob Ward, Histories of Technology, the Environment and Modern Britain, open access from UCL Press, 2018)

I am now thinking about what to do next with this topic.

### 1/2 idea No. 5: Working worlds of interwar Britain, for Japan

By Jon Agar, on 26 July 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

Half idea No. 5 I actually finished.

I was kindly invited to provide a paper for a workshop in Japan on the history of British science, so I decided to try out a different empirical approach to working worlds. Here’s the introduction, which explains what I did:

‘Working worlds’ was a concept that I devised and found useful in making sense of
twentieth century science.1 I have taken the opportunity of my invitation to the
‘Institutionalisation of Science and the Public Sphere in the Modern Britain’ seminar to
investigate in more detail the working worlds of British science in the first four decades
of the century. What I do in the following is, first, describe what working worlds are,
identify the five prominent working worlds of twentieth-century science, and discuss the
series of steps whereby working worlds call forth science.
Second, I summarise some research I have undertaken that aimed to identify how, and
how often, ‘problems’ were raised in the public sphere and science was suggested as a
solution, or part solution, to these problems. In this research I took the letters and
editorial pages of The Times as a central forum for the public sphere in Britain between
1900 and 1939.
Third, I review the secondary historical literature on science in Britain in the first half
of the twentieth century in order to understand who (in public, or in the public sector)
was promoting science as a solution to working world problems, the recurrent features
of public debate about science, and which sectors (public and private) were of particular
importance.

A version of the paper can be found here

### 1/2 idea No. 4: Working Worlds revisited

By Jon Agar, on 26 July 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

‘Working worlds’ was an analytical insight and framework from my book Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond (Polity Books, 2012). Before their science can even start, scientists find themselves immersed in worlds characterised by the incessant presence of problems. ‘Working worlds’ were what I called the arenas of human projects that generate such problems. Working worlds are both a boon for scientists – solving problems gives purpose, and by extension patronage and status – but also a bane: without some institutional or normative insulation scientists cannot have the space, time and quiet to work. Indeed a whole set of social inventions – such as the ‘autonomy’ and ‘independence’ of science, not least of ‘pure’ research – were called forth to make this insulation.

The argument of Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond was that much of modern science made historical sense when seen in relation to working worlds.

I identified four major ones at the time of the book’s publication: the projects to build and maintain technological systems (there are working worlds of transport, electrical power and light, communication, agriculture, computer systems of various scales and types); the preparation, mobilisation and maintenance of fighting forces;  civil administration; and the maintenance of human (and other) bodies, in sickness and in health. Later I added a fifth: the monitoring and maintenance of global order, especially global environmental stability and economic dynamism.

Working world problems cannot be solved directly (or, if they are, they don’t involve science). There are therefore stages that can be distinguished: how problems are articulated (or aren’t) in ways that invite (or don’t) the attention of scientists; the distinctive way that the sheer complexity of working worlds are reduced in the making of representatives (think of models, data-sets, ‘microworlds’, and so on) which are amenable to science; the science itself, and the processes by which solutions are articulated.

I was surprised about the extent working worlds were necessary for a historical understanding of basic science – think of Max Planck being asked to study the data provided by the German electric light industries prompting his formulation of his quantum equations in 1900, for example – as it was, more expectedly, for science we might class as applied.

So what’s the new idea?

Well, ‘working worlds’ came quite late in the writing of the book. Once emerged it made sense of what I had. But the concept was unrefined, and received some critical (if constructive) probing after publication. So there’s a job to do here: to clarify, extend, and test.

Probably I will proceed by a Socratic dialogue. Or in less fancy terms, I will ask and answer questions. Such as:

1. How many working worlds are there? They can be big and small, and overlapping is fine. But what have I missed?
2. Erasing the traces. One reason why we don’t know this history already as much as we should is because a lot of work is expended erasing the connections. If we have a picture of science as a stock of knowledge awaiting application (rather than a stock of knowledge and practices that are called forth by working worlds) it’s because this linear model insulates science well. I call this erasure ‘anti-working worlds’. It was the accomplishment of scientists and, as Anna-K Mayer reminded us, of historians of science too. I have begun some of the work of identifying how different scientists saw different, or preferred, relationships between their science and problem-solving here, in a paper that looked at the history of the controversy caused by James Lighthill’s critical report on the artificial intelligence research.
3. History of Science’s Entscheidungsproblem. Or the issue of when we stop our accounts. When we offer a historical account we often trace a sequence of causal connections, and the kind of cause we stop at tells us what kind of historian we are. Hessen stopped at problem articulation within capitalism. Hessen only shows us half a picture. The internalists likewise provided a historical account of only part of the picture. With the Cold War over there is no reason why the breach cannot be healed.
4. What about problems but no solutions? Not all working world problems are articulated in ways that attract science. Why?
5. Are there sciences with no connection to working worlds? (Graeme Gooday has suggested to me black hole science as a challenging case)
6. Are there cases of working worlds, perhaps even the building of representatives, but with no science?
7. How far back do working worlds work? Does it make any sense, for example, to talk of a working world of alchemy? Are they a distinctively modern phenomenon?
8. What are the cognate concepts, and how can working worlds be distinguished, usefully?
9. What are the science policy implications? For example do working worlds justify artificially choosing to pursue challenging projects that pose many problems? Or is it far better to find ways of better articulating existing problems in ways that science can engage? The former leads to the currently dominant ‘grand challenges’ approach to policy and industrial strategy, the latter might lead to a better strategy all round. Likewise, having targets of proportion of GDP spent on R&D addresses the wrong end of the issue. A science policy that worked would focus on: (i) better, clearer articulation of problems, (ii) wider participation in problem articulation, (iii) help with representative building (iv) better, clearer, more participative solutionisation.
10. How does science made in response to one working world pass to another? And what happens when it does?

I have notes in response to all these questions. The notes tend to get longer without, it seems, approaching closure. Tame the chaos or move on?

