Tag: historiography

Book review: Ask a historian by Greg Jenner

ask_a_historianAsk a historian by Greg Jenner is a bit of a change of tack for me. It is a list of 50 questions to a historian, Greg Jenner. Each answer is conversational in style, a couple of thousand words at most, pitched at a level that my fairly bright 10 year old would understand although the content is such that I would be judicious in just sharing it with him. Jenner works on the TV series Horrible Histories which, amongst other things, puts historical incidents to modern pop tunes. It is highly educational and a firm favourite for all ages in our household!

Fifty questions is more than I can review individual, so I will simply outline the style of the questioning and highlight some of my favourites. They are divided into 12 thematic chapters with 4 or 5 questions in each chapter.

Chapter 1 – Fact or Fiction

2 – Is it true they put a dead pope on trial? Yes, it is true, a subsequent pope dug him up in order to do this! The papacy was a fairly wild institution particularly in the 9th century AD with a total of 24 popes in the period 896-904. Contrasting with a total of 5 in my 50 year life. The 9th century popes did not die of natural causes, their successors helped them along the way.

3 – Atlantis proves aliens are real? – There questions that make Jenner angry (not at the questioner), this is one of them. Jenner’s concern is two-fold on this, the first is the implication that non-Europeans couldn’t possibly have done all of these magnificent things – it must have been aliens – which is rather insulting. Secondly, the alien conspiracy theories often have their roots in Nazism.

Chapter 2 – Origins and Firsts

6 – When was the first Monday? No historian likes to be pinned down on a "first" but the origins of the days of the week go back a long way. There is some evidence that the Babylonians used a seven day cycle, it fits neatly into the Lunar month, but the seven day week was definitely in place by 2,500 years ago with the Jewish religion celebrating a Sabbath every seven days. There were other options, the ancient Egyptians celebrating a ten day week Etruscans and early Romans following an 8 days week (labelled with letters A to H).  

8 – When did birthdays start being celebrated? It is comforting to realise that we’ve been celebrating our birthdays for at least 2500 years. A birthday party invitation was found at Vindolanda, a Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall.

Chapter 4 – Food

15 – How old is curry? I found it interesting that the heat we most associate with curry, produced by chillies, is the result of an import from South America. Also it is a bit chastening that "curry" is largely an invention of the British, a bastardisation of  a very diverse Indian cuisine.

Chapter 5 – Historiography

19 – Who names historical periods? This turns out to be a surprisingly difficult question, historians don’t necessarily agree on the extents of a period (like the Long Eighteenth Century), periods do not neatly delineate time – they overlap, and vary across the world. Periods like "Victorian" are ridiculously large and encompass massive changes in social and economic conditions. Finally, the inhabitants of a period may be unhappy with where they have been placed – the Tudors would not have liked being called Tudors.

Chapter 6 – Animals & Nature

23 – When did we start keeping hamsters as pets? All I can say on this question is that hamsters are creatures full of rage.

Chapter 11 – Language & Communications

45 – Where names for places in other languages come from? I liked this question, in large part because I remember travelling out of Pisa on a bus wondering why I’d never heard of the obviously large city of Firenze which I kept seeing on signs (it is the city I know as Florence). The names locals give places are endonyms and those that foreigners provide are exonyms. In the days of rapid and communication, essentially since the beginning of the 19th century there has been a tendency for exonyms and endonyms to be one and the same, give or take a bit of pronunciation. Bécs is the Hungarian name for Viennna, known as Wien by the Austrians. Vienna was at the border of the Magyar empire, and basically they called it "gateway". 

Chapter 12 – History in Pop Culture

49 – Why do we care so much about the Tudors? I liked this question because it hints at something I have seen elsewhere about Newton, and it occurs regarding Anne Boleyn’s purported 3rd nipple in an earlier question in this book. These stories were promoted by supporters or opponents in the years after a dynasty or person had died because they supported a preferred narrative and their influence persists for centuries.

The book finishes with a rather nicely crafted Recommended Reading section, and perhaps this is the point of the book – not as an end in itself but an introduction to a range of books for a more in depth view. Ask a historian would be an excellent holiday read, I must admit I prefer something more substantial on a single subject.

