The History of Public Engagement with Science – Part II

Slightly further along from Newton science began to get really exciting for the public – Evolution! Electricity! The periodic table! Science seemed to be travelling along in leaps and bounds, and what’s more, the scientists doing the discovering were also the ones bringing it into the public sphere. Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859 sparked debate worldwide – journalists and fellow scientists alike publishing their own reactions to the work and spurring discussions both logical and theological.

Throughout the Victorian era public lectures on scientific topics grew in popularity – the Royal Institutes Christmas lectures began in 1825 and have continued to this day, exploring a wide range of topics from  ‘The chemical history of a candle’ to ‘Wireless messages from the stars’ and ‘The release and use of atomic energy’. Lecturers such as Michael Faraday and William Thomas Brande were both pioneers in their field but also engaging public speakers and educators. John Tyndall, a well-known Irish physicist, progressed through various posts to become Professor of Natural Philosophy (Physics) at the Royal Institution. Not only was he leading research on diamagnetism and thermal radiation but he was also an insanely popular lecturer who drew huge crowds at lecture halls in both the UK and the States. He also wrote 17 science books, some of which were translated into languages such as German, French, and Chinese, and some of which are still in print today. In the foreword to his 1867 book Sound he says:

“In the following pages I have tried to render the science of acoustics interesting to all intelligent persons, including those who do not possess any special scientific culture. The subject is treated experimentally throughout, and I have endeavoured so to place each experiment before the reader that he should realise it as an actual operation.”

Other scientists and engineers filled theatres and lecture halls with their talks – names such as Tesla drew in fascinated, terrified audiences, and venues such as the Crystal Palace hosted the Great Exhibition, dedicated to showcasing the most recent technological and social advancements. Onwards from that scientific communication began to branch into other types of media as well;  radio shows and television programmes were produced detailing the wonders of the world, and scientific films and public health advertisements flourished.

Moving into today’s media it is easy to see the veritable saturation of sources with scientific information, from online newspaper articles and journals to webcomics, television programmes and podcasts. Over the coming weeks I’ll be looking at some of the more noteable examples of each of these, highlighting the achievements and drawbacks of each and exploring the current ‘public’ relationship with scientific discovery and information. In other words, I’m giving myself an excuse to do what I like best – reading about science and the people who do it. I can’t wait!

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