### 1/2 idea No. 3: Auto UK

By Jon Agar, on 26 July 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

A book pitch (can be thought of, literally, as an elevator pitch):

National history privileges human agents, whether they be monarchs and politicians of Traditional History or the poor and marginalised of social history. But agency is distributed, and always has been. What would the history of a nation look like if distributed, mechanical agencies were placed at the centre? Auto UK is a long history of mechanised decision-making and rule-following, of things that move, act, decide and change, and together make a place within which we live and work. It would also explain why some people have power and some do not.

What would Auto UK include?

It might start with Matthew Boulton’s invitation to study: “I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have—POWER” or with his Albion Mills, the steam-powered flour mill built in Southwark in 1786 and burned to the ground five years later by revolutionary millers; it would take in a long history of automated production, not least the cycles of panics over automated unemployment (1950s, 201os).

It would tell the stories of automated distribution and communication. This 1921 map of telephone repeater stations is an image of one kind of Auto UK coming into being. Each repeater station moves, acts, decides and changes how and where we could talk.

It would discuss automated railway barriers of the 1950s, car license plate recognition systems of the 1970s as well as facial recognition systems of the 2020s.

It would wonder why an automatic door (see picture) installed at the Science Museum in 1933 was opened half a million times.

It would never lose sight of human interests, while not putting them at the centre. Afterall, machines make history but not in circumstances of their own making.

It would channel the spirit of two extraordinary books, Humphrey Jennings’ Pandaemonium and Sigfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command, while imitating neither.

It would consider, but reject, the title Autonation.

It would welcome a complementary study of animal agency.

### 1/2 idea No. 2: Lionel Penrose and object historiography experiment

By Jon Agar, on 26 July 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

The ‘material’ or ‘object’ turn in history of science and technology has been going strong for many years now. There are lots of good reasons for it, and good research that has been done. But I do have a worry about a mismatch between what we say and what we do. Documents ‘speak’ to us much more fluently than objects. It is completely understandable that object histories have a tendency to become histories evidenced by documents concerning objects. And why not? History, after all, should rest on the strongest set of evidential sources, and these will likely be a mixture of types.

But here there is space for historiographical experiment.  What do we learn when we deliberately withhold, as far as possible, documentary evidence, and, under such artificial conditions, ask what we could learn by foregrounding the objects?

(I’m well aware that object-centred research is not new. The experimental subject is really, in this case, myself. I need the artificial constraint of this experiment to help me think through my concerns with object-based history of science!)

Back in 2016 I was lucky enough to be shown round much of the Science Museum Group’s vast collections, not yet properly accessible to the public, part of an advisory role I took on. It was in Blythe House that I saw trays of strange objects that I thought might be the perfect subjects for my experiment.

Here are some of the objects:

These are objects made, for reasons I do not yet know, by the human geneticist Lionel Penrose.

The research question for the experiment would be: what can I say about history of science if these objects were the sources of evidence?

I think I would proceed by stages:

1. I would note down all I already know about Lionel Penrose and the history of the sciences he touched. I am not so naive to think I am starting with these objects as the only sources of historical testimony, but I can at least try and control for the problem by being as explicit as I can about what prior knowledge I bring to the interpretation
2. Proceed with study of the objects. Lots of good strategies to try, such as the John Hennigar Shuh’s 50 Questions.
3. Then proceed with documentary study, there will be clues on Penrose’s papers.
4. Then return to the objects again, and repeat stages 2/3. Notice there is a dialectic here. Memory – objects – documents – objects – documents – objects …
5. Conclusions: I should be able to say what I learned from the first encounter with objects, what I learned when I encountered the objects after documentary research, and so on up the ladder

That’s the idea. I haven’t tried it yet, partly because soon after I saw these strange things the Science Museum Group’s collections at Blythe House were packed up (‘decanted’, like fine wines) for a move to a new collections building, not yet open.

But I think I will.

Does it sound interesting? Can it be improved? Has it been done?

(Just one thing I ask: if you know what these objects are, don’t tell me – yet!)

### 1/2 Idea No. 1: Was there such a thing as curiosity-driven science?

By Jon Agar, on 26 July 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

The first on the list of 1/2 ideas from my office whiteboard. This one I have followed up.

It is a commonplace that science starts with curiosity. But the history of curiosity in science turned out to be more complex, and more political, than I first thought.

I gave a public lecture on the topic, which you can watch here.

The full-length paper version was published in Notes and Records of the Royal Society. available here (an early draft can be found here).

Here’s the abstract:

Curiosity has a curious place in the history of science. In the early modern period, curiosity was doubled-edged: it was both a virtue, the spring for a ‘love of truth’, but also the source of human error and even personal corruption. In the twentieth century, curiosity had become an apparently uncomplicated motivation. Successful scientists, for example Nobel Prize winners in their lectures and biographies, frequently attributed their first steps into science to a fundamental curiosity, an irrepressible desire to ask the question ‘why?’. The aside made by Albert Einstein in private correspondence in 1952—‘I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious’—has now become a meme. Yet in the twentieth century, science was shaped by many forces, and the practical utility of science in the real, messy problematic worlds of its formation seem far removed from the seeming innocence of curiosity-driven research. In my lecture and this paper, I ask why scientists say they ask ‘why?’, and trace the curious history of the idea of curiosity-driven science. In particular, I distinguish between a long and short history of curiosity in science, with the latter associated with the term ‘curiosity-driven science’ and the UK administration of Margaret Thatcher.

Tick! This one has at least been started, but the topic is much deeper than I was able to go.

### a list of digital archives for history of twentieth-century science

By Jon Agar, on 5 August 2020

(Many thanks to all the suggestions I received following my request on Mersenne and via Twitter, including: Brian Balmer, Anna Marie Loos, Benjamin Weil, Richard Conniff, Jim Bennett, Aileen Fyfe, Michael Barany, Christine Aicardi, Brigitte Van Tiggelen, Alex Aylward, Juliana Adelman, Alexandra Franklin, Bruce J. Hunt, Boris Jardine, Dominic Berry, Mark Solovey, Katherine McAlpine, Mat Paskins, Doug Millard, Emily Hayes, Mary Morgan, Joshua Nall, Ross MacFarlane, J.V. Field, Louise Devoy, Madelin Evans, Alice Bell, Sam Robinson, Jonathan Swinton, Matthew Cobb, Jason W. Dean, Alexandra Rose, Robin Wolfe Scheffler, Moritz Mähr, HealthHumanitiesUc, Hanna Lucia Worliczek, Asif Siddiqi, Michael Hutter, Jon Røyne Kyllingstad, Dorothea Zimmermann, Martina Schiavon, Kamiel Mobach, Cristiano Turbil, Jack Kirby, Rebecca Martin, Lucas Mueller, and Robert Smith)

Compiled by Jon Agar. Send me more and I’ll add them.

