CHOTS Away! at Down House

Yesterday was the annual Centre for the History of the Sciences (CHOTS) Away Day. Last year’s visit was to Chatham Dockyard: this year, although there were some maritime connections and we continue to make the most of Kent’s heritage, we were considerably more domestic at Down House.

The front door to Down House (added by Darwin).

The front door to Down House (added by Darwin).

Down House is, as the English Heritage website tells us, the “Home of Charles Darwin”. Like the Charles Dickens Museum or Pasteur Museum, it is in essence an attempt to convince us that the genius has just left the room: letters and pens are on the desk, coats hang in the hallway, and the family might just let us stay for a cup of tea. These men, famous in their lifetimes, were being memorialised even before they had kicked buckets and shuffled off coils – their families and colleagues kept not just their writings but also their handkerchiefs and desks, making full-blown recreations a possibility.

Down House was, however, not quite ready to open as a memorial and museum by the time of Darwin’s death in 1882, or even that of his wife Emma in 1896. The family let the house for a period, and for twenty years in the early 20th century it was a girls’ school. The second of the two schools closed in 1927, at which point an appeal was made by the president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science to save it for the nation. The benefactor who stepped up was the surgeon Sir George Buckston Browne and the house was opened as a museum in 1929, since when it has been overseen by the BAAS, the Royal College of Surgeons (1953-1996) and now English Heritage (with financial assistance from the Wellcome Trust, Natural History Museum and Heritage Lottery Fund).

Although we heard briefly about the later history from our guide, it does not feature in the displays, and neither do any of the pre-1840s owners of this Georgian villa. It is, unsurprisingly, all about Darwin, with recreations of the famous study, the sitting room, billiards room and rather splendid dining room downstairs, and attractive displays about the history of natural history, the voyage of the Beagle, Darwin’s work and family upstairs. The period rooms are, we were assured, full of genuine items from Darwin’s time, although props certainly featured and we were left unsure about whether or how much of the library was Darwin’s. The rooms have been recreated with the help of photographs taken by Darwin’s son Leonard.

Upstairs was equally full of treasures, this time in more conventional museum case displays, with the notebooks, the finches and Annie’s box featuring alongside other items from Darwin’s time on the Beagle and at Down. There were also galleries aimed at schools and children which amused us and, I’m sure, any children who visit.

For us, however, it was the gardens that were the main feature of the visit, partly because they are lovely and very evocative of Darwin’s passions, but also because we were treated to a knowledgeable tour by Down’s head gardener, Rowan Blaik. He was more than capable of giving this bunch of historians of science chapter and verse on the many experiments that Darwin conducted within the garden, and which had been used and how within Origin of Species, as well as helping us see how the family used the gardens (Emma ordered flowering plants haphazardly from catalogues; the children used the “ancient mulberry” tree to climb down from the first floor; the family set up one of the earliest hard tennis courts late in the century; and everyone stepped in and out of house and garden through the low dining room windows).

We saw a recreation of the “seedling mortality experiment”, through which Darwin showed that only 1 in 8 of the seedlings that germinate reach an age at which they can reproduce: competition, struggle and death within a few square inches of English countryside. There were also the climbing plants (which Darwin categorised), the primulas (that he showed did not speciate within a generation), the carnivorous plants and orchids on which he published, the worm stone and bees, all ready to be tested for their route-following and comb-building instincts.

Also, of course, there is the Sandwalk, on which Darwin strolled twice daily – you too can see if it works as your “thinking path”.

The planting in the gardens is meticulously managed, recreating what we know of Darwin’s world. The plants that have survived since his time are carefully maintained or, if they’re no longer viable, cloned and regrown. If he received plants, as he often did, from Joseph Hooker at Kew Gardens, then clones of surviving plants there – collected at the same time – can be grown. The surrounding fields are places in which the diversity of the flora has been studied longer than anywhere else on earth.

There has been an attempt to make Down and its surroundings a World Heritage Site (this decision was deferred in 2010, and it awaits renomination). It is a fascinating and unusual case as heritage, based not on outstanding architecture or a particular national cultural tradition, but on this long history of a relationship between scientific ideas, a particular geographical location, national heritage and celebrity. As Charlotte said (on the Sandwalk, of course), the extent to which the plants have been given agency in this context is particularly intriguing. So too is the overriding focus on the preservation of individual plants, species and a particular historical moment, given the context of waste, death and change that is natural selection.

