Thesis ID: CBB599022680

The Work of Playful Science in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2022)


Hartley, Lucy (Advisor)
Cobblah, Anoff (Author)

Hartley, Lucy
University of Michigan
Publication date: 2022
Language: English

Publication Date: 2022
Physical Details: 227

The Work of Playful Science in Nineteenth-Century Britain evaluates the function of play in nineteenth-century science, at a time when practitioners increasingly described themselves as “scientific workers” and their practice as “work.” I argue that, just as nineteenth-century popularizers of science were able to make use of play to teach children about science, scientific practitioners were able to make use of play to construct scientific knowledge and model how to become a scientific worker. I demonstrate that scientific practitioners used toys as experimental apparatus; they constructed ludicrous thought experiments that blur the line between entertainment and elucidation; and they wrote autobiographies that suggest that youthful hobbies and university bacchanals can be understood as part of the development of scientific practitioners. The introduction outlines existing narratives about the function of work and play in nineteenth-century British science. Against the grain of these narratives, I propose three benefits that practitioners found in blending science with play in science writing: it encourages readers to craft toys that let them see natural phenomena they could not see before; it allows scientific writers to include absurdities that promote readers’ engagement; and it helps model how children might develop into scientific practitioners as adults. The first chapter uses computational analysis to contextualize the relationship between science, play, and work, revealing that science remained more closely associated with play than with work in popular science texts aimed at young people. The second chapter analyzes one such text: John Ayrton Paris’s Philosophy in Sport Made Science in Earnest (1827). This work, frequently cited in nineteenth-century writing as an example of the blending of science and play, demonstrates the benefits of playful science for children and acts as a paradigmatic example. The third chapter considers physicist James Clerk Maxwell’s decision to label two of his experimental apparatuses in the 1850s as “tops,” and suggests that, like Paris, he found playful science useful in encouraging others to build their own experimental apparatus and to see phenomena they otherwise would have missed. The fourth chapter develops the connection between Maxwell and physicist William Thomson (later known as Lord Kelvin) by appraising the thought experiment known as Maxwell’s Demon; herein, the claim is that Thomson’s addition of absurd, unnecessary details in the 1870s and 1880s actually encouraged readers to dwell on the thought experiment by reworking it repeatedly. The fifth chapter contends that play has special significance in Charles Darwin’s life writing in the 1870s, in effect, making the case that Darwin includes details of his youthful recreations because he understood play to be an important part of his development into a scientific worker. In short, The Work of Playful Science in Nineteenth-Century Britain reveals that our understanding of nineteenth-century British science is incomplete if we do not consider the benefits of their recreational pursuits: what we might call the work of scientific practitioners’ play in nineteenth-century Britain.

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Authors & Contributors
Boon, Timothy
Bowler, Peter J.
Buckland, Adelene
Cassidy, Angela
Di Meo, Antonio
Fawcett, Trevor
History of Science
Public Understanding of Science
Asclepio: Archivo Iberoamericano de Historia de la Medicina
British Journal for the History of Science
Eighteenth-Century Studies
Historical Records of Australian Science
MIT Press
Pickering & Chatto
Transcript Verlag
University of Pittsburgh Press
University of Wisconsin at Madison
Wallflower Press, Columbia University Press
Communication of scientific ideas
Science and society
Public understanding of science
Science and literature
Natural history
Dickens, Charles
Brewer, Ebenezer Cobham
Desaguliers, John Theophilus
Figuier, Louis
Halsted, Caroline Amelia
Haywood, Eliza Fowler
Time Periods
19th century
20th century
18th century
20th century, late
21st century
17th century
Great Britain
Royal Institution of Great Britain
Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge

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