Tyndall Session at BSHS Annual Meeting

At this year’s annual meeting of the British Society for the History of Science (PDF programme), there was a session all about John Tyndall: “John Tyndall and his Audiences” (chaired by Efram Sera Shriar). The participants, with the exception of Young, with the exception of Young, with the Tyndall Correspondence Project. Here are the titles and abstracts of their various talks, as well as comments via Twitter from Rebekah Higgitt (@beckyfh) of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich and National Maritime Museum:

Panel abstract: The natural philosopher John Tyndall was both one of the most successful and one of the most controversial science lecturers of the Victorian period. This seeming contradiction is easily understood if we consider the highly differentiated audiences that he addressed in locations both within and without his base in London’s Royal Institution. Our session moves beyond such a facile resolution, however, to consider how Tyndall dealt with the problems he encountered in maintaining effective engagement with such diverse audiences – from the mundane difficulties of weekly lecture preparation to the sustained tensions of the science-spirituality nexus. By considering the strategies he adopted in attempting to overcome these challenges, our papers reveal both how closely networked he was to some key contemporaries and the kinds of boundary work that he undertook in his dealings with them. Several papers in this session draw upon letters recently transcribed in the international John Tyndall Correspondence Project co-ordinated from York University, Toronto.

“John Tyndall: Lecturing, Authority and Correspondence in Victorian Public Science,” Graeme Gooday and Jamie Stark:

John Tyndall‘s lecturing was the epitome of Victorian ‘public science’, to use Frank Turner‘s apposite description. Between his humble accession to a professorship at the Royal Institution in 1853 and his final shambolic lecture there in 1886, Tyndall attained large and diverse audiences both for his lectures and the many books published from them. While several historians have studied Tyndall‘s lecturing technique and his relationship with these audiences, this paper sheds new light on this work from hitherto unexamined correspondence with William Thomson, and William & Eliza Spottiswoode. We learn from these that Thomson became increasingly deferential to Tyndall as an authority on lecturing technique over the course of his career – maintaining their cordiality even during the bitter priority dispute between Mayer and Joule over energy conversation, on which they took opposing sides. From correspondence with the Spottiswoodes it transpires that they – perhaps rather more than fellow members of the X-club – served as Tyndall‘s personal confidantes over the enormously demanding schedule he set himself in lecture preparation. As President of the Royal Society, William would regularly recommend lecture opportunities to him to serve irenic political purposes, e.g. working men in Ireland, and offer support to Tyndall when he encountered difficulties with Establishment disapproval of his religious position. Overall we see that whilst Tyndall‘s surviving letters with hundreds of correspondents reveal him to be a central figure in Victorian science, he also evidently relied upon significant numbers of them for successful management of his public career as scientific authority.

“Working Wonder: Tyndall and the Making of Victorian Scientific Performances,” Iwan Morus:

In his lecture at the 1870 British Association meeting at Liverpool, ‘On the Scientific Uses of the Imagination,’ John Tyndall argued that there was more to science than mere logic or empiricism. In fact he rather mischievously characterized the view that this was all science was, as a Tory calumny. Without imagination there would be no science, he averred. In this paper I want to use some of Tyndall‘s arguments about scientific imagination as an entry point into investigating the genre of Victorian scientific performances, of which Tyndall himself was also a celebrated exponent. In particular – and using some of Tyndall‘s own performances – I want to investigate the aesthetics of performance and the Victorian sense of wonder. Accounts of spectacular experimental performances were often couched in this way, often invoking comparisons with magic. Historians of Victorian public science have had relatively little to say about the visual culture of Victorian physics with which performers like Tyndall captured their audiences. I want to follow Tyndall‘s example by looking at how this sense of wonder was practically achieved and what we as historians of physics can hope to gain by making the practices and technologies through which wonder was produced the focus of our narratives.