### Digitised History of Science Collections

American Philosophical Society digital collection

Biodiversity Heritage Library

British Library Oral History of British Science, see also the guide Voices of Science

Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge

CERN archives

Churchill Archives Centre online resources, see also the subject guide for collections not yet online, as well as an online exhibition on Rosalind Franklin

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives Repository

George Francis Fitzgerald papers at the RDS Library and Archive

History of Science in Latin America and the Caribbean (HOSLAC) database of primary sources

Joseph Needham papers, University of Cambridge

Le Bureau des longitudes (1795-1932) un patrimoine numérisé

Linda Hall Library digital collections

LUCERNA Magic Lantern Web Resource, includes 20th century slides, including Royal Geographical Society

Marconi collection at the History of Science Museum, Oxford

Marine Biological Laboratory digital collection at ASU

McMaster University, History of Medicine Digital Exhibits

Medical Heritage Library

Met Office Digital Archive and Library

Montreal Neurological Institute Archives

National Institutes of Health (NIH) for NIH Library and National Library of Medicine’s Profiles in Science and Office of NIH History

NASA Technical Reports Server

Princeton Mathematics Oral History Project

R.A Fisher digital archive at University of Melbourne

Robert Goddard papers at Clark University

Rockefeller Archive Center (see under Digital Materials)

Royal Geographical Society-IBG films at the BFI

Royal Observatory Greenwich, observatory memories and recollections of working at ROG

Royal Society

Science History Institute, digital collections

Science Museum Group Collection, lots of things including Babbage papers

Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich collection of scientific instruments and learning materials

UCSD Library Digital Collections including the papers of Leo Szilard

University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection

University of Washington links to lots of primary sources for science and medicine

### Digitised Collections with Science Aspects

ACT UP Oral History Project

Asif Siddiqi’s collection of translated documents relating to Soviet space projects

Cambridge University Digital Library

Caltech Oral History

Charles Babbage Institute

Charles Booth’s London, at LSE (19th C social science)

Hagley Digital Archives: digital.hagley.org

Imperial War Museum’s Collection including films

Internet Archive

Institute for Historical Research’s guide to open and free access materials for research

League of Nations Archives

MIT ArchivesSpace digital objects

Moritz Mähr’s list of Awesome Digital History

Museum of University History at University of Oslo

National Archives, UK, select search within National Archives and then select Records available to dowload

New Scientist, 1956-1989

### 1900 a Balloon Spectacle from Paris to Stockholm or Diversity within an Export of Similar Cultures or Around the World in 80 Scientists featuring “A Lecture on Science and Geopolitics”

By Jon Agar, on 7 July 2020

(Author’s note: this experimental fictionalised balloon guide to the world of science in 1900 was a chapter subsequently cut from my Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond (Polity, 2012), for space reasons. It was fun to write and it ends with a good joke. Jon)

# 1900

a Balloon Spectacle from Paris to Stockholm

or

Diversity within an Export of Similar Cultures

or

Around the World in 80 Scientists

featuring

“A Lecture on Science and Geopolitics”

Mis-en-scène

Paris. 1900. City of spectacle, light and movement. We are in the Tuileries, the gardens of the Louvre. Earlier in the day we have followed the crowds around the Exposition Universelle, down underground on the new Metro, up again to visit the pavilions representing the nations of the world – China, Ecuador, Greece, India, Tunisia – the whole world appears here. Indeed, the world seems to have arrived: 57 million visitors, travelling by rail, steamship and foot. Technological systems brought us here, and technologies of the future are here on display: wireless telegraphy, moving sidewalks, giant telescopes, and, fittingly for revolutionary Paris, a new means of flight, and balloon ride for a new century. Evening, with the cool air and dimming skies, is the best time to catch this spectacle. We climb into a giant basket. It can fit two hundred men and women at a time. Above is a billowing gaseous bag held down by ropes. Around us is a circular, white wall. “Ladies and gentlemen”, our conductor announces, “we are about to leave the garden of the Tuileries. Cast off!” (MacGowan 1957: 217).

This is the Cinéorama. Its inventor, former magician Raoul Grimoin-Sanson, patented his idea sharply in 1897, inspired by the remarkable inventiveness in cinema technologies of his fellow Frenchmen. He took ten 70mm cameras, huge even then, and yoked their mechanisms together, so each would operate in time. Then, installed in a real balloon, he filmed the ascent. Now, projecting the ten hand-coloured images on a panorama 333 feet in circumference and 30 feet high, the travellers in their mocked-up balloon in the Tuileries will experience the spectacle of flight without leaving the ground. Grimoin-Sanson includes a descent into Brussels, and projects visits to England, the Riviera, Spain, Tunis, and the Sahara before returning to Paris – a feat achieved by running the ascent footage backwards (MacGowan 1957).

We are lucky to be here. The Cinéorama will only last three days. The gendarmes, alarmed by the collapse of a stagehand in the intense heat generated by the ten arc lights used to illuminate the film, will rush in and close Grimoin-Sanson’s simulation. Almost certainly they are recalling the tragedy three years earlier when a charity fete caught fire ‘when more than a hundred members of the French nobility and of high society had burned to death’ (MacGowan 1957: 218). The eyes of the world are on Paris, and this is no time for a repeat performance.

