Wednesday’s Book Review: “A Vision of Modern Science”

9780230110533A Vision of Modern Science: John Tyndall and the Role of the Scientist in Victorian Culture. By Ursula DeYoung. (Palgrave Studies in the History of Science and Technology.) 280 pp., illus., bibl., index. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. $85 (cloth).

Irishman John Tyndall is far from a household name. A contemporary of Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley, his career as a scientist in Great Britain was stellar. Ursula DeYoung’s biography is a welcome addition to knowledge about this great Victorian scientist. In this well-researched and written book, which began as a dissertation at Oxford University, DeYoung illuminates Tyndall’s role in transforming the nature of science from one based on gentlemen scholars to one that was professional. She emphasizes his place as a public figure, his efforts to popularize understanding of the natural world, and his unrelenting campaign to demystify science from religion.

Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century Tyndall was Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution in London. He took it as his mission to enhance the place that scientists should hold in society, one that had previously been reserved for ministers and theologians. Although raised Presbyterian, Tyndall became an agnostic and assigned to religion much of the blame for the failures of modern society. Like Thomas Huxley he was a public intellectual, offering provocative addresses and publications -arguing for a displacement of Christianity with science. His Presidential Address to the Belfast meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1874 explicitly took on the clergy and denounced them for taking stands on scientific questions.

Ursula DeYoung compares Tyndall to many of his contemporaries and gives him credit for helping to raise the status of science that he witnessed throughout his life. She then explores the reasons why Tyndall is relatively unknown to all except a small number of specialists in the history of Victorian science. At some level he was a victim of his own success, according to DeYoung.

As co-editor of Palgrave Studies in the History of Science and Technology, in which A Vision of Modern Science: John Tyndall and the Role of the Scientist in Victorian Culture appears, I am pleased to recommend this fine book. Enjoy.

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