Space and the "March of Mind": Literature and the Physical Sciences in Britain 1815-1850

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Space and the "March of Mind": Literature and the Physical Sciences in Britain 1815-1850 by Alice Jenkins. Oxford U. Press, 2007. Pp. 257. $60.

The title of Alice Jenkins's Space and the "March of Mind" is tantalizingly vague--the word "space" simultaneously suggests geographic distance, abstract mathematical concepts, even outer space. Jenkins traverses all of these realms in her wide-ranging study of Romantic and Victorian scientific thought, though she is particularly invested in spatial arrangements of knowledge in nineteenth-century geometry, physics, and astronomy. She is equally interested, however, in the social and linguistic factors that determined who obtained access to scientific information during this period of rapid intellectual transitions. Jenkins describes how disciplinary boundaries began to crystallize during the thirty-five years under discussion. As the nineteenth century progressed, scientists increasingly policed these boundaries to exclude anyone without specialized training and extensive knowledge of mathematics. At the same time, the expansion of print culture during this era made scientific information more widely available to women and the working classes, who could read the work of numerous scientific popularizers or attend popular lectures at Mechanics' Institutes. Jenkins relates how the heated cultural debates surrounding who could access scientific knowledge, and the purposes to which that knowledge should be put, served as fertile subject matter for literary authors during the period. Writers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and George Eliot commented perceptively about the advancement of physical sciences, as did a number of lesser known authors who broached scientific conceptions of space in Biblical epics.

Jenkins's focus on interactions between literature and the physical sciences is welcome and unusual. As she points out in her introduction, "the burgeoning academic field of literature and science has certainly paid more attention to literary culture's relationship with the life sciences and earth sciences than to its interactions with physics and chemistry" (8). Yet Jenkins's insights will prove valuable to historians of science as well as literary critics. Her account of the scientific climate of the early nineteenth century is highly perceptive, particularly her argument that religion and science were surprisingly compatible during the period under discussion. According to Jenkins, some Romantic-era sciences drew their authority from religious principles. For instance, astronomy gained some of its considerable prestige from its apparent universality and timelessness, not to mention its focus on "the heavens" (91). The unchanging, abstract rules of geometry, meanwhile, were sometimes invoked to demonstrate the existence of an afterlife (162). The most obvious early nineteenth-century challenge to Christianity--Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830-33), which contradicted the Biblical idea that the earth was only a few thousand years old--lies outside the physical sciences and thus outside the scope of Jenkins's book.

Also persuasive is Jenkins's account of why public access to science first increased, then declined during the first half of the nineteenth century. She writes: "The years [1815-50] were the last time in which British literary culture had unmediated access to original work in the physical sciences. They were also the first time in which large-scale concerted attempts were made to give mass readership access to both science and literature" (18). In chapters 3 and 4, Jenkins traces the reasons why access to science decreased around 1850, including the increasing currency of mathematics as a common scientific language. While Latin no longer served as a scientific lingua franca after 1820 or so, most scientific terminology coined during this era was either Latin or Greek. Both math and classical languages were core subjects of the education provided at Cambridge and Oxford. …