Rule Britannia: Britannia rules the sciences.

He who shall not be named, The Poster Boy of Pop ScienceTM, has a new television series on the history of science called Science Britannica, which I haven’t seen and unless somebody sends me a DVD (hint, hint) probably never will see. However he has graced us with an essay on the BBC’s website, The wonder of British Science, distilling his history of science wisdom and the history and philosophy of science community are wishing he hadn’t. Why?

To start with the opening paragraphs in faux Churchillian rhetoric read like a piece of late nineteenth century jingoism that would be more at home on a UKIP election pamphlet than in a history of science essay. Let us confront the horror:

The British Isles are home to just one percent of the world’s population and yet our small collection of rocks poking out of the north Atlantic has thrown up world beaters in virtually every field of human endeavour.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in science and engineering. Edward Jenner came up with vaccines, Sir Frank Whittle ushered in the jet age and Sir Tim Berners-Lee laid the foundations of the world wide web. Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday, George Stephenson, Isambard Kingdom Brunel… the list is gloriously long.

What is it about Britain that allowed so many great minds to emerge and flourish?

The opening paragraph plays the Little Britain card, this itzy bitzy island have produced so many brilliant thinkers and doers! Does it hold up to scrutiny? Because it’s an island people tend to think of Britain as being small but is it really when compared to its European neighbours? When I moved to West Germany more than thirty years ago (it was before reunification) I actually took the trouble to look up the facts. At that time Britain and West Germany had roughly equal areas and population, since reunification Germany is of course in both aspects about a quarter larger. France is naturally much bigger than Britain but has a smaller population. Italy is somewhat larger but also has less population and so on and so forth. Britain is in fact a major European country and in history of science terms really doesn’t punch above its weight in comparison to other European countries.

We get presented with a royal flush of British science and technology genius, “Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday, George Stephenson, Isambard Kingdom Brunel…” but is it really so exceptional in comparison? Let me see how my adopted country compares “Nicolas Copernicus (OK we share him with the Poles!), Johannes Kepler, Justus von Liebig, Joseph von Frauenhofer, Karl Benz…”. I could of course go on to produce similar lists for France, Italy, Holland (a really small country) etc. but are we playing some sort of chauvinist science poker? I’ll see your Isaac Newton with my Albert Einstein and raise you a Max Planck and an Erwin Schrödinger. Even a country like Croatia can dish up a pretty spectacular list of great thinkers, in that sense Britain is nothing special.

We now turn to the three specific examples of British world-beaters listed above. “Frank Whittle ushered in the jet age” Well yes Whittle did invent a jet engine but so did Hans von Ohain independently of Whittle and it was his Heinkel He 178, which had its maiden flight on 27 August 1939, that was the first jet aircraft. Another German plane the Messerschmitt Me 262 was the world’s first jet-fighter aircraft, which even entered service at the end of WW II. Let us not forget Wernher von Braun who gave the world both the doodlebug and the American space programme. Whittle was one amongst many, most of them not even British.

“Edward Jenner came up with vaccines”.  The story of vaccines has become a beginners’ history of medicine general knowledge test question. The first person to introduce vaccination (although it wasn’t called that then) into Europe was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in 1715, who was at least British if only a mere woman. She had it from the Turks in Istanbul where her husband was the British ambassador. “I say Carruthers beaten to the punch by Johnny Turk and a woman! Let’s just erase them from history and pretend it was an Englishman”.

“Tim Berners-Lee laid the foundations of the world wide web”: This is at least correct and I for one am very grateful to him for having done so. However he didn’t invent ARPANET or the Internet, which preceded it and made it possible. He was also working at CERN when he developed the WWW a large international scientific cooperation in Switzerland and as James Sumner (@JamesBSumner) put it so nicely today on twitter:

Tim Berners-Lee’s inborn British ingenuity must be potent if he could invent stuff even at CERN, with all those Europeans distracting him.

Before somebody says, as they did today on twitter, that TBPoPS TPBoPS did announce in the title that he was writing about British science, (somebody else noted that all his examples are English!). I have nothing against somebody writing about British science, I’ve even been known to do so myself on occasions, I just intensely dislike the undertone of nasty nationalism the pervades the whole essay. When I read through the paragraphs quoted above I hear a shrill voice in the back of my head chanting:

 The British, the British, the British are best

I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest.