But the Cinéorama offers us a fantastic means of showing us the world in 1900, and, before the police have their way, let us borrow Grimoin-Sanson’s device. Let us replace his footage with some of our own and take a simulated ride through the world of science, 1900. In the spirit of science fantasy written with a serious point in mind, harking back at least to Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two World Systems, let us take with us an urbane but as yet uninformed inquirer and an experienced guide. And, since this is Paris, we could do worse than to borrow Monsieur Verne’s protagonists of Around the World in Eighty Days (1873), the English gentleman who rarely left his club, Phileas Fogg, and his valet, the much-travelled and cunning Passepartout. We join them in the Tuileries. The balloon is ready. “Cast off!”

Fogg: My word. Here we go again.

Passepartout: Monsieur forgets. We travelled by rail – remember the many days journey on the new chemin de fer spanning India and across America on the Transcontinental – how new that was! – and steamer across oceans and the Suez Canal of my countryman Vicomte de Lesseps. Truly the world is knitted together by the spread of technologies. Mondialisation, or globalisation, if you will, is here in our lifetimes. But we did not travel by balloon. I believe that that image will be the invention of Hollywood.

Fogg: What a technology of verisimilitude this cinema is!

Passepartout: Oui. And look: we can now see the metropolis spread out below us. There is Monsieur Eiffel’s tower, still good as new. Doesn’t it look sublime with the lights? And the crowds. They can see progress here, progress through science and machines.

Fogg: Where? I can see nothing but lights.

Passepartout: Don’t be distracted. The excitement is not in the merely visible but the invisible. Let me explain. Yes, you see lots of lights. Indeed the American Edison sent his incandescent lights to Paris nearly twenty years ago hoping to build a European electrical empire, but a combination of recession and gas interests did for him (Fox 1996). The electric lights celebrated down there are German, the Allgemeine-Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG) are picking up all the prizes at the Exhibition. No over there, a mile away at the École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de la Ville de Paris, that’s what’s new. There’s the Pole Marie Skłodowska-Curie, working with her husband Pierre Curie, separating and purifying minute quantities of a new element, polonium – a sentimental name! – obtained in 1898. And she suspects the existence of a second, radium. These new elements were mixed in with pitchblende, uranium ore. They strongly manifest a phenomenon that seems beyond explanation, radioactivity, something that emanates from these elements, fogging photographic plates and burning hands. And they are not alone. Look over there in that laboratory at the École Normale. There’s Paul Villard, he thinks he’s found a new penetrating ray emanating from uranium. Gamma rays they are labelled. (Alpha and Beta radiation were reported by the young New Zealander, Ernest Rutherford, working at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge.) Villard thinks he will be as famous as Röntgen.

Fogg: Who’s he?

Passepartout: You’ll see.

Fogg: We’re a long way above Paris now. Anything else I should notice before the wind takes us?

Passepartout: It might seem strange with all this talk of new elements, but many of the chemists don’t believe in atoms, not real ones anyway. Attitudes are changing but even when they draw pictures, like Jacobus Henricus van ’t Hoff in Berlin, or build models of molecules that look like billiard balls connected by sticks, like August Wilhelm von Hofmann used to do, also in Berlin, many chemists say these are useful tools for classification, not naïve representations (Bensaude-Vincent 2003: 185). My fellow Parisian, Henri Poincaré, has a philosophy to explain it: he says that atoms are conventions; we agree that atoms have certain properties so that we can work together with them.

Fogg: This fellow, Poincaré. I imagine I would find him in the great philosophical schools of Paris?

Passepartout: Well, yes, you will find him some days at the Sorbonne. But it is more likely he will be at work at the Bureau des Longitudes. Time, as well as atoms, is conventional for him, and only recently have we agreed among ourselves what time should be. (Don’t you remember how the day saved when crossing the International Date Line saved your bet?) Synchronising watches turns out to be much more difficult, and much more interesting, than first glance suggests.

Fogg: Hmm. I’m sure I can read about that later. All this talk of technologies and conventions, any connection, my French friend?

Passepartout: It is an age of means rather than ends, perhaps. We think deeply about means.

The balloon travels on.

Fogg: My, what a view. How far up we are. The air is chill. I can see the snow on mountains to the south, the lights of many small towns and cities, most dim as gaslight but some electric bright, and far to the north the darkness suggests a sea. Fine rivers, tamed and straightened, and put to productive work. Germany, if I’m not mistaken. I remember when it was such a sleepy country. But now I can see order, energy and the bustle of industry below. Some fellows at the club say we must watch out – here’s a new beast, wants our imperial markets, wants its place in the sun. I say Pshaw! Kaiser Bill is the old Queen’s nephew (grandson??). And blood is thicker than water. No trouble there.

Passepartout: You have not seen Prussians speeding through villages and wheat fields. I have.

Fogg: Oh that was a long time ago. Now they have their Germany it’s all settled down. We may tussle abroad, but Europe is at peace.

Passepartout: Maybe, Monsieur, maybe. Certainly if the future is built on science and technology then what riches we see below. Look there. That city is Berlin. See the electric lights, and the huge power stations – quite a contrast to your little dynamos scattered through London (Hughes 1983). There in the smart new suburbs at the Physikalisch-Technische Reichenstalt measurement of electromagnetic radiation is conducted to a precision unequalled in the world. You can hear the director, Friedrich Hohlrausch now: “without [the measuring of nature], the progress made during the last century in the natural sciences and technology would have been impossible” (Buchwald and Hong 2003: 187). What an idea! The more you measure, the more your science, your nation perhaps, progresses.

Fogg: Accurate measurement is an English science, too, you know (Schaffer 1995).

Passepartout: Non. It is French (Schabas 1997). But let’s not be chauvinistic. Rather, look below how precise measurement is part of the working world. There’s the city. There’s the electric light and power. There’s the laboratory with its precision instruments and standards. And there is Max Planck, professor of physics at the university. He is thinking about thermodynamics and electrodynamics. But he is also thinking about data – data from the PTR, data the PTR is generating because it matters for light bulbs. At first glance you see a theorist, an inhabitant of an ivory tower. But now you can see him in his place – everyone’s place – in the working world.

Fogg (looking momentarily uncomfortable): I say, a gentleman such as I doesn’t need to work, you know. Let’s move on.