Book review: Pandora’s Breeches by Patricia Fara

pandoraInspired by Claire Brock’s biography of Caroline Herschel I found Pandora’s Breeches by Patricia Fara which is a broader survey of women in science during the enlightenment – from around 1500 to 1800.

Fara is interested not only in the people but also the methodology of history. Early on in the book she lays out a manifesto for a better history that doesn’t seek lonely heroes, as is often the case in history of science books. That’s to say her aim is not to simply replace the men in a normal scientific biography with women. As inspiration she cites books like Jenny Uglow’s Lunar Men which is an ensemble of biographies covering several people – I approve of this approach!

The chapter headings are pairings of woman and man, for example, “Anne Conway / Gottfried Leibniz”, at first sight this seems wrong. Surely this is a book about women in science, why tie each of them to a man? But actually it fits with the logic of the book, these women did not operate in isolation but neither did their male counterparts. Their male counterparts benefited from the more or less formal community of “scientists”, and those that had gone before them. But those male counterparts also benefitted from the practical support of their wives, daughters, sisters, other family members and friends. This book shows that practical support was not simply “she made him dinner so he didn’t have to”, it was in correspondence and the exchange of ideas, it was in the practicalities of running a laboratory at home, it was in the translation and explanation of scientific ideas and in the salon. To this group of women should also be added the invisible horde of male helpers, workmen and assistants who also go largely unmentioned.

The book starts by considering how nature has often been represented as a woman, whose intimate parts are accessed, or unveiled, or probed by scientists (usually men). In engravings from the Enlightenment period nature is often represented by a female form. This is not a framing that has disappeared, this quote by a geologist is from 1980: “Her flanks are shuddering… we don’t know of her intentions. Scientists haven’t been able to probe her deeply enough with their instruments”.

This may seem a harmless piece of flowery prose with more than a hint of sexual innuendo but it should be read in a context of a stream of scandals, at the very least in the US, where senior male scientists have acted inappropriately towards women at universities. Francis Bacon, very much the father of the modern scientific method, explicitly rejected women from his new science. A lead followed by the Royal Society who accepted men regardless of nationality and religion but could not abide women.

The book is divided thematically, the first few chapters are on aristocratic women and how they corresponded with and nurtured men who are now far more widely known. This was part of a system of scientific endeavour which was very different from that found today. There was no profession, only the sponsorship of monarchs and the wealthy. Fara discusses Elisabeth of Bohemia, and how she pushed Descartes to explain his ideas fully and Émilie du Châtelet who lived with Voltaire, conducting her own experiments and translating Newton’s Principia, although “translate” underplays greatly her work. This network was known as the Republic of Letters, and Fara highlights how women played a part in it.

The next theme is on women and science in domestics settings. Prior to the 19th century, science took place in the home which was typically managed by the women of the house. Science was an all consuming passion which inevitably brought in other members of the household. Marie Paulze Lavoisier was the wife of Antoine Lavoisier and was clearly deeply involved in his chemical experimentation, she is shown recording the results of experiments in a drawing of the time and was also responsible for highly detailed diagrams of the equipment used in their laboratory. As well as this she arranging for the publication of his work after he was executed during the French Revolution.

The women in Pandora’s Breeches were, in general, heavily engaged in the scientific endeavour. That is to say they did the things they did because they wanted to not because they had been dragged in by their men folk. This struck me particularly in the case of Elisabetha Hevelius who went out of her way to marry the much older, widowed Johannes a merchant and brewer with a substantial rooftop observatory, driven by her passion for astronomy. Priscilla Wakefield, who wrote Introduction to Botany along with 16 other textbooks, also falls into this class. She wrote, quite deliberately, for a large audience with a view to earning money from her writing.

The book finishes with Mary Shelley and Victor Frankenstein. Frankenstein is about how science fits into the wider world. Here Fara highlights that these women of 200 years and more ago did not have the same aims as feminists today, education for women was not generally promoted as a route to equality rather a way by which women could become more useful and pleasing to their families.

Throughout the book Fara highlights that these women are just those for which some written record remains, because of the prevailing culture of the time discoveries which were in truth joint efforts were written down solely to the “great man of science”.