So how does TBPoPS TPBoPS answer his own jingoist question?

What is it about Britain that allowed so many great minds to emerge and flourish?

The first part of his answer seems rather trivial:

The roots of our success can be traced back many centuries. Oxford and Cambridge Universities were formed over 800 years ago.

For me these two seemingly harmless short sentences are in fact as answer to the question rather dubious. Remember we are supposed to be investigating what makes Britain so special in the history of science. Other countries in Europe also founded universities in the High Middle Ages, some of them are even older than Oxbridge so how does this answer our question? Another much more important point is that the medieval universities were not particularly supportive of science, in fact they came pretty close to ignoring it. The first course of study was nominally based on the seven liberal arts that is the trivium and the quadrivium. Now the quadrivium consisted of what passed as science subjects in the Middle Ages, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy, however the actual course of study concentrated almost entirely on the trivium, grammar, rhetoric and logic, treating the quadrivium with disdain. Normally geometry did not go much further than the first book of Euclid’s Elements, arithmetic and music were taught on the basis of the respective texts from Boethius and astronomy following Sacrobosco’s pamphlet On The Spheres. The Sacrobosco is a non-technical outline of the basics of the geocentric worldview and a medieval student who learnt his arithmetic from Boethius knew less than an average fifth grader today. Not really the stuff of a scientific education even by the standards of the time. It is true that most of the natural philosophers (read anachronistically scientists) of the period were university educated but their scientific activities were extra curricular. Even for the Early Modern Period there is a major historical discussion as to whether the universities supported or hindered the development of the sciences. Given all of this basing Britain supposed superiority in the sciences on its medieval universities appears to me to be somewhat dodgy.

Next up we have the Royal Society:

They paved the way for the world’s oldest scientific institution, The Royal Society, formed in 1660 by a group including Sir Christopher Wren, professor of astronomy and architect of St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

A very short paragraph with so much that is wrong.

We’ve been here before but for those who weren’t paying attention the Royal Society is not the world’s oldest scientific institution, the Leopoldina, founded in 1652, is! Also the Leopoldina and the Royal Society were by no means the only scientific societies founded in this period. There was the French Academy, the Berlin Academy and so on. Again attributing some sort of British exceptionalism to the Royal Society just doesn’t wash.

The Royal Society wasn’t formed from a group that came from Oxbridge but one from Gresham College, an institution that TBPoPS TPBoPS completely ignores, which is rather strange as Christopher Wren, he wasn’t a sir then, was professor of astronomy at Gresham and not at Oxford or Cambridge. Some but not all of the Gresham group had studied at Oxford and one at Cambridge. The group at Gresham was interwoven with other scientific discussion groups of the period such as the Hartlib Circle whose principle figure Samuel Hartlib wasn’t even British but German. This group also followed the teachings of Jan Comenius who was Czech. One of the principal early figures in the Gresham group was Theodor Haak another German with close connections to the Hartlib Circle. Finally, another German, Henry Oldenburg, was the Society’s first secretary. The whole thing starts looking rather un-British if one looks too closely.

The introduction of the Royal Society is followed by another series of historical claims that are at best dubious and in some aspects simply wrong.

The aim was to pursue a radical idea – that the workings of nature can be best understood by observation and experiment.

Any theory or idea about the world should be tested and if it disagrees with observations, then it is wrong.

Even today, that’s radical, because it means that the opinions of important and powerful people are worthless if they conflict with reality. So central is this idea to science that it is enshrined in The Royal Society’s motto: “Take nobody’s word for it”.

Shortly after The Royal Society was formed, Sir Isaac Newton deployed this approach in his great work The Principia, which contains his law of gravity and the foundations of what we now call classical mechanics – the tools you need to work out the forces on bridges and buildings, calculate paths of artillery shells and the stresses on aircraft wings. This was arguably the first work of modern physics.

