Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Lawrence Bragg and the Cavendish Laboratory

This post is cross-posted (with minor modifications) from the Connecting with Collections blog.

This month the Connecting with Collections interns are all posting on the theme of who?  In my last CwC post I raised some biographical issues and introduced my main subject, Derek de Solla Price.  So this time I'll write about a significant supporting character: Sir Lawrence Bragg.

Bragg is justly famous in the history of science: he remains the youngest ever winner of a Nobel Prize (at the age of 25 he shared the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics with his father William Henry Bragg, for their work developing X-ray crystallography).  The previous year he had been elected to a fellowship and lectureship at Trinity College, Cambridge.  During the First World War he developed techniques of sound ranging on the Western Front, and he succeeded Ernest Rutherford as Professor of Physics at Manchester University in 1919.  In 1937 he was appointed Director of the National Physical Laboratory, but had not even left Manchester when Rutherford, who had moved to Cambridge, died.  Against some misgivings from his father, Bragg replaced Rutherford again, this time as Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics.

It is as Cavendish Professor that he interests us.  J. A. Ratcliffe, head of the radio ionosphere research group at the Cavendish and a trusted lieutenant of Bragg, had this to say about him:
A Cavendish Professor plays at least four parts.  He must be a scientist, run the laboratory, uphold the interests of the department in the University, and act as an Elder Statesman of Science outside.  Bragg was pre-eminently the active scientist, and he ran the laboratory extremely well.  I do not think he played the part that some others have done in the University itself, and I am not sure that his part as Elder Statesman was quite as large as theirs would have been.  I found him extremely helpful and kindly, and above all things a real gentleman in every way.  He was quite open and straight-forward and ready to help anyone who had the good of the laboratory at heart.  I think there was an extremely good feeling in the laboratory during his time and all liked him.
That's a pretty glowing report for a boss to receive, and it is clear that Bragg excelled as a manager.  As soon as he came to the Cavendish he was thinking strategically about how it needed to change, and he explained his ideas in 1942 in Physicists After the War: Britain produced just one good physicist per million population and the demand for physicists exceeded supply.  In future, scientists would need to pay more attention to the technical applications of their research.  His ideas in this field influenced Derek Price, who would go on to develop the field of scientometrics - the statistical study of science.

He felt his role as a manager was to create the conditions for discoveries to take place.  The best conditions for "brain-waves", he felt, involved collaboration, discussion, and cross-fertilisation of ideas.  They did not arise in large, amorphous organisations, or come to isolated individuals.  So he restructured the Cavendish into research units, of 6-12 scientists, with a few assistants, one or two mechanics, and a workshop.  (It was apparently very important that the workshop be well supplied with junk, so that new ideas could be tried out quickly and at low cost.)  The rapid expansion of the Cavendish (from about 40 researchers before WWII to 160 by 1948) meant that some research groups had to be sub-divided.  Nevertheless, he promoted contact between groups, and encouraged senior researchers to continue teaching undergraduates, hoping that this would stimulate the flow of ideas.

The fact that each group had its own workshop (as well as a central workshop for the largest and most specialised tasks) meant that there was some duplication of functions.  Bragg felt that it was better to have extra machines and occasional underemployment of technicians, than to delay research because the workshops were too busy.

It was in one of these workshops that King Arthur's Table was built.  Derek Price had come to the Cavendish to put the archives in order and catalogue the Laboratory's collection of antique scientific instruments.  Bragg supported Price's application for an ICI Fellowship to fund his PhD studies on medieval astronomical instruments, and it seems likely that Bragg took advantage of the workshops' flexibility to commission them to produce a six-foot wood and brass equatorium - rather different from their usual work in cutting-edge physics!

These kinds of jobs were done without paperwork, so I am unlikely to be able to discover the precise circumstances of the equatorium's production.  But I am glad to have discovered more about a major contributor to the success of the Cavendish Laboratory, and a key figure in twentieth-century science.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Chronology and the politicisation of history teaching

Last Saturday I posted about the proposed new National Curriculum and its programme of study for History.  Yesterday's Sunday papers splashed big on the subject.

Among much hyperbole and inaccurate reporting (no, Observer, Key Stage 3 does not end at age 18), there was an excellent, balanced letter from the presidents of various historical societies.  It's worth reading in full but I'll quote a couple of passages here.