Passepartout: Do you see that small college town two hundred miles to the west? That’s Göttingen, where the David Hilbert, the last of a line of great mathematicians going back to old Gauss, has published two textbooks, the Zahlbericht of 1897 and the Grundlagen der Geometrie of last year that will shape the modern style of mathematics as it will be taught in the new century. He has high hopes. There’s nothing we must be ignorant about if we work hard enough in mathematics, he says. In August he is coming to the Sorbonne to list the greatest puzzles in mathematics. He thinks answers can be given to all of them. Will he be right, I wonder?

Fogg: Certainly I can’t decide. I’m completely the wrong fellow to ask. But tell me, we’ve heard of physics and mathematics, what of chemistry and biology?

Passepartout: You can smell the chemistry even from here. There’s the coal tar chemical companies. AGFA in Berlin, BASF in Mannheim, Bayer in Barmen and Leverkusen and Hoechst on the Rhine near Frankfurt. Some are dyestuffs factories, and you see that some of them are now making pharmaceuticals. Bayer has a splendid new headache cure called ‘Aspirin’. There’s a cluster more on the horizon, at the foot of the mountains in Basel. I can just read their names: Sandoz, Geigy and CIBA, I think.

Fogg: What sharp eyes you have.

Passepartout: Remember it’s a simulation. The corporations like their names writ large.

Fogg: It seems a mixture of the novel and the routine. There’s new drugs for fevers, aches and pains, but the research seems devoid of spark. New chemicals seem to be turned out with the speed and regularity of Mr Ford’s automobiles. Is there nothing new in chemistry? I can hear a voice from the city of Munich.

Passepartout: That’s the old professor of chemistry, Adolf von Baeyer. You could say he put the last nail in the coffin of the natural dye trade when he showed how to do a complete synthesis of indigo. What’s he saying?

Adolf von Baeyer (despairing, from a great distance): “The field of organic chemistry is exhausted…and then all that remains is the chemistry of grease” (Furukawa 2003: 432).

Fogg: Is the old professor right to despair?

Passepartout: Depends what you think of grease. But no I don’t think he is. What bonds atoms together? (If they exist at all.) How big can a molecule get? Is the chemistry of large molecules different from that of small molecules? Those are good questions. I think the despair is mere fashionable fin-de-siècle despondency. Some of the physicists have the same glum outlook: they say that the advance of physics will just be the measurement of physical quantities to one more decimal point of accuracy. It will be, but thinking about such measurement will bring surprises. Remember Planck!

Fogg. I will.

Passepartout: And look who’s Baeyer’s colleague: few scientists have had such a meteoric rise as the new chair in physics. Wilhelm Röntgen was a professor at old Würzburg university when five years ago he found the mysterious X-rays. A quick published paper, read around the world in a hundred laboratories, and it was clear that physics was not at an end. Since then we’ve seen radioactive elements, and more kinds of rays and radiations are on their way, I am sure.

Fogg: So physics is alive and chemistry is as industrious as ever. What of life?

Passepartout: It seems that as we pass from the nineteenth into the twentieth century, inheritance and remembrance are the themes. On the far horizon to the east is the monastery of Brno, where Gregor Mendel lies in his grave. He’s not forgotten however. Because look north in the flat lands of Amsterdam, where the director of the botanical gardens is growing evening primrose – can you see those tall but floppy yellow flowers? – that’s Hugo de Vries. And look below us to south west, there’s Carl Correns. He’s growing some of Mendel’s old plants, not the peas but the hawkweeds, like tiny dandelions. And over there in the south east in Austria, there’s Erich von Tschermak-Seysenegg. All three are hurriedly reading Mendel’s old paper from forty years ago. But who’s discovered what? I think there’s going to be an almighty row.

Fogg: I hope it’s not too unseemly. But does it matter? Is this a dry dust-up over an old monk’s theories?

Passepartout: If you could breed better corn, or a better cow, or a better human, might it make you influential or rich? Might it protect classes of people such as yours?

Fogg: I’m not sure I follow you. Good breeding will out, I say.

Passepartout: But what if you could control what good breeding was? I mean really control, not the guesswork of our husbandmen. Future races would be guided by whoever held the reins.

Fogg: Can a line of inheritance ever be kept so pure to allow such control. It seems a fantasy. By golly, Passepartout, I think the gas has gone to your head. Tell me: who’s that bearded professor?

Passepartout: They all have beards.

Fogg: That one in Freiburg, in the south west near the border with France, on the edge of the Black Forest.

Passepartout: That’s the man who can answer you question about purity of inheritance. He’s August Weismann. He summed it up eight years ago in The Germ-Plasm: a Theory of Heredity. I quote him from memory (he is in the midst of a summary of his earlier work): “In this essay I assumed the existence in the germ-cell of a reproductive substance, the germ-plasm, which cannot be formed spontaneously, but is always passed on from the germ-cell in which an organism originates in direct continuity to the germ-cells of the succeeding generations. The difference between the ‘body’ in the narrower sense (soma) and the reproductive cells was also emphasized” (Weismann 1893: 9). There you have it: the stream of inheritance, which flows through every living creature, never touches the banks of the body, only mingles with other streams. Purity is assured. Control is possible.

Fogg: This germ-plasm sounds like me an institution imagined in Germany. Carrying values over time.

Passepartout: Professor Weismann thinks he is merely a footnote to your countryman, Charles Darwin.

Fogg: Now that was some funeral. And those are some mountains. The wind is taking us past Freiburg, south and round the Alps. Over Lake Geneva.

Passepartout: If you look carefully you will see more sciences of life. There’s François-Alphonse Forel. He’s been hard at work for a decade, designing instruments that measure the physical characteristics of the lake, and collecting and identifying the living creatures, even the unknown fauna in the lake’s dark depths (Acot 2009). He’s coined a name for his new science that brings it altogether, limnology, but in its emphasis on how organic matter circulates, how everything balances, it reminds me of economy or ecology, if you will.

Fogg: The wind is gathering speed as it rushes past the mountains. I think I can glipse Italy to the south. Anything I should notice?