As a day out, whether or not you are a Darwin fan, it is highly recommended – close London, as Darwin always wished, and yet (despite being reached by London bus and Oyster card) utterly within its village and countryside. A tea room beckons or, for later, Bromley’s CAMRA pub of 2014 is handy in Downe village. And, above all, the place retains a fascination, even for a cynical bunch of historians.



Wunderkammer reading group – summer term programme

The Wunderkammer reading group meets on alternate Tuesdays at 17:30 in the rear room of the Unicorn Pub on St Dunstans. The programme for the summer term is as follows:


19 May 2015 (Week 26) – 20th-century British Science (led by Oliver Hill-Andrews, Sussex)


2 June 2015 (Week 28) – Work in Progress

  • Rebekah Higgitt, “Caricature and control: Lieutenant E.J.W. Noble’s drawings from the 1874 transit of Venus expedition to Hawai’i”
  • Justine Cook, “Laboratory routes: the science behind road-building, 1923-39”


16 June 2015 (Week 30) – The History of the Emotions (led by Thomas Dixon, QMUL)

If you have time and interest, it would be worth also having a look at the introduction to Jan Plamper’s The History of Emotions: An Introduction (2015), which is free to download from the OUP website.


All are welcome. Readings are (or will be) available in hard copy at the School of History Office. Unpublished pieces will be circulated via the Wunderkammer email group – please let me (RHiggitt[a] know if you would like to be put on the list.

H.G. Wells Lecture by Patricia Fara now available to view

In March Patricia Fara from the University of Cambridge delivered the Centre for the History of the Sciences’ annual H.G. Wells Science and Society Lecture. She spoke on ‘Fighting for the Vote: Science and Suffrage in World War I’. You can now see her excellent lecture on YouTube, or by clicking below.


Whewell and the coining of ‘scientist’ in the Quarterly Review

[William Whewell] ‘On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences. By Mrs. Somerville’. Quarterly Review vol. LI, no. CI, March 1834, pp. 54-68.

This is the full text of the article in which Whewell discusses the BAAS coinage of ‘scientist’, scanned in from the original.  It includes the alternative (presumably not very serious) suggestion of ‘nature-poker’ as an alternative to ‘scientist’.



Blister Cinema

A poster for Genetic Moo's 'Blister Cinema' at GEEKAn opportunity to discuss an exciting art and science project with Margate-based artists Genetic Moo

Genetic Moo are currently working on an Animate Project commission Silent Signal which is supported by the Wellcome Trust. Silent Signal comprises 6 art-science collaborations which explore how the body uses soundless internal dialogues between cells to fight disease.

In collaboration with Dr Neil Dufton from Imperial College London, they are developing an immersive animated film that takes the viewer on a fantastic voyage through the inflammation process.

This February, they will be exhibiting their first of three Blister Cinemas at GEEK (Games Expo East Kent). A Blister Cinema is an interactive environment that enables visitors to take on key roles in the bodies defence against and infected blister, e.g. leucocytes and mast cells. Each Blister Cinema is both an exhibition space and a film set – some of the footage gathered in the space will be used in their short animated film, the Battle of Blister.

Come and join them to discuss the projects progress and the challenges of communicating ideas in science. Plus, find out how to get involved with Blister Cinema 3 at Limbo Arts Margate. This will be the final and most ambitious of the installations.

Where: Panay Fashions, 9 Marine Gardens, Margate, CT9 1UN (opposite Margate Clock Tower)
When: Talks and demos at 2pm and 4pm each day, Fri 20 – Sun 22 Feb (12 – 6pm)


For more information about the event please visit –

HG Wells Annual Lecture on WWI science and suffrage

H.G. Wells in 1910The Centre for the History of the Sciences will welcome Dr Pratricia Fara of the University of Cambridge to deliver the fourth annual HG Wells Lecture. Dr Fara’s lecture will take place on Wednesday 4 March at 17.15 in Keynes Lecture Theatre 5 on the University of Kent’s Canterbury campus and will be followed by a drinks reception.