Here we have a very standard mistake in the history of seventeenth century science the conflation of Baconian methodology with Newtonian about which I have blogged on more than one occasion (keyword “stamp collectors”!). This is the result of believing that there is only one scientific method so they must have all used the same one.

This has become known as the scientific method, and its power can be seen in some unexpected places.

The Baconian, principally inductive, fact gathering methodology leads to the so-called historical sciences such as geology, the various branches of biology and palaeontology. The Newtonian hypothetical deductive methodology forms the backbone of the so-called empirical sciences, physics etc. Conflicts between the representatives of the two schools of thought led to several serious schisms in the early decades of the Royal Society, so to conflate them is a serious historical error.

There are those that would argue that the foundations of classical mechanics are to be found in the works of some Italian geezer called Galileo Galilei whom they also credit him with having written the first work of modern physics. The Dutch might argue for either Simon Stevin or Christiaan Huygens, whilst the French would certainly champion Descartes and the Germans Leibniz. All of which goes to show that such statements in the history of science are out of place. I personally would argue that all of these works contributed to a synthesis created in the eighteenth century by people such as Varignon, various Bernoullis and Euler that is really the first appearance of modern physics.

The rest of the essay degenerates into a series of anecdote that supposedly illustrate the one true scientific method, which I won’t go into now.

Now some will certainly argue that I’m nit picking and being unfair to TBPoPS TPBoPS who is only simplifying a complex story. However this type of simplification leads to falsification and that is what I cannot accept. In fact as several people have already pointed out TBPoPS TPBoPS is not actually doing history of science at all but is abusing history to make a political point in the here and now as can be seen from such passages as this:

This is a very important question to ask, because science and engineering are not only part of our past – the future of our economy depends to an ever-increasing extent on our continued excellence in scientific discovery and high-tech manufacturing and engineering.

If TBPoPS TPBoPS wants to take up the baton for public science and technology funding in Britain in the twentieth century he is welcome to do so and he would have my full support but I cannot stand by and watch as he perverts the history of science to achieve his aim. As my acronym for him makes clear he has become a pop star amongst television presenters and people who have little idea of the history of science are going to take what he says as the gospel truth. The result will be that when historians of science try to explain to these viewers that what they think is the truth in reality isn’t, they are simply going to reply, “it must be true because TBPoPS TPBoPS said so on television!” In an age when people like TBPoPS  TPBoPS worry about science communication and the problem of converting climate change deniers and creationists I find it sad that he deliberately abuses the history of science.


Filed under History of science

18 responses to “Rule Britannia: Britannia rules the sciences.

  1. Pingback: History as PR and the need to see science in context | Literacy of the Present

  2. Pingback: Rule Britannia: Britannia rules the sciences. |...

  3. irathernot

    Isn’t it TPBoPS instead of TBPoPS, that is Poster Boy instead of Boy Poster?

  4. K

    “Even a country like Croatia can dish up a pretty spectacular list of great thinkers, in that sense Britain is nothing special.”

    Just to name a few from the list; [older] Roger Joseph Boscovich, Marco Antonio de Dominis, Fausto Veranzio, Franciscus Patricius, Marin Getaldic… [newer] Nikola Tesla, Andrija Mohorovicic (and his son Stjepan), Giovanni Luppis… etc

  5. OK, but I hope you aren’t suggesting that the Brits are the world leaders in bragging about themselves. My country’s national vanity makes the Brits and the rest sound down right humble. U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

  6. Pingback: Science Britannica | Experiment, Experience, Explore and Engage

  7. Thony Said “We’ve got you Yanks beaten before you even start. After all our country is GREAT Britain!”

    I needed that after a rather lousy day. That was funny.

  8. I just shared this on Facebook followed by the comment: Brian Cox’s blinkered world view is so terrifyingly unscientific. If he wants to appeal for more government support he could start by attacking the laws that make it hard for international scientists and aspiring scientists to come to the UK. Science should be treated as a global affair, not a toy for nationalists. But all he manages to do is descend to Tory-level distortion of the truth, probably hoping this is the only language they understand down there at the Department for Education.