Passepartout: Not far away in Pavia, he’s on the staff at that psychiatric institution, you can see Camillo Golgi. He’s taking German science even further than the Germans. He’s using the best microscopes, and his own staining techniques to examine the nerve cells. Using his “black reaction” he says he can see that axons, dendrites and fibres – form a single network. But there’s a Spaniard over in Madrid, Santiago Ramón y Cajal who says that Golgi is wrong, that the fundamental structure of the nervous system are individual neurons, not the network as a whole.

Fogg: This controversy is getting on my nerves.

Passepartout: Very droll, Monsieur.

Fogg: Nevertheless, this science of brain intrigues me. I wonder if it is ambitious or narrow-minded? Can the mind be understood by analysis, by finding the smallest units and seeing how they connect? Or is this just what a science led by technique is driven to do?

Passepartout: It depends if there exists an alternative. Look ahead now, sir. We are past the Alps and into the great Austro-Hungarian empire. The lights of Vienna approach. On Berggasse, that street running north of the centre, you will find Sigmund Freud, whose The Interpretations of Dreams was published last year. He might be a product of German science – he studied under that great scientist of energy Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke, and he wrote a rather poor dissertation on the physiology of eels – but he now feels he’s on the track of a new science of the mind.

Fogg: That’s all talk.

Passepartout: Quite so. But it shows there are alternatives.

Fogg: What else is going on in Vienna?

Passepartout: There’s an argument in geology. Eduard Suess is summarising all of geology in his compendium, The Face of the Earth. There’ll be four volumes altogether. But other geologists are not convinced by his theory that sedimentary basins rise and fall gradually tending to an earth that is just ocean – “Panthalassa” he calls it (Greene 2009).

Fogg: I’ve only just got used to the idea that one day all below us was ice. Now this Suess of yours has forecast a water age.

Passepartout: No time to explain. We have left Vienna behind and are approaching Budapest, where if you are quick you can see Baron Loránd von Eötvös at the university performing some of the most delicate and precise measurements – forgive me for being repetitive, but it is a feature of our times. He is comparing the inertial mass (that’s the ‘m’ in F=ma) with gravitational mass (that’s the ‘m’ in the inverse square law of gravitational force) – did Monsieur think they were the same? – and he finds they are the same as one part in two million. He’s planning to make that one part in one hundred million. What accuracy! But why is inertial mass and gravitational mass as good as the same? Perhaps the new century will guess answers.

Fogg: It’s dawn. Where are we now?

Passepartout: The horizon is filled with the fields of the Ukraine.

Fogg: There’s less to see.

Passepartout: It’s hard to see potential. That newborn baby down there has the name Theodosius Grygorovych Dobzhansky. The world of science doesn’t know him yet, and his famous work will be done thousands of miles away. Yet he’ll take some of the culture of Russia with him.

Fogg: I think the sun is rising. What a glorious view.

(Jump cut)

Fogg. A new reel. That saved some time. The air is warm, the sea sparkles, and thousands of islands lie beneath us. But where’s the science, Passepartout?

Passepartout: Do you see on this big island – it’s called Java. This is where a skullcap and a few bones of an early man were found by Eugene Dubois between 1891 and 1893. He’s claiming his Pithecanthropus erectus is a Huxleyan “missing link”, although now he’s in retreat, with his fossils, back in Amsterdam. But it’s not bones I want you to see, but the vegetation. See the change in colour and form as we pass over the forests of the centre to the monotonous colour of the plantations? Those are the rubber tree plantations of the Dutch East Indies, and there are the beautiful botanical gardens of Buitenzorg. Under its vigorous director, Melchior Treub, Buitenzorg is a site of science of international renown. But the products of science here are constantly on the move: being from or back to the Netherlands, or being sent from this Javan centre out to and back from little replica colonies in the archipelago. Treub is unusual for staying here so long. Others have to leave to the European cities to make a career. That newborn there in Jakarta – his name is George Uhlenbeck – he’ll move to The Hague, Leiden, Copenhagen and eventually to America.

Fogg: It’s all movement.

Passepartout: And some of the science is done on the move. Look down there, do you see a ship sailing the Banda Sea between Timor and Celebes?

Fogg: Yes.

Passepartout: That’s the Siboga. A converted gun-boat, now a research vessel. Bigger than the Beagle, but not quite the size of Challenger (Pieters and Visser 1993). It was launched in Amsterdam in 1898, and sailed on this expedition from Surabaya a year later. On board is a crew including Max Weber.

Fogg: The Max Weber?

Passepartout: If you are in the field of marine biology then yes. If you mean the sociologist, then no. This Max Weber is a colleague of Hugo de Vries’s at the University of Amsterdam, and is one of six scientists on board (including Anna Weber, Max’s wife). The rest are Dutch naval officers, servants, and Javanese sailors. They are measuring the depths and trawling the seas for life. The collections will be sent back to the centres of empire.

Fogg: Is everything collected?

Passepartout: Of course not. A selection is made. But there are some ethnological artefacts too.

Fogg: I can surprise you there. Because even though very little disturbs me from the Reform Club I find I can stay in London yet the whole world comes to me. Recently, for example, I happened to see a film of the natives of islands – south of here I believe, just north of Australia. And I heard a phonograph recording too. It was as the ethnologists had raided Edison’s workshop and taken away his inventions. But the sights and sounds! It was as if those strange people had been transported alive across half the globe.

Passepartout: That film would have been created on the Torres Straits expedition from Cambridge University in 1898. Yes, it is remarkable to hear phonographs or see photographs and even film of far away places and the artefacts of different cultures. But the more profound point is that only some places can be sites of comparison – think how strange it is to have the fish-hooks of Melanesia ending up alongside those of the Carib Indians or the Eskimo! Or the skulls of different races, for that matter. And when you can compare, or better still measure and compare, new descriptive and comparative sciences – whether marine biology or anthropology – can be built.

Fogg: Well, it sounds like one more blessing of the Empire to me.

Passepartout: That is in the eye of the beholder. It depends on whether you are doing the comparing. Or are being compared.

Fogg: Is this pattern of transportation the case everywhere outside Europe and America?

