Heroes of Science

Patricia Fara charts the rise in popularity of the history of science.

Certain British heroes seem to have organised their lives around memorable dates. Can it be coincidence that William Shakespeare was not only born on April 23rd, St. George’sDay, but died then too? Conveniently for posterity, Charles Darwin waited until he was 50 before publishing On the Origin of Species in 1859 – did he perhaps hope for the splendid double festivities of 2009? No. Commemorating the anniversaries of scientific giants began only in the 20th century, after the concept of celebration had widened from religious rituals to include secular ones. Before then, even Isaac Newton’s centenaries passed virtually unnoticed.

How people remember the past reveals much about how they consider the present. Both science and its history are now big business ventures that value individual achievement and revel in dramatic breakthroughs. During 2009, Darwin’s status as a great genius was consolidated by countless films and articles glorifying his discovery of evolution, when he allegedly vanquished old-fashioned bigots clinging to the Bible’s account of creation. What a missed opportunity. Instead of recycling that romanticised version, producers and publishers could have told stories that were equally fascinating but more authentic. Rather than reiterating the familiar, they could have kept their audiences informed about recent interpretations by portraying Darwin as a reclusive, obsessive hypochondriac who carelessly tossed into one single bag the finches from different Galapagos Islands. This neurotