Simon Schaffer

Simon Schaffer teaches the history of science at Cambridge. His collection of essays on inquiry and invention from the Renaissance to early industrialisation, co-edited with Lissa Roberts and Peter Dear, is due next year.

There were fears of revolutionary violence in Paris in the spring of 1773. The police tried to quell the disturbances and make those responsible account for their actions, but they had no success. The trouble spread, first downriver to Normandy, then elsewhere. Statements in the newspapers designed to assuage fears and explain the source of the trouble had little effect, and the crisis lasted...

On the last day of January 1919, the Soviet New Year, the poet Alexander Blok smashed up his father-in-law’s desk. ‘Symbolic action’, Blok recorded pithily in his diary. Michael Gordin’s book helps to explain the action’s symbolism and its violence. Blok’s father-in-law, the desk’s first owner, was the greatest of Russian chemists, Dmitrii Mendeleev,...

It is well enough known that Napoleon’s victory over the Austrian army at Marengo on 14 June 1800 had a major effect on the history of the menu. The surprising haste of the engagement left the French commissariat far behind its commander, whose hunger had to be satisfied with what his cook had to hand: a scrawny chicken butchered with a sabre, some eggs, tomatoes, oil, garlic and a few...

Learned Insane: The Lunar Men

Simon Schaffer, 17 April 2003

Soon after his 70th birthday, Charles Darwin sat down to compose a Life of his grandfather Erasmus, poet and sage of 18th-century Lichfield, brilliant physician, mechanical inventor, incorrigible heretic and evolutionist.* The biography was a mix of piety and polemic. Erasmus Darwin’s fate, his chronic diseases, strenuous urging of social and organic progress, and posthumous obloquy,...

With Great Stomack: Christopher Wren

Simon Schaffer, 21 February 2002

Christopher Wren, England’s best known architect and one of its greatest natural philosophers, experimented with everything: stone and wood, cones and domes, animals and men. He liked to depart from revered authorities. Under his hands plans for a church steeple or an academic hall would turn into a bold revision of Vitruvian schemes, the twitches of an anatomised dog into a startling...

Somewhat Divine: Isaac Newton

Simon Schaffer, 16 November 2000

‘This incomparable author having at length been prevailed upon to appear in public, has in this treatise given a most notable instance of the extent of the powers of the mind.’ This is how the very first review of the Principia began, in summer 1687: from the start, you were forced to admire Newton’s modesty, and his genius. The reviewer, the young astronomer Edmond Halley,...

Heat Death: Entropists v. Energeticists

Simon Schaffer, 13 April 2000

The Second Law of Thermodynamics has an oddly talismanic status in the public life of physics. Flanders and Swann wrote a song about it; C.P. Snow lectured on it. Whether it refers to the impossibility in a sealed system of letting heat flow from a cooler to a hotter body, or to the tendency of the universe to run down to more chaotic and disorderly states, it forms a key element in the magnificent edifice of the science of heat and energy constructed in the closing decades of the 19th century. Snow apparently thought it fairly easy to describe, and in a strange version of the humiliation game reckoned that to confess ignorance of the Second Law was like an admission that one had never read Shakespeare. His literary dinner companions’ response was suitably thermodynamic – ‘cold and negative’ – convincing him that they were all fatally and stupidly antiscientific.’‘

Late 20th-century sciences are publicised through hands-on exhibitions, press conferences, chat shows and interactive CD-Roms. The Victorians had a different system and, as usual, painstakingly classified it. There was the conversazione and the soirée; the grand lecture and the subscription dinner; the amateur society and the private club; above all, there were periodicals and public museums. Whether at the Crystal Palace, the Athenaeum or the local working men’s college, disseminating science was as much a moral as a material issue, since understanding the Creation might yield principles of ethics as well as mastery of nature.