Passepartout: Crudely put, yes. But everywhere is different in its own way. Look we are being blown north, across the South China Sea to the island of Japan. The institutions of the West are being copied here, but on Japanese terms. Young scientists are travelling to Europe to train but they are also returning. Or at least some are. Let me tell you about the career of Jokichi Takamine to illustrate how complex this story of movement and the copying of models can be. Takamine was born in 1854, only a few months after Commander Perry’s warships opened up trade with the West; his father encouraged the young Jokichi to study “foreign science”, but his mother, whose family owned a sake brewery will have just as much influence (Bennett and Yamomoto 2008). Takamine studied medicine at Osaka, chemistry at the College of Science and Engineering at Tokyo, before the Japanese government selected him to travel to Glasgow to study industrial technology. He takes copious notes on fertilizer manufacturing. Back in Japan some of this knowledge is transferred, but almost immediately he is sent abroad again, this time to New Orleans in 1884 to a Cotton Exposition. There he proposes to the landlord’s daughter, and they marry in 1887; the honeymoon is a tour of fertilizer manufacturing plants in South Carolina (Bennett and Yamomoto 2008). Sailing home, Takamine sets up the Tokyo Artificial Fertilizer Company, selling super-phosphates to Japanese farmers. The couple have two kids, but life is not idyllic: the air around the factory smells, and Takamine’s mother is not keen on the blue-eyed bride (Bennett and Yamomoto 2008).

Fogg: What happens next? Surely they have travelled far already.

Passepartout: Having taken a Western technology to Japan, Takamine now reverses to process (Bennett and Yamomoto 2008). Takamine’s research was born of Japanese culture and its working world. He is familiar with the powerful kojis – malts produced by Aspergillus molds, used in Japanese fermentation industries to make soy sauce and, as found in his mother’s family’s breweries, sake,. Takamine isolates one component, an enzyme which he will license as “Taka-diastase”, of the malting process, and with this he returns to the United States in 1890. It’s a cheaper way to saccharrify starch, and despite the attacks of traditionalists, he secures a patent (the first for a microbial enzyme in the United States, and Parke-Davis & Company of Detroit market it as a digestive aid (Bennett and Yamomoto 2008). Parke-Davis puts up the money for Takamine’s own research laboratory in New York, where even as we speak he is filing a patent for a pure substance he is calling “Adrenalin”.

Fogg: What’s that? Some patent drug for dicky kidneys, I surmise?

Passepartout: No mere quack medicine. Adrenalin is a hormone, a chemical messenger in the body. There’s a whole new science, endocrinology, emerging as we speak, that asks what hormones are and what they do. Adrenalin and Taka-diastase will make him rich.

Fogg: Good for him. It seems to me that Dr Takamine’s success is a rare thing in today’s America.

Passepartout: How true. Look! As I was telling his story we have crossed the immense Pacific and are approaching the Californian coast. What a place of change! Only fifty years after the gold rush, and all modern life is here. There’s San Francisco, a city of over three hundred thousand souls. Look carefully and you can see the tentacles of the Southern Pacific Railroad. And at night the coast glimmers with electric light. Now we sweep over the Sierra Nevada, and across the West. The networks of metropolitan science reach here too. Down below teams of geologists working for the United States Geological Survey are conducting a great mapping of the gravitational field of this land. The data, reduced and refined back on the East Coast, will inform the paths of prospectors and provide clues about the nature – even movement – of continental rock.

Fogg: Movement! Now I know you are joking, my friend.

Passepartout: Why not? If our balloon can be driven around the world by the gentle gusts of air, why not rock by the great volcanic forces of the earth?

Fogg: The earth is stationary.

Passepartout: And yet it moves.

Fogg: You have lost me. I don’t know even if you are speaking of the past or the future. But what can I see down there, are those prospectors scratching riches from the rocks of Wyoming?

Passepartout: Yes, but not mineral riches. They are fossil hunters, sent west by the wealthy patrons of metropolitan museums, competing to send back bigger and more terrifying dinosaurs to thrill museum visitors. Indeed, from their endeavours an extraordinary story of the movement of models will unfold. Dinosaurs are a sure crowd pleaser. But when Adam Heismann, a ‘young artisan under Henry Fairfield Osborn at the American Museum of Natural History devised a technique for “boring through the extremely fragile center of fossil bones”, he “made it possible to mount, for the first time, free standing skeletons of fossil animals” (Winsor 2009, quoting John Michael Kennedy). A free-standing diplodocus, a huge dinosaur with long neck and tail, extracted from those Wyoming rocks, will be the centrepiece of the new Carnegie Museum of Natural History when it opens in Pittsburgh in 1905. And to show old Europe the wealth of the West, and at the request of the King, Andrew Carnegie will spend some of his steel fortune creating a duplicate cast, shipping the copy across the Atlantic, and reassembling it in the British Museum (Natural History). This “gift”, Nature will record “is not only of immense value and interest to the man of science, but will likewise prove a great attraction to the ordinary visitor to the Museum. It is almost an appalling thought that the skeleton of a creature which lived at least several million years ago should have come down in such marvellous preservation to our own day” (Anon. 1905: 83).

Fogg: I find its duplication and subsequent travel the equal in marvel of its preservation. How science moves in 1900!

Passepartout: Our journey speeds up. It is as if the creators of this picture show want to match the dynamism of the New World. We will have only glimpses of science as we travel. Look north: there outside Chicago is the giant reflecting telescope, a refractor with a main lens forty inches in diameter, built for a research university inspired by the German model, but, like the copy of the Diplodocus, funded by American wealth, in this case the tycoon Charles Tyson Yerkes.

Fogg: He maybe a tycoon but he’s no gentleman.

Passepartout. Perhaps. But American astronomers can compete with European rivals when equipped with such instruments. It’s the birth of a scientific superpower. And talking of births: there in Overpeck Ohio is the newborn Charles Richter.

Fogg: Will he shake the world of science?

Passepartout: Perhaps shake is too strong a word. But he will measure the earth’s tremors. At another Carnegie-funded institution he’ll measure earthquakes as astronomers measure starlight. And there is John Scopes, born in Paducah, Kentucky.

