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Victorian Studies 43.3 (2001) 504-505

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Book Review

The Science of Energy: A Cultural History of Energy Physics in Victorian England

The Science of Energy: A Cultural History of Energy Physics in Victorian England, by Crosbie Smith; pp. xi + 404. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999, $60.00, £55.00.

If a lexicography were to be based on The Science of Energy, "credit" would emerge as a keyword. The value of Crosbie Smith's study of the books and essays produced by "North British" natural philosophers--including James Clerk Maxwell's Theory of Heat (1871), Macquorn Rankine's Manual of the Steam Engine (1859), and William Thomson and Peter Guthrie Tait's Treatise on Natural Philosophy (1867)--lies in his treatment of the texts as mediums of exchange in the struggle for scientific and cultural credibility. Building on his monumental intellectual biography of William Thomson, Energy and Empire: A Biographical Study of Lord Kelvin (1989), co-authored with Norbert Wise, Smith here undertakes a general portrait of the institutional discourses that made a science of energy possible. Now Thomson becomes part of an ensemble of Scottish natural philosophers and engineers who theorized, constructed, and argued for energy science in tandem and in competition with their English, French, German, and American counterparts. Our attention is drawn not so much to the particular genius of the individual members of the ensemble--Maxwell, Tait, Rankine, and James Prescott Joule among others--but to the networks of communication that defined the group and linked it to a broader public.

Smith represents that communication as a complex tapestry of conflict and negotiation, statement and counterstatement. For instance, in a chapter on Thomson and Tait's landmark textbook, Treatise on Natural Philosophy, he presents a compelling case for a reading that acknowledges both the cultural and the political impulses which guided the text's publication and its signal contribution to the new science. Tait understood the importance of establishing the value of energy science in "disciplinary space"--the minds of students and the estimation of the general public. At stake was the right to claim "North British" primacy in the interpretation of energy conservation and "to raise natural philosophy to a level of academic and cultural prestige above that of, and with jurisdiction over, those 'softer' branches of science which now included Darwin's 'natural history' alongside geology" (192). Smith argues that the textbook was intended to be a technical display of material knowledge and a model for a way of doing science that promoted the "'democratic values'" of a Scottish "Presbyterian academic and economic culture emphasizing direct, personal experience over Catholic authoritarianism and Anglican hierarchies" (193). His treatment of the correspondence between the Treatise's authors and the book's reception affords a wonderful view of the political and moral concerns that move knowledge out of a small network of innovators into the general view of a wider public. In his hands, knowledge and truth emerge as complex phenomena, influenced but not determined by the operational values of science.

Smith relies upon the standard methods of intellectual and social historians to demonstrate the material connection between science and circumstance in the period between the 1850s and the 1870s: he plots out the social connections of "North British" natural philosophers and engineers; he establishes pedagogical relationships and examines the influence of professors and schools upon training and research agendas; he delves into the correspondence of his principals and links their private dialogues to their public lectures and publications; he considers the defining impact of religion on their thought; he traces the intellectual exchange between British and Continental scientists; [End Page 504] he even follows them to the country houses where they played. Most importantly, he maintains the connection between their dynamic theory of heat and the practical concerns of the industrial world that formed the context and supplied the content of their work. Thus the pursuit of physical knowledge was neither disinterested nor understood as such by energy scientists. Thomson, Maxwell, Joule, and Tait did not pursue...


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