Basalla, George; Coleman, William and Kargon, Robert H., editors. Victorian Science: A

 

Basalla, George; Coleman, William and Kargon, Robert H., editors. Victorian Science: A
Self-Portrait from the Presidential Adresses to the British Association for the Advancement of
Science. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970.

Here are three historians of science who pull together 17 Presidential Addresses of the BAAA
during the "science era" of the 19th century. The essays date from the very founding of the
Association in the 1840s through Lockyer's editorial in Nature on the death of Queen Victoria in
1901. Here, then, are the formal statements of the great scientists of the Victorian era, at least
those who were willing to get involved in the thick of things. (Darwin, for example, was
unwilling to participate in public meetings.) The editors have written brief introductions to each
essay and, for each, recapitulated the address and contextualized the whole thing. Their
summaries are much more useful than the addresses themselves.

The essays are grouped in terms of subject matter rather than by date of publication. There are
various topics which concerned the presidents: methods, philosophy, the relationship of science
to government and to the public, and, of course, different subject areas such as chemistry,
biology, evolution, and geology. (Darwin's views were presented to the BAAA's President in the
late 1870s by one of Darwin's greatest critics, Owen. He may have been an opponent but
evolution was too big a topic to ignore.)

One cannot expect to find much on fraud or dishonesty in science in official pronouncements of
the presidents of the BAAS. These addresses were ceremonials. In the days before TV, this was
NOVA. The great scientists were popularizers. The BAAS had an enormous commitment to the
development of science and tried to see that science got all the public support it could. These
addresses were designed to be pop science which encouraged financial support. It was hardly a
situation for admitting fraud.

Two elements regarding the growth of Victorian science are here. For one thing, the development
of evolution meant, for all practical purposes, that scientists played the roles once occupied by
priests; they became the new Brahmins, the new elite. They had, however, little to offer in terms
of immediate improvement in the lot of the masses. Therefore, the time orientation of science
became the future. Science would save the world surely and shortly, but not now. The public was
told to have faith and science became the new, pragmatic religion.

One does find, in Playfair's address of 1885, a call for science education. He warned the public
that other nations would outstrip England if science education were allowed to languish. But
languish it did and Germany assumed command in science.