Fogg: A scientist?

Passepartout: A teacher. His life will be a trial.

Fogg: And far south. I can see the islands of the Caribbean.

Passepartout: The biggest is Cuba, the cause of war only two years ago that ended Spanish colonial power there. The American army almost perished from yellow fever, and now Walter Reed is re-interpreting the disease in terms of Koch’s germ theory. Reed is using human experimental subjects – who have signed a written agreement in Spanish and English in exchange for one hundred dollars of gold – to participate in a demonstration that mosquitos transmit the fever (Lederer 2009). Military medicine, germ theory and colonisation march arm in arm.

Fogg: I can see the East Coast now. We are being blown rapidly north.

Passepartout: See the research universities and institutes. There, in Baltimore, is Johns Hopkins University, closest in spirit to German models. There’s New York, glowing in later afternoon, with the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research being planned in Upper East Side, Manhattan – it will open in 1902. There’s the American Museum of Natural History to the side of Central Park. In the suburbs we can see Takamine’s laboratory. Upin New York State, in the Electric City of Schenectady, that hut is the General Electric’s corporate laboratory. Looks inconsequential, doesn’t it? Further along the coast now. Blink and you will miss it: New Haven, Connecticut, home of Yale University, and a mathematical physicist, Josiah Willard Gibbs, known to few (though praised by Maxwell) but writing an extraordinary treatise, The Elementary Principles of Statistical Mechanics that will be published in two years time (Kevles 1971: 32-33). Over Massachusetts now and across the Charles River from Boston we see Harvard and MIT – now there’s a place that takes the working world and makes sciences out of it – and on the coast the marine biology laboratory at Woods Hole.

Fogg: After that blur, we are slowing down. We are a long way North now. It seems to me a desolate rocky coastline. Surely there is little to see here?

Passepartout: We would have to return a year from now, and even then the eye could barely make anything out. Imagine thin wires, five hundred feet long, borne aloft by kites. The wires connect to a radiotelegraph designed by Guglielmo Marconi and his colleagues. His theory is that long radio waves will move a current strong enough to jump across a coherer – a tube of graphite filings – which can then be heard as a faint click. They will be hunkered down, listening in, trying to make out an artificial signal against the static and the Newfoundland wind. And On December 19, 1901, Marconi will persuade himself, and then the world, that he has heard the faint Morse code message “…”, three dots, an ‘S’. The radio waves have come from a spark transmitter at Poldhu, Cornwall, and Marconi will announce that he has sent a wireless telegraph message across the Atlantic for the first time.

Fogg: A single letter, moved from the Old World to the New? The cable companies will not panic yet.

Passepartout: Not yet. But even to achieve this movement, Marconi will have had to turn this patch of Newfoundland coastline into the controlled environment of a miniature radio telegraphy laboratory. Science works on prepared ground.

Fogg: I am ravenous. Let’s return home.

Passepartout: Our balloon is already tracking back along the path of Marconi’s signal. Look there’s Cornwall below, across southern England, and the lights of London shine out of the darkness. There is science in the suburbs – there’s the Burroughs-Wellcome Physiological Laboratories in Herne Hill. And science even in the country piles of the aristocracy – there’s Lord Rayleigh at Terling in Essex whose research will be interpreted by William Ramsay as evidence a new element, the noble gas Argon. But it is the Capital that takes the eye. Capital of many new sciences – electrical, physical, chemical, even psychical. Capital of Empire, Westminster and City gentlemen.

Fogg: Ah! To be in my old armchair at the Reform Club. Perhaps some lamb chops and a tipple. But we are not slowing down. Are we heading to Paris instead?

Passepartout: No. Further north. If I am not mistaken, the ingenious showmen have filmed a balloon ride out of Stockholm, and are now feeding the said film backwards, creating the remarkably convincing impression of a descent into the Royal Swedish capital.

Fogg: A peaceful city.

Passepartout: A city preparing to celebrate science through wealth acquired anything but peacefully. You will have read about the will of Alfred Nobel? The inventor of dynamite had been alarmed by a premature obituary that described him as a merchant of death, and in Paris in 1895, one year before his actual death, he wrote a will that gave most of his considerable fortune to a ‘the interest on which’, and I quote from memory

shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind. The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses. The prizes for physics and chemistry shall be awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences; that for physiological or medical work by the Caroline Institute in Stockholm; that for literature by the Academy in Stockholm, and that for champions of peace by a committee of five persons to be elected by the Norwegian Storting. It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not.

The king of Sweden, Oscar II, is not at all happy with that last stipulation. Still he is coming round to the notion now that it is attracting plenty of positive comment and pleasant speculation. I have it on good authority that the winners will include several of those we have seen on our trip.

Fogg: Well? Let it out man.

Passepartout: Röntgen of Munich for physics, and van ’t Hoff of Berlin for chemistry. Behring of Marburg, for physiology or medicine, will complete a hat-trick for the German universities. (The poet Sully Prudhomme, whose work has handily just been collected in many volumes, will take the literature prize back to Paris.) Marie Skłodowska-Curie, Pierre Curie, Ernest Rutherford, Joseph von Baeyer, Robert Koch, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Camillo Golgi, Lord Rayleigh, William Ramsay and Guglielmo Marconi will all be feted before the decade is out.

Fogg: It is the science of metropolitan Europe that is being showered with prizes. But we have seen how it depends on the movement of material, fossils, models, evidence, scientists, even whole collections made by expeditions, extracted from across the world. Can the bigger picture be explained, Passepartout?

Passepartout: I can try, sir, if you do not mind a lecture.

Fogg: By all means. Take your time.

Passepartout (clearing throat): A Lecture on Science and Geopolitics.

At this point the lights go out.

Fogg: I do believe you are too late. Someone else, another day, will have to present your lecture. Not only have the arc lights of the Cinéorama been extinguished, but so have the many Edison bulbs that lighted our way. How fitting that the lights that have mapped for us so much of the world of science are now failing us.

The ghost of Marx: You philosophers have only interpreted the light bulb; the point is to change it.