First, they note (as I did) the issue of relegating all pre-modern history to primary schools, where it won't be taught by specialist historians:
we regret that the construction of the Programme in a strictly chronological sequence from Key Stage 2 to Key Stage 3 ensures that many students will not be properly exposed to the exciting and intellectually demanding study of pre-modern history other than in the very earliest stages of their studies.
More fundamentally, they criticise the way the curriculum was drafted:
The contrast with the practice of the Conservative government of the late 1980s when it drafted the first national curriculum is striking. Then, a history Working group, including teachers, educational experts and academics, worked in tandem with the ministry of the day to produce first an interim report and than a final report in the midst of much public discussion.
The curriculum that resulted was widely supported across many professional and political divisions in the teaching and academic professions and by the general public. The current government was certainly right to feel that after many interim changes it was time for a fresh look. Unfortunately, it has not attempted to assemble the same kind of consensus and, as a result, it has produced a draft curriculum that it can be argued could still benefit from extensive discussion about how to ensure that it best serves both good practice and the public interest.
This, I'd suggest, is the result of a political climate that combines a distrust of the teaching profession with a desire to use history as a tool to promote national pride and placate the Conservative base.  As the letter-writers recognise, there is much in the new curriculum to welcome, but such policy-making motives are unlikely to benefit future generations of schoolchildren.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Matthew Arnold, Michael Faraday, and Michael Gove

To those who have managed to keep up with the astounding pace of policy changes flowing from the Department for Education in recent months, it will come as no surprise to see Secretary of State Michael Gove quoting Matthew Arnold in the introduction to his new National Curriculum.  The draft curriculum, which was released for consultation last week, begins with this as the first of two Aims:

The National Curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the core knowledge that they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.

You may (especially if you listened to the excellent "Value of Culture" series on BBC Radio 4 recently), recognise this as directly quoting Culture and Anarchy, by the Victorian poet, critic and schools inspector.  Arnold wrote:
The whole scope of the essay is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world.
So, what is on this new Victorian's list of "the best that has been thought and said"?

Well, in History at least (the subject I taught for 5 years), it seems that the omission of Arnold's "in the world" is significant: the new curriculum focuses squarely on British - and usually English - history.  And we get a very clear idea of what bits of British history are to be taught: unlike the current curriculum, which is deliberately non-prescriptive, the draft programme of study (pages 166-171) is laid out in considerable detail, almost as chapter headings of the new textbooks which the publishing/examining conglomerates are sure to rush into print.  Unlike the present system, which does not insist on the study of any single person (Olaudah Equiano and William Wilberforce are named, but only in passing: "the work of people such as..."), the proposed new regime hopes to drum in knowledge of dozens of famous figures, from Alfred and Athelstan through "Clive of India" and Christopher Wren, to Attlee and Margaret Thatcher.

There's a curious dissonance in the publication of such a prescriptive curriculum by an education secretary who boasts of giving unprecedented freedom to schools.  (The level of prescriptive detail has been criticised even by one of Gove's strongest supporters, the economic historian and free-market apologist Niall Ferguson.)

Despite considerable media interest in the proposed curriculum, the most significant change has barely been mentioned.  The content for Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14) starts in the mid-17th century with "The Enlightenment in England" (a topic that, curiously from an Education Secretary born and raised in Aberdeen, includes the proud Scot Adam Smith).  This means that the earlier history of Britain, from the Stone Age through to the Glorious Revolution and 1707 Acts of Union, will be taught in primary schools (Key Stage 2, ages 7-11), where teachers are highly unlikely to be history specialists.

As a medievalist, I am worried by this.  But I do also recognise the sense in ending the repetition that currently exists between primary and secondary history (typical class discussion: "We already learned about Henry VIII."  "Oh, did you?"  "Yes. He was fat, and he had lots of wives.").  And I can see that focusing the last 3 years of compulsory History in on the last 3 centuries of British history provides a great opportunity to include some fascinating content.

Here, almost for the first time, is the history of science.  "Scientists such as Isaac Newton or Michael Faraday" get a mention in Key Stage 1 (ages 5-7; if there are any primary school teachers reading this, I'd love to know how you would approach this topic).  In Key Stage 2 we have "Chaucer and the revival of learning" (there's a whole blog post's worth of debate in that title).  And Key Stage 3 gives us Bacon, Newton, the Royal Society and the Industrial Revolution (Watt, Stephenson and Brunel are named).

I would like to imagine that this will lead to innovative cross-curricular collaboration, as young people study Newtonian mechanics, Swiftian satire, and Voltaire in the original French, all put into broader context in their History classes.  Or at least, for the history of science, kids could learn about discoveries and the development of ideas, anchored in understanding of the societies and conditions in which they arose, rather than as isolated eureka moments or landmarks on the way to our current state of scientific perfection.

But since the bulk of the curriculum comprises topics such as "Britain and her Empire" (note the gendered pronoun), "the conquest of Canada", and "the Indian Mutiny and the Great Game", it seems that Gove's aim, despite the modernising rhetoric in which it's sometimes clothed, is the same old glorification of Our Island Story (1905) - "the story of the people of Britain [which] tells how they grew to be a great people" (p. 4).  Yes, I still have a copy, and yes, it's a wonderful story - that's all its author ever intended it to be.  But if it's to be used as the basis for a 21st-century education it could do with some updating; and so, I fear, could Gove's ideas.

Actually, he could do with studying Arnold more carefully.  The passage I quoted above continues: "and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits".  Stock notions abound in the new history curriculum, but fresh and free thought?  That's one deficit the government hasn't made much progress in clearing.