Research interests

The ether in twentieth-century culture
The transition from ‘classical’ to ‘modern’ physics
Oliver Lodge in the twentieth century
Modernism and ‘revolution’
Science on display
Publishing and peer review


The ether in twentieth-century culture
In the early decades of the twentieth century, physicists finally laid to rest a concept that had persisted since ancient times. And yet, the ether did not really die. It is still spoken of as the place where things disappear, and through which thoughts are communicated. For the past hundred years, the ether has continued to serve as a powerful metaphorical tool, long outliving its scientific death knell. I am researching the place of the ether in twentieth-century British culture, examining what its uses can tell us about changing conceptions of the relationship between science and culture, fact and fiction, the old and the new. I aim to uncover the active role of the ether, exploring how the concept is shaped by its users, but also how its particular properties have influenced attempts to make sense of the world.

The transition from ‘classical’ to ‘modern’ physics
The first four decades of the twentieth century was a period of rapid development in physics. The late nineteenth century discoveries of X-rays, Becquerel rays and subatomic particles had revealed new properties of matter, and the early twentieth century quantum and relativity theories added to the notion that the discipline was undergoing a fundamental change in thought and practice.

My PhD explored how scientists managed the transition from ‘classical’ to ‘modern’ physics in Britain, 1900-1940. I considered a variety of different potential definitions of ‘classical’ and ‘modern’ physics, employed for particular purposes, and found that, even as late as the 1930s, there was not one clearcut definition of ‘modern’ physics, but rather a variety of ways in which physicists chose to present their discipline.

I’ve looked at the problem of public trust in science – if the foundations of physics were now under threat, with the laws of Newton apparently overthrown, then why should anybody trust the methods of physics to produce truth? I found that British physicists were very careful in how they described the new physics in relation to the old. They used narratives of progress, played down references to revolution and repeatedly emphasised that ‘classical’ physics still had a valid place in the future of the discipline.

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Oliver Lodge
Oliver Lodge (1851-1940) was a physicist, engineer and pioneer of wireless technology. He was also a spiritualist, and in 1916 published a book detailing his communications, through a medium, with his son Raymond, who had died in the war. The luminiferous aether was central to both his physical and psychical theories. My interest in Lodge concerns his twentieth century activities, particularly his role as a public figure of science. In the 1920s, Lodge was perhaps the most famous scientist in Britain, and certainly the most famous physicist. Despite being a strong advocate of the aether, and highly sceptical of many aspects of quantum and relativity theories, Lodge was regarded as a talented populariser of modern physics. The British public’s experience of ‘modern’ physics was thus highly influenced by a man we now characterise as being decidedly ‘classical’. This classical approach has resulted in Lodge’s twentieth century presence being neglected by historians, as he is dismissed (along with many other Victorian scientists who lived well into the twentieth century) as being out of touch. This is without doubt to the detriment of studies of popular physics, and science, during the first half of the twentieth century.

Making Waves: Oliver Lodge and the Cultures of Science, 1875-1940 is a new AHRC-funded research network, organised by Jim Mussell. The project intends to use the case study of Lodge to answer broader questions about the role of disciplinary boundaries in shaping knowledge, and the relationship between science and culture.

 

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Modernism and ‘revolution’
The early twentieth century saw a flurry of new developments in a variety of
social and cultural endeavours, including art, science, literature and religion. Post-impressionist artists experimented with ever more abstract representations. Quantum theorists explored the possibility that energy took the form of discrete packets. A
new generation of writers abandoned straightforward linear narratives and moved
emphasis from the external to the subconscious. And within the Church of England,
Anglican Modernists challenged the orthodox view of Christ’s divine status. With the
abandonment of long-held traditions, this was a period characterised by revolution
and the negotiation of an uncertain transition from the old to the new.

I’ve explored the parallels between science and other cultures during this period, considering how this might have affected the way that a variety of publics responded to reports about modern physics. In doing so, I looked at the concepts of continuity and discontinuity in: the nature of matter and energy in physics; nonlinear narratives in literature; a continuous whole broken down into discrete parts in abstract art; and the nature of intellectual change.

 

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Science on display
As part of my research into the representation of modern physics in Britain, I’ve looked at how it was displayed at the Science Museum in the 1920s and 1930s. Here there were competing interests: governmental pressure to promote industrial work, and the need by physicists to present their research as applicable to this; and the desire of Director Henry Lyons, and physics keeper F. A. B. Ward, to display the ‘pure’ research underway at the Cavendish. I’ve explored two explicit definitions of ‘modern’ physics, representing these two opposing sides, and considered how they were put on display at the Museum.

 

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Publishing and peer review
I’ve explored these practices through the case study of the 1920s Proceedings of the Royal Society of London (Section A), looking particularly at how publication decisions were heavily influenced by attitudes towards ‘classical’ and ‘modern’ physics. I’ve found that behind the many layers of Royal Society bureaucracy, there was in fact a very small circle of trusted Fellows responsible for managing the paper. These men chose whether a paper should be published not necessarily on the basis of its quality, but rather its perceived value to the discipline. Central to these decisions were the concepts of classical and modern physics, as many in the Society’s ‘inner circle’ believed that classical ideas and methods should no longer be published in the Proceedings. Notably, the attitudes expressed towards ‘classical’ papers here were considerably different from the arguments employed for the benefit of more public audiences.
 

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