“Science doesn’t become history until it gets out of the lab”
Jim Endersby, Professor of the History of Science, talks about his prestigious new guest lectureship and the role that we all play in the wider understanding of science.
I am delighted to be a guest lecturer at Gresham College in London this year. It means I’ll be giving four lectures, which are free to attend and will be live-streamed and then available on YouTube. My theme is Utopian Gardens, looking at the connection between the early botanic gardens and the idea of utopias, which were often inspired by a desire to recreate the Garden of Eden.
I’ll be talking about environmentalism, and how the Earth is a garden. The lectures will meander from Francis Bacon’s utopian dream, New Atlantis [published in 1627], to early genetics, to HG Wells and science fiction, and feminist Utopias. I’ll be ending the series with two of my favourite science fiction movies, Silent Running — an eco fable of the 1970s — and Pixar’s Wall-E. One of my arguments will be that humans are gardeners who need to look after the Earth; going ‘back to nature’ cannot be a solution to environmental problems. These films both feature cute little robots looking after the Earth, suggesting the vital role technology might play in helping us care for the planet.
As a science historian I have become less interested in what happens behind laboratory doors. I’ve realised that science doesn’t really become part of history until it gets out of the laboratory and starts changing people’s ideas and lifestyles.
In Victorian times the public were an important part of the scientific world, not just passive consumers. They were active makers of scientific knowledge in the way they collected fossils and beetles, and measured tides and observed comets. Their opinions shaped the way the scientific community talked about science and the language it chose to do so. And that continued to be true in the early twentieth century — and the public and their reactions are still part of science now.
I am horrified by climate-change deniers. They are condemning people and species to death by not facing the facts about the earth’s climate and taking responsibility for it. And yet there is clearly something about what people are inclined to believe — even when it flies in the face of scientific opinion — that is important for historians, environmentalists, politicians and others to understand.
Scientists must not to retreat into an arrogant “we know best, just leave it to us and we will tell you what to do” attitude. That just alienates the public. There needs to be a more flexible understanding of the relationship is between expert knowledge and public understanding, recognising that both sides contribute to this debate, and that actually all kinds of informal avenues — such as science fiction, utopian fantasies, films — shape the ways in which various publics understand science. Those understandings then shape the ways scientists feel they have to present their case to be taken seriously.
I went back to uni after ten years of being a graphic designer because I was fed up with making other people’s words look nice. I wanted to write my own words and hoped I had things worth saying. I had intended just to do a quick BA and then move sideways from production to the editorial side. But I loved studying at uni so much that I never left. So I did an MPhil at Cambridge, then a PhD and a post doc and then came to work at Sussex in 2007.
I was thrilled to receive to a History of Science Society prize for my book Orchid: A Cultural History last year. It was the one prize I had wanted to win because it’s given to the best book for a general audience, which is the audience I prefer to write for. I owe a lot to the palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who first inspired me through his clear and accessible writing. It was the approach I also took for A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology [which won the inaugural Royal Society of Literature Jerwood Prize in 2007 ]. Personally, I don’t enjoy the sort of academic writing that takes pleasure in obscurity (but perhaps I’m just too dumb to understand it).
Just after I started writing Orchid, I was diagnosed with bowel cancer. That was seven years ago. The University was incredibly supportive and they moved my teaching to the morning so that I could have a nap in the afternoon before my kids got home from school.
Looking back, I see I was saving my energy for work, and for being with our kids, who were then quite young. But because I kept working I was very tired and grumpy a lot of the time — and my wife Pam [Dr Pam Thurschwell, Reader in English Literature at Sussex] had to put up with all that. The partners and families of those with cancer are the real heroes; they are the ones who are suffering most, and they don’t get celebrated nearly enough.
I have been all-clear now for more than six years so statistically I am at no more risk of dying from cancer than anyone else my age. The idea of dying from something that’s not cancer is a much happier thought than you might imagine.
Interview by Jacqui Bealing
This profile is part of our This Sussex Life series.
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