Evil Man: Joseph Priestley

Simon Schaffer, 21 May 1998

‘Why do we hear so much of Dr Priestley?’ asked Dr Johnson rather sternly in the course of a chemistry lecture he attended in Salisbury. Joseph Priestley was the pre-eminent public intellectual of late 18th-century England. In theology and politics, chemistry and prophecy, this seemingly dour and absurdly productive Yorkshire visionary inspired intense admiration and loathing in roughly equal measure. William Hazlitt, no mean polemicist himself, judged Priestley ‘the best controversialist in his day, and one of the best in the language’. Youthful intellectuals of the Revolutionary epoch such as Coleridge saw him as their ‘patriot and sage’. Priestley’s prudent flight to Pennsylvania in 1794, in the wake of the burning of his home, his laboratory, his books and his effigy, was interpreted as one more sign of the evils and hopes of troubled times presaging the imminent millennium. Jefferson thought his was ‘one of the few lives precious to mankind for the continuance of which every thinking man is solicitous’.‘

Our Trusty Friend the Watch

Simon Schaffer, 31 October 1996

The curious Lilliputians guessed Gulliver’s pocket-watch must be ‘the God that he worships’, because ‘he assured us he seldom did anything without consulting it.’ The giant King of Brobdingnag had a different perspective: Gulliver must ‘be a piece of Clockwork (which is in that country arrived to a very great perfection)’. Any acute 18th-century reader of Swift would easily make sense of these timely jokes. Britain was then rapidly establishing world leadership in precision horology and its citizens increasingly seemed driven by the workings of the clock. Time management became a way of judging others – busy bourgeois, dawdling plebeians, languorous natives. Time discipline was imposed on workshops. Fine jewelling to reduce friction and ingenious machines to cut gears helped to make clocks of stunning accuracy. Pocket watches began to tell seconds, and, to assist the genteel Newmarket punters, even fractions of a second. Fashionable theologians preached that the Creation itself was best understood as godly clockwork.’


Simon Schaffer, 6 April 1995

‘The British Museum – not a Museum of Britain’, so reads the caption on a photograph of the Museum’s imposing portico, at the start of a recent survey of national collections conducted by the Museums Journal. The BM is not an exhibition of the nation nor does it incorporate one coherently developed collection. Until well into the 19th century it housed the legacy of the Royal Library, the Classical legacy of the Mediterranean world, colonial natural history, and a host of private cabinets of curiosity, in apparently chaotic if snooty profusion. Radicals attempted to replace the Museum’s aristocratic, Tory management with more scientific and professional direction in the dangerous decade of the 1830s, but the natural history collections were not shifted to Waterhouse’s great palace in South Kensington until the 1880s, and they only seceded from Bloomsbury’s control in 1963. The Museum’s ethnographic holdings, which, unlike some other collections in Europe, do not now count as a branch of natural history, were moved to Burlington House. In 1973, the British Library was formally split off, followed almost at once by plans to shift its collections away from Great Russell Street. Now the holdings of the Museum of Mankind are slowly returning, as the Library even more slowly moves to St Pancras. These wanderings, and the complex controversies which surround them, are eloquent testimony to the intimate relationship between the British Museum and the patchwork of national heritage. So though we might agree, and might even sometimes be grateful, that Britain lacks a museum of the nation, it does possess in this museum a richly fascinating, if often infuriating, emblem of its varying conceptions of value and culture.’

In the Know

Simon Schaffer, 10 November 1994

Like some garrulous character in a story by Italo Calvino, an Italian physician tells of his meeting at a 16th-century siege with a Spaniard who had just lost his nose in a barrack-room brawl. ‘The nose fell in the sand, and I saw it because we were together. So holding it in my hand, all full of sand, I pissed on it, and having washed it with urine I attached it to him and sewed it on very firmly.’ After eight days, the nose remained firmly in place, the Spaniard ‘healthy and free, and all Naples marvelled at it’, as well they might. Such stories might seem far away from modern science, but according to William Eamon they hold vital clues to the course and meaning of the Scientific Revolution. The quick-witted medical improviser was Leonardo Fioravanti, an eminent ‘professor of secrets’, one of a number of Renaissance writers who traded on their reputation as masters of tricks, clues and recipes long lost to, or hidden from, common knowledge and now at last revealed to an amazed public. They foresaw laboratories and workshops, gardens and libraries, where old lore and new skills could be pursued in common.