  9. Much as I agree that Cox’s history of science is incredibly over-simplified, and overlooks many important points as well as exaggerates the role that Britain played in the foundation of modern science, I cannot help but feel that it is A Good Thing that him and his TV shows are as popular as they are. People who profess absolutely no interest in either science or the history of science are at least tuning in and watching him, engaging with him, and taking away some key parts of the story as to how modern science came about. I would love it if those same people could be taught a more complete, accurate and all-encompassing history and philosophy of science when they were at school, but until that is the case I would much rather their overall knowledge of the history of science was patchy, inaccurate and rather Anglo-centric – thanks to people like Cox – than completely non-existant. Who knows, perhaps some of them will – like me – be inspired to study up History of Science at university and then start to fill in all the gaps, and surely that can only be A Good Thing.

  10. Jeb

    Semi detached ideas about British identity are two a penny but considering the politics at the moment (I go into a voting booth and decide if I want to be apart of the U.K or not soon) you think people would show some indication of having a brain.

    For Cox clearly its England that puts the great in Great Britain.

    Radio 4 documentary running this week on the history of The Scottish Nationalist Party. It made this charge concerning its origins that it emphasized science engineering, Scottish genius as opposed to the lesser minds of the south.

    I did not listen as the presenters introducing managed to state that it was program about Scottish identity. It seemed to strongly infer that nationalism and a sense of being born in the Northern part of the isle are the same thing.

    The icing on the cake this week was an otherwise rather nice documentary on the history of society in the 70s that at one point stated that Burns night was the favorite night of the year for all Scots before showing a guy in a kilt with bagpipes bursting into the pub the scene was shot in.

    Depictions of What Britain is and its identity are as semi detached as the country is politically at the moment.

    Sad as we have a moment when a serious debate of what our future could be and how we can shape change, should be center stage.

    Instead we get a daily diatribe of self centered shit on the subject.

  11. Jeb

    p.s you should keep you’re eyes open for a rise in this type of stuff Thony over the coming months and think about the context these debates are taking place in.

    They are on the rise be it in regard to the greatness of Britannia or the evil ways of us uppity Burns loving, haggis eating Northern types dwelling in a parasitic socialist utopia: be interesting to chart the ebb and flow in it’s full context and utter unbalanced surface weirdness.

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  13. Jeb

    I would recommend Murray Pittock’s radio 4 series The Roots of Scottish Nationalism in relation to this. Made an interesting contrast particularly in his noting how important a role call of Scottish achievement here was for Unionist nationalism since the enlightenment (episode 3).

    In terms of identity and flag waving the article you discuss seems a very different form of nationalism not based on the notion of union despite its use of the word British.

    “The British Isles are home to just one percent of the world’s population”

    It also made the point that this form of Scottish identity focusing on intellectual achievement was important to maintaining trade links throughout empire vital for Britain’s economy in Australia, South Africa, America etc etc. A way of maintaining and keeping alive economic links with immigrant communities.

    So flying the flag may be playing to a much wider base than simply home residents for economic reasons. Although even on this point representing such a narrow sense of what Britain is also looks fail unless their has been a recent global spread in St Georges clubs or something.

  14. Pingback: 39 Steps: The Roots of Science Bubble Blowing? | Byssus

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  17. “Edward Jenner came up with vaccines”

    Interestingly, BBC4 has just started a series titled “Extra Life: A short history of living longer” which is also available on the iPlayer. Vaccines is the topic of the first programme.

    More or less simultaneously with Lady Mary Montagu, the Rev Cotton Mather in Boston Massachusetts learnt about the practice of variolation, as it became known, from his West African slave whom he had named Onesimus. So this knowledge was widespread in Africa as well as in the Ottoman empire. Variolation reduced the death rate from smallpox from 30% to 2%.

    Edward Jenner’s particular contribution was to realise that milkmaids who caught the closely related cowpox virus from their cows did not seem to catch smallpox and so, using the same process as variolation but taking fluid from the cowpox pustules performed the process now called vaccination. He tested this first on his gardener’s son, James Phipps, and then (and this is the important part) exposed him to the smallpox virus by variolation. Repeated exposure showed that the smallpox virus did not cause the characteristic lesions that variolation produced. We can see the beginnings of the modern clinical trial in Jenner’s work.

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