‘Fighting for the Vote: Science and Suffrage in WW1’

Inspired by utopian dreams, H G Wells imagined a future characterized by science, equality and justice – and in 1919, the suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett declared triumphantly, ‘The war revolutionised the industrial position of women. It found them serfs, and left them free.’ Their optimism was premature. World War I did benefit British women by enabling them to take on traditionally male roles in science, engineering and medicine. But even though women over 30 gained the right to vote, conventional hierarchies were rapidly re-established after the Armistice. Concentrating mainly on a small group of well-qualified scientific and medical women, marginalized at the time and also in the secondary literature, I review the attitudes they experienced and the work they undertook during and immediately after the War.

Further details can be found on the School of History’s Events Calendar.


Science criticism, or, what is this thing about science called?

When I’m talking to a new group of students, I frequently find myself fumbling for the word that will briefly capture the realm of scholarship on which I draw: a sort of super-league that includes Beer, Collins, Daston, Latour, MacKenzie, Haraway, Schaffer, Shapin.  I find myself calling on flabby phrases like ‘historians and anthropologists and sociologists of science’.  Sometimes I say ‘STS’, but then I have to follow up by expanding the phrase into ‘Science and Technology Studies’ and explaining, after all, what all its constituent disciplines are.  (STS also presents a problem of nouns: what is a person who does STS?  A student of science and technology?  An STSist??)  Occasionally I simply and rather imperially denote the whole lot as ‘historians of science’, and hope it won’t get back to the epistemologists and social scientists and textual experts what I have done.

I believe that my interdisciplinary list of authors would be recognised by many colleagues across the world: that it is a natural group in need of a name.  In the UK it would be recognised by people calling themselves historians of science, but it is a contingent product of the history of British academia that ‘history of science’ predominates in visibility over other, cognate disciplines.  The absence of a neat phrase for the super-discipline that encompasses critical perspectives on science is more than an inconvenience; without it we lack coherence and visibility from an external perspective.  A clearer label would also help us all to reposition our scholarship in the changing world of funded research, in particular in relation to the type of client groups that the impact agenda (and arguably praxis) requires us to cultivate.

Suppose, then, we called ourselves ‘science critics’?  What would happen if we analogised ourselves by name with literary criticism?

As a scholarly discipline, literary criticism is housed in departments of ‘English Literature’ or similar, but it is understood that its staff are literary critics.  Their angles on texts are manifold, but they are all literary critics.  Students may say, for brevity and convenience, that they are studying literature; but they are being trained to be literary critics, not writers.

On the other hand, a student who says she is studying science is training to be a scientist.  A history of science undergraduate would not, analogous to our person training to be a literary critic, say that she was studying science.  She would say that she was studying history of science.

The impreciseness of the literature academic’s label, ironically, is what enables them to participate in public conversations about literature.  They are critical connoisseurs, called upon in public forums, where they appear alongside writers.  If we could present ourselves to scientists, science policy-makers, science communicators and so on as critical connoisseurs of science, we might open many interesting conversations and projects, in places where impact happens.  It would be a most tremendous opportunity.

Another advantage of the term ‘science criticism’ might be that it would occupy a clear place in the panoply of academic disciplines, a catch-all term for constituent methodologies.  We might, thus, also have a clearer pitch to students: an ideal undergraduate or postgraduate destination for the many young people who enjoy science but don’t want to become scientists.  We would produce a cohort of graduates who have well-developed critical skills and subject knowledge appropriate to the world of work, leisure and commerce, dominated as it is by technology and science.

Of course, the term ‘science criticism’ is not unproblematic.

For one thing, premising the name upon a distinction between training to be, and studying about – aligning oneself with the latter and not the former – reasserts the distinction between ‘useful’ (economically valuable) disciplines and critical (economically doubtful) ones.  It places science criticism squarely in the struggle to justify the humanities in the framework of economic value.  This, alas, is inevitable; but having a humanities subject (science criticism) orientated towards that most unimpeachably productive of fields (science and technology) might at least refresh the debate.

