On Familiarity: How to Learn about Science in Nineteenth-century Britain

2 December 2010, 12:00 - 13:30

CRASSH seminar room

Dr Melanie Keene presents her work at the CRASSH Postdoctoral Research Seminar.

A light buffet lunch will be provided. Please contact Dr Anne Alexander to reserve a place. Reading materials will be available before the seminar.

Abstract

Familiarity was key to nineteenth-century science education. Everyday objects and habitual activities formed a central part of explanations that introduced novel facts and fascinating phenomena to childish audiences. From the chemistry of a cup of tea to the geology of a pebble from Brighton beach, the physics of a see-saw or the wonderful world of water, children were taught of and through the scientific stories hidden in their quotidian environment, as they built new knowledge on old.

This seminar analyses what I have termed ‘familiar science’ in this period, to explore how familiar things, actions, characters, and understandings were exploited as both physical didactic devices and literary pedagogic similes in communicating the sciences. By considering how familiarity was deployed to educate and entertain we can, I argue, move beyond some of the acknowledged problems with the category of ‘popular science’ at this time. For these books and talks, lessons and images, were also arguments for the interpenetration of scientific and domestic life: rather than simply revealing the science of common things they also inserted scientific expertise as crucial for daily life in nineteenth-century Britain – chemists were better cooks; physics more important than fairytales. In this way, then, such texts made claims for what should be familiar to everyone.