The conference was, as usual, a highly enjoyable mix of academic sessions, roundtables and keynotes; with a bit of time reserved for some socialising. The conference was opened by Prof. Iwan Morus on the British Association for the Advancement of Science’s meeting at Swansea in 1848. The first full day of the conference, 2 July, was packed with sessions, with five parallel panels running at simultaneously. These ranged from early-modern science to Darwinism to the development of hearing technologies by the twentieth -century British Post Office. The day was finished with the awarding of two of the societies prizes the John Pickstone prize 2014 for best scholarly book (awarded to Graeme Gooday and Stathis Arapostathis, Patently contestable: electrical technologies and inventor identities on trial in Britain (Cambridge, 2013)) and the Dingle prize for the best book on history of science accessible to a wide audience. The Dingle prize was awarded to Martin J.S. Rudwick, Earth’s deep history: how it was discovered and why it matters (Chicago & London, 2014). Rudwick’s acceptance speak was a masterclass in the public lecture. He masterfully brought the audience through the evolution of thinking on the age of the earth and the significant impacts this deepening timeframe had on our understanding of not just the earth but also of man’s existence on it and theology. If the book is half as good as the lecture it promises to be well worth the read not just for those with an interest in the history of science but anyone who wants to understand how the natural sciences impacted upon society.
The second full day of the conference brought a plethora of excellent panels on the history of science, technology and medicine. The day included a panel on Science and Religion. This contained perhaps one of the top papers at the conference, Bill Jenkins (University of Edinburgh), ‘Evangelicals and extra-terrestrials: the plurality of worlds debate in Scotland, 1815-55.’ This paper trace the impact of astronomic discovers on Scottish Evangelicals who set out to deal with the possibility of life on other worlds. These evangelicals not only accepted that life existed on other worlds but also engaged in a series of discussions that sought to understand the nature of salvation in an extra-terrestrial context. The paper also explained how these figures combined science and teleology to justify their beliefs.
Perhaps the best panel of the conference was one entitled, ‘the travelling rat, 1850-1950’ which traced the interaction and co-existence of man and his travelling companion, the rat. One very good paper on the co-existences of man and rat, by Kaori Nagai (University of Kent), look at rats as passengers on nineteenth-century ships. The paper highlighted that while rats were considered a problem, they had to be managed rather than destroyed. For example, to stop rats eating into water butts the crew had to ensure that the ships complement of rats were well watered. The highlight of the session was Neil Pemberton’s (University of Manchester) ‘From foreign invader to subterranean fiend: sewer rats, sanitary modernity and Victorian underworlds’. This highly informative and enjoyable paper highlighted the fact that rats enjoyed a status as eaters of waste in sewers and, hence, were deemed important to public health. The paper also looked at the complex relationship between man and rat once it surfaced out of the sewer. By using contemporaneous accounts of rat catchers the paper demonstrated that the relationship between man and rat in the Victorian period was much more complicated than we assume.
The conference reached a crescendo with the Presidential keynote by Greg Radick (University of Leeds). This was based on some fascinating work using the history of biology to produce a genetics course that removes the concentration on Mendel’s famous experiments with peas and inheritance. This allows the student to learn the importance that other factors, such as environment, play, alongside genes, in human development.
Further information on the British Society for the History of Science can be found at its website: http://www.bshs.org.
For more information or to purchase Martin J.S. Rudwick’s Earth’s deep history: how it was discovered and why it matters (Chicago & London, 2014) go to: http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/E/bo19211655.html
Adrian James Kirwan, co-editor of Holinshed Revisited, is an Irish Research Council funded Ph.D. candidate at the Department of History, National University of Ireland, Maynooth. His research focuses on the interaction between society and technology, more about his research can be found here.