In place of fairies

Simon Schaffer, 2 December 1982

Daniel O’Keefe’s massive survey of magic not only tells us ‘how to do it’ but gives us some policy recommendations too. His book reads like the transcript of a Royal Commission report on the occult. It is not easy reading, but the effort is worthwhile. His advice extends to such fields as politics, economics and war: this scope gives some clue both to the structure and to the theme of Stolen Lightning. This is not a book that describes magic – Paul Daniels and his friends in the Magic Circle can rest easy. Instead, it is a book that celebrates a kind of magic, the magical arcana of high social science. As the author frequently points out, modern sociology and anthropology have been dominated by the detailed study of primitive ritual, and specifically of magic and its relation with religion. Indeed, these social sciences may be said to have emerged from that study. The classics of modern social science, whether Durkheim, Mauss, Evans-Pritchard or Weber, have all been obsessed by these issues, which they connect more or less closely with the very origins of our own society. Here the origins of social science and the origins of modern society are traced to the same source. Stolen Lightning is much more an examination of these great traditions than of magic itself.

Cleaning up

Simon Schaffer, 1 July 1982

‘Do the spirits teach Socialism?’ asked a working-class spiritualist magazine in 1897. The answer, of course, was yes. In a year which sees the centenary of the establishing of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882, it is worth recalling why the Society was founded and who its real enemies were. The last two decades of the 19th century saw a remarkable growth in the general interest in socialism and spiritualism. Keir Hardie’s speeches to the Independent Labour Party were creatively reinterpreted as announcements of ‘unseen forces of the angel world’ working for ‘moral Socialism’ here on Earth. The ‘New Jerusalem’ of the socialist prophets had a spiritual as well as a revolutionary aspect. And into this maelstrom of radical parapsychology stepped the traditional arm of the British intellectual police – the fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge. Respectable members of that august institution, including Henry Sidgwick (philosophy lecturer), William Barrett (physicist) and Frederic Myers (poet and classicist), founded the Society for Psychical Research as a means of controlling the investigation of phenomena which looked as though they might fall into dangerously subversive hands. The Trinity men soon attracted influential support: from the future Tory prime minister Arthur Balfour, from J.J. Thomson (discoverer of the electron) and from the distinguished physicists Oliver Lodge and Balfour Stewart. Since then the links between scientific heroes and psychical research have always been close. In his foreword to the two books, by Mackenzie and Blackmore, published to celebrate the Society’s centenary, Brian Inglis recalls the roll of honour among scientific converts: it includes Marie Curie and Sigmund Freud. But of course what these two books also recall, and what is made even clearer in Dr Finucane’s masterly history of ghostly appearances, is the aura of fraud rather than luminous ectoplasm which surrounds this whole project. And into this world of spirit and subterfuge, we are astonished to discover, Professor Hans Eysenck of the Institute of Psychiatry is bold enough to enter.

Comet Mania

Simon Schaffer, 19 February 1981

Nigel Calder’s latest successful foray into the exotic depths of space investigates one of the more psychologically compelling problems in astronomy – comets and their consequences. Comets have always fascinated us: it is the task of this book to document that fascination – it does not explain it. Calder’s previous spectaculars, such as Violent Universe or Einstein’s Universe, have tried bravely to give us an insight into those problems which astronomers now find exciting: black holes, quasars, pulsars, general relativity. The celestial world is a good resource for such works: we can rely on the amazement conjured into being by contemplation of the heavens. Comets, however, seem to raise a few problems. For modern astronomy, we are told, they are ‘trivial’. More illuminatingly, ‘most of the agencies that finance high astronomy would frown on the allocation of salaried astronomers and valuable telescope time to so frivolous a task.’



1 July 1982

SIR: Professor Eysenck is becomingly modest in his description of his own work (Letters, 19 August). In books such as The Inequality of Man and Race, Intelligence and Education (quite apart from his more ‘popular’ contributions), he has made rather more of the research than merely to ‘review the evidence and suggest caution’. Laudably, of course, he has argued for ever-larger...


Richard Tuck, 19 February 1987

‘Scientists’ in our culture are (in many disciplines) people who perform ‘experiments’ in ‘laboratories’ and ‘testify’ about them to a wider...

Read More

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences