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25/10/2014

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In Our Time

Bring it up to date, urges Max Wallis

Melvyn Bragg sees introduction of science into his In our Time programmes as a success (Science & Public Affairs, Sept. 2008, p.6-7) as measured by audience numbers.  However, the low scientific quality could select against discerning listeners.

Gee-whiz

As a scientist and occasional listener, I find myself cringing at times, for example when planetary scientists could not explain Bode’s Law and Bragg lacked briefing to help them out. I heard latent heat discussed in melting ice, then ‘explained’ as molecules moving apart in boiling water to gas, but no-one responding that ice contracts on melting.

In general Bragg encourages a gee-whizz take on science, rather than critical enquiry and seeking principles.  His format of engaging the three experts in turn in dialogue tends to discourage correction of errors such as those above.  If Bragg accepts a point he moves on.  ‘The Forum’ on the BBC World Service has Bridget Kendall interviewing three guests, but on their specialities so their comments are well formulated. 

Newton as icon

A major problem stems from Bragg’s belief in Isaac Newton as the iconic scientist.  I can trace this back to his November 1997 programme:  ‘Sir Isaac Newton is regarded as the greatest scientist of all time… shaped the whole history of modern science’ (blurb for the episode 26/11/97, repeated 28/01/98).  Ten years later, Bragg maintains ‘Newton has determined the way that science has to be done’ (Radio 4’s In Our Time 3 April 2008).

Newton as scientist was quite isolated.  After being criticised for a tacit assumption that light consists of corpuscles, he retreated from public discussions from mid-1670 and busied himself in alchemy.  Newton failed to participate in the early Royal Society discussions and collective endeavour by Hooke, Boyle, Wren and others.  Relating to previous writings is part of scientific method that was becoming established, but Newton famously refused to acknowledge Robert Hooke’s prior work on gravitation and ‘Newton’s rings’.  He wrote Principia in axiomatic Euclidian form, often obscuring arguments, which is alien to both spirit and practice of science.  Newton took dynamical principles derived by Galileo, Kepler and Descartes from experiments and observation, but reformulated them as ‘laws’.   The Laws persist in school teaching and popular parlance, although the conservation ‘principles’ are better science because of wide generality. 

Bragg’s programme should have established that what are taught as ‘Newton’s Laws’ and the ‘law’ of gravitation were actually discovered by others.  But it failed to face that. As to Newton’s contributions to the theory of light, he wrongly assumed light to be corpuscles, by analogy with particle dynamics, and disputed Hooke’s better idea of pulses like water waves.  This held back the development of the correct wave theory of light that Christiaan Huygens developed rather earlier and applied accurately to refraction, including double refraction in Iceland Spar.

Reassessment needed

Historians of science have taken on Simon Schaffer’s 1984 challenge to Newton scholars to move away from heroic historiography and provide instead socio-historical explanations for ‘Newton’s apparently self-evident triumph’.1  The discovery of lost manuscripts and the realisation that Newton had re-written the story of his heroic years 1665-6 to claim precedence have aided that reassessment.  It’s arguable that Newton ushered in an era of retrogression in science – from the free enquiry and flowering of explanatory science in the 17th century to one of intellectual scholasticism and Aristotle-like authority in the 18th after Newton had assumed leadership of the Royal Society.

Reassessment of Newton is ongoing and debate is needed.  Whether consciously or not, Melvyn Bragg is keeping this new scholarship on Newton from the wider public, just when he could be helping the Newton (and Hooke) re-evaluations.

1 S. Schaffer (1984). Newton at the crossroads, Radical Philosophy 37: 23–8;  M. Mazzotti (2007). The two Newtons and beyond, Brit. J. History of Science  40(1): 105–111.

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Dr Max Wallis
Dr Max Wallis is at the Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology at Cardiff University
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