“John Tyndall and Theology: The Definition and Boundaries of Science,” Ursula DeYoung:

This paper examines the epistemological issues raised by the many sermons, articles, and pamphlets published in response to John Tyndall‘s Presidential Address to the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Belfast in 1874. Tyndall‘s Address served as a direct statement of hostility towards the claims of established religion as a cultural authority, and this paper argues that the Address played a crucial role in the developing definitions of ‗science‘ and ‗theology‘ as intellectual disciplines and as forces in society. The paper explores issues ranging from the perceived duties of a President in making his opening address to the BAAS to the division between rationality and emotion and the contested borderline separating science from theology. Its evidence spans the spectrum of participants, from obscure preachers to such well-known figures as James Martineau. Acknowledging the revisionist work done by historians such as Frank Turner, Bernard Lightman, and Robert M. Young on the ‗war‘ between science and theology in the nineteenth century, the paper nevertheless emphasises the military language used by participants in the science/theology debates and argues that the conflict, after Tyndall‘s Address, centred on the epistemology of science: how it could be defined, how much intellectual and philosophical ground it covered as a discipline, and what role it should play in society.

“Following your example at a distance: The Carlylean balancing of John Tyndall and James Crichton-Browne,” Mike Finn:

John Tyndall‘s outlook on the roles of religion and scientific inquiry was a source of debate in his own lifetime, and remains so for modern historians. Whilst espousing strict materialism in scientific study, he viewed the universe as a living thing, elements of which would always remain mysterious and at the root of spiritual beliefs. Frank Turner and Ruth Barton have both suggested that many Victorian men of science, including Tyndall, were deeply influenced in their religious thinking by Thomas Carlyle; a man who held paradoxical views on matters of science and religion himself. This paper will investigate further the practical implications of a Carlylean approach to balancing scientific and religious convictions in a scientific career, by considering events in the lives of two men who were followers and friends of Carlyle: Tyndall, a physicist, and James Crichton-Browne, a psychiatrist. Following his 1874 Belfast address, Tyndall faced criticism for declaring that religious beliefs must hold no weight in any scientific practice. Concurrently Crichton-Browne, an asylum superintendent, led just such an experimental research programme on the brain. However, whilst Tyndall unflinchingly and publicly defended his controversial views until his death, Crichton-Browne later felt impelled to leave the journal Brain, which he had helped to found, because he could not tolerate its materialist tendencies. It is thus seen that the Carlylean trait of maintaining a sharp demarcation between spirituality and scientific practice had rather different kinds of problematic consequences for their professional and personal lives.

Twitter comments from Rebekah Higgitt (@beckyfh):

#britsochistsci Tyndall discussion: from drunk lecturing to his flirtation with Quakerism

#britsochistsci Tyndall: Mike Finn on Thomas Carlyle’s influence on & friendship with Tyndall & James Crichton-Browne

#britsochistsci Tyndall discussion: Tyndall & the ladies recurring theme. Representations of materialism & morality, also lecturing persona

#britsochistsci Tyndall: Ursula DeYoung on military language used in 1870s debates on science/religion, or what form science should take

#britsochistsci Tyndall: discussion raises T the opium addict – and Huxley his supplier when he was in the Alps!

#britsochistsci Tyndall: Iwan Morus on the self-conscious, controlled performance of physical science lecture: opposing disembodiment of sci

#britsochistsci Tyndall: G Gooday & J Stark on what T Corresp Project can tell about T’s lecturing, its relation to his writing & authority

#britscihistsci Very hard session choices this am. Tyndall & his Audiences, Nuclear Science & Cold War, Music & Sound or Biomedical Sci?

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Published in: on July 24, 2010 at 3:36 pm  Comments (2)  

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  1. […] blog about a Tyndall session put together by folks from the Tyndall Correspondence Project – here. While you can view the whole programme (PDF), these are the various talks concerning Darwin and […]

  2. […] Transcribing Tyndall into a panel. […]


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