This book is definitely worth reading, it brings to light different facets of the development of science and it is highly readable.

Book review: The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton

shock_of_the_oldThe Shock of the Old by David Edgerton is a history of technology in the 20th century.

A central motivation of the book is that, according to the author, other histories of technology are wrong in that they focus overly on the dates and places of invention and pay little attention to the subsequent dissemination and use of technologies.

The book is divided thematically covering significance, time, production, maintenance, nations, war, killing and invention. Significance reports on the quantitative, economic significance of a technology, something on which there is surprisingly little data.

A recurring theme is the persistence of things we might consider to have been replaced by new technology, the horse, for example. It’s perhaps not surprising that a huge number of horses were used during the First World War but the German’s, the masters of the mechanised blitzkrieg, used 625,000 horses in 1941 when they invaded the Soviet Union. This isn’t the end of the story of animal power: Cuba, as a result of sanctions and the fall of the Soviet Union was using nearly 400,000 oxen by the end of the 1990s.

The same goes for battleships and military aircraft. When Britain and Argentina fought over the Falkland Islands in 1982, the Belgrano, originally commissioned into the US Navy in 1939 was sunk by 21-inch MK8 torpedoes originally designed in 1927! The Falklands airstrips were bombed from Britain by Vulcan bombers refuelled by Victor in-flight tankers, originally built in the 1950s. The reason for this is that the persistent technology actually does it’s job pretty well, the cost of replacing it for marginal benefit is too high and maintenance and repair means that to a degree these technological artefacts have been almost entirely rebuilt.

The time chapter expands on the idea that the introduction of technologies to different places is not simply a case of timeshifting, it depends on the local context. We find, for example, that horse draw carts are constructed from the parts of cars. And that corrugated iron and asbestos-cement are the material of choice for construction in the new slums of the developing world. Edgerton refers to these as ‘creole’ technologies – old technologies which have been repurposed into a new life.

In terms of technology and economic growth, it has really been mass production which has lead directly and obviously to economic growth particularly in the 30 years after the Second World War, known as the ‘long boom’. And whilst there was a boom in new technologies, all around the world the oldest technology – agriculture was also experiencing a boom in productivity – overshadowed by the new things.

As usual with such a book I picked up some useful facts to deploy at the dinner table:

  • The German V-2 rocket killed more people in its production than it did in its use.
  • The inventor of the Aga cooking range was a Nobel prize winning physicist.

For a scientist this book makes for an uncomfortable read in places since we come to the topic with some preconceived ideas and position, which are not necessarily grounded in the best of historical methods. For instance, Edgerton highlights that R&D spend just doesn’t correlate with economic growth. And that to a large degree the nation of invention is not the nation which benefits from an invention.

Perhaps most damning in the eyes of scientists, their bête noire, Simon Jenkins has supplied a cover quote:

The Shock of the Old is a book I can use. I can take it in two hands and bash it over the heads of every techno-nerd, computer geek and neophiliac futurologist I meet!

It’s a mistake to think of all scientists and computer geeks as being neophiliac. One of my colleagues works using an IBM Model M keyboard which we recently established was older than our intern, he also prefers the VIM editor – based on technology born in the 1970s. In the laboratory, the favoured computer language for scientific computation is still often FORTRAN, invented in the 1950s.

Thinking back over the other books I’ve read on the history of technology, for example A Computer Called LEO, Fire & Steam, The Subterranean Railway, Empire of the Clouds, The Idea Factory and The Backroom Boys. It is true to say they have very much focussed on single technologies or places but to my mind they have generally been pragmatic about the impact on society of their chosen subject. The authors have each had a definite passion for their topic leading to regret for what might have been: a thriving British aircraft industry, computer industry and so forth. But they don’t seem to provide the litany of dates and inventions of which Edgerton accuses them.

Despite this The Shock of the Old is readable, the author knows his field and provides a different viewpoint on the history of technology, more overarching, not so besotted. I’ll certainly be looking out for more of his books.

Book review: “In defence of History” by R.J. Evans

evansI’ve been interested in the history of science for some time, as a result of hanging around with historians on twitter I have been led to historiography – the study of history and its methods. This has brought me to "In Defence of History" by Richard J. Evans. It provides an opportunity to compare the ways of the historian with those of my area of science.

In his introduction Evans makes clear the book is a response to postmodernist criticism of historical practice. I was also amused to note that he cites a source as saying that historians were resistant to philosophising about their subject and criticism of their methods. As a scientist it sometimes feels as if other academic disciplines, such as philosophy and history, are on a crusade to "help" science with their criticism – this has never felt at all supportive or helpful. What this book makes clear is that one shouldn’t lump all such outsiders into one hostile blob!

It becomes clear through the book that postmodernism is not really a single thing. The core is the idea that all things are text, and that an external, objective world is less relevant – this idea originated with linguists and philosophers who were relatively unconcerned with the external world. As a somewhat hostile outsider Evans probably does not provide the best introduction to postmodernism, although he does acknowledge that ideas from postmodernism have been useful in the study of history and historical study.

As a by-product of this defence Evans gives a clear survey of what history is and what it claims to do.

The book begins with a history of history: raising first pre-modern styles of history, such as the chronicle and the morality tale of Gibbon’s "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire". Leopold von Ranke is cited as the father of the modern method, that’s to say the inspection of contemporary documents in the historical record using them to identify causes for historical events and "facts". Here the distinction is made between the primary sources and secondary sources. For Ranke the key subject of history was politics, a view that held sway for many year but more recently has been receding. The key to the historical method therefore is hunting down original documentation and reading it with a mind to its original purpose and the context of other documents of that period with a care not to be caught out by changes in language and unspoken purposes.

Evans also identifies the crisis in history following the First World War, a stark reminder to historians that predicting the future was tricky although Evans does not sign up to the idea that history is at all about predicting the future. There’s an interesting parallel here between Toynbee’s "A study of history" which tried explicitly to make laws of history for predicting the future and Asimov’s Foundation series of novels, which are based on precisely this idea. Predicting future events sets a high barrier for successful prediction, some fields of science face similar challenges such as in seismology – we can say an awful lot about earthquakes but exactly where and when are not amongst the things we can say. For these fields it’s typical to talk about the probabilities of events and the statistics of large numbers of events.

One thing that struck me was the statement that history was a scientific, imaginative and literary exercise, the first two are things that a scientist would sign up to for their own field immediately, but literary? For sciences such as the one I trained in, physics, students are scarcely asked to string words together. Exam questions are largely a case of putting a sequence of calculations together. My own writing is a reflection of this lack of training.

At one point Evans spends time trying to motivate the idea that history is a science, this seems to me an empty discussion – once you’ve decided whether or not history is a science what are you going to do? Put on a labcoat?

Since Ranke’s time history has diversified immensely with the increasing focus on non-political history such as social history and an appreciation of a wider range of themes , I find this liberating since my interest in history is primarily in "people like me", therefore social and scientific, rather than political.

In contrast to any scientific research I know the political beliefs, defined broadly to include race, gender and sexuality, have a strong bearing on historical research with fields driven to support currently political agendas and the political leanings of the researcher a subject of comment. The same goes for nationality with many European historians focused very much on their own nations and with a distorted view of their importance. It’s very difficult to find parallels in scientific research, to stretch a point you can perhaps look at genetic and brain imaging studies of homosexuality. There is a degree to which there exist national styles of scientific research which have varied with place and time but this research driven by the political agendas of the researcher feels alien to a scientist.

When doing battle with the postmodernists the work of a scientist is easier than that of a historian, since ultimately the usefulness of science is measured by tangible outputs, by impact. If postmodernism increases tangible outputs then it is welcomed into the fold, if it doesn’t (and I don’t believe it does) then it isn’t. Science is tied down by reality which is always there for a return visit, with new methods, in case of dispute. History on the other hand is always flowing past, with no chance of return.

An interesting note on style is the forthright criticism of other historians through the book, and also in the afterword where he addresses his critics in detail and at length. This type of writing is rarely seen in science, that’s not to say the thoughts do not exist just that such discussions are left to the bar, or other informal locations.

I found this book immensely thought provoking because it describes the inner workings of history from the point of view of a practioner, making a striking contrast with my own workings as a scientist.