One unintended consequence of adopting the term ‘science criticism’ would be to challenge the new and growing teaching of creative writing within the teaching portfolio of Literature departments.  Such students are not, primarily, learning literary criticism but rather how to produce literature.  This would be the equivalent of students in a Science Criticism department learning to be scientists.  The analogy appears to break down here: surely this is a step too far – unrealistic in the realm of science?  It may be that creative writing degrees are not realistic preparation for professional activity in the field for most students: that the criticism rebounds upon literature departments.  On the other hand, although it’s hard, it’s not impossible to imagine science criticism as a part of the training to be a scientist.  This could work with some kind of semi-formal relationship between a science criticism department and science departments.

A second issue is that criticism, at least to the lay person, sounds like a negative thing.  Although literary criticism carries no such connotations, it might still have a negative ring when allied with science, especially to those who remember the science wars of the 1990s.  However, the science wars are now (just about) over, and it may now be permissible to admit an admiration for certain science.  It may even be important to do so, as Latour has suggested.[1]  In this period of climate-change denial (in practice if not in theory), it is important to stress what an extraordinary and robust thing is the human network of trust that produces scientific knowledge.  Here, there may be something to learn from literary criticism, where investment in one’s object of study is expected (if rarely explored).  One of the reasons I like going to literature conferences because there is a palpable pleasure that literary critics take in their subjects.  They like the literature they study, and their role is, critically, to explore what works about it.  What would it be like for science critics to allow themselves more emotion and attachment to (or, for that matter, dislike for) their subjects of study?

In 1833, William Whewell famously accepted the challenge to create a single word for those gentlemen who did science.  Maybe, by 2033, we might have one for those of us who study it.  Why not call ourselves, for the time being, ‘science critics’?

[1] Latour, Bruno. “Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern.” Critical Inquiry 30.2 (2004): 225-248.

Werewolf Transformations, Ghostly Apparitions, the Dance of Death and the Man who eats Rats

Jeremy BrookerJoin us for a cold, dark evening treat, which takes the audience back to the time of the magic lanternist for an evening of visual spectacle and darkly chilling horrors.

Featuring Jeremy Brooker and his Grand Gothic Magic Lantern Show, the event will include werewolf transformations, ghostly apparitions, the Dance of Death and the Man who eats Rats — plus a generous helping of less harrowing fare.

This special event is organised the School of History’s Centre for the History of the Sciences and is open to anyone with an interest in film and media history or just in Men who Eat Rats

Tuesday 24th February, Eliot Drama Studio, 6pm.

In case of queries, please contact Dr Charlotte Sleigh,


Wunderkammer Reading Group – Spring 2015 Programme

Centre for the History of the Sciences (CHOTS) Reading Group

Alternate Tuesdays at 17:30 in the Unicorn Pub, St Dunstan’s

**NB note different time and place in Week 18**


27 January 2015 (Week 14) – Heidegger On Science


10 February 2015 (Week 16) – Shipowners and Shipwrecks

  • Oliver Carpenter, “Emerging as a National Figure: Walter Runciman and the Rise of British Tramp Shipowners” (unpublished article).
  • Stephen Courtney and Crosbie Smith, “‘Or vast fiery cross, on the Banner of Morn’: Reading the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company’s Shipwrecks”, in Journal of Maritime Research 15 (2013): 183-203.


24 February 2015 (Week 18) – Magic Lantern Performance (18:00 in Eliot Drama Studio)

  • With Jeremy Brooker of the Magic Lantern Society


10 March 2015 (Week 20) – Art and Science

  • Paul Glinkowski and Anne Bamford. “Insight and Exchange: An Evaluation of the Wellcome Trust’s Sciart Programme” (London: Wellcome Trust, 2009), Executive Summary and Chapters 5-7.
  • Matthew C. Hunter, “Cascade, Copper, Collection: Constellations of Images in 1670s Experimental Philosophy”, in Wicked Intelligence: Visual Art and the Science of Experiment in Restoration London (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), Ch 4.


24 March 2015 (Week 22) – Early Modern Notebooks and Journals

  • Richard Yeo, “Capacious Memory and Copious Notebooks”, in Notebooks, English Virtuosi and Early Modern Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), pp. 37-68.
  • Adrian Johns, “Miscellaneous Methods: Authors, Societies and Journals in Early Modern England”, British Journal for the History of Science 33 (2000): 159-86.


7 April 2015 (Week 24) – Work In Progress

  • Rebekah Higgitt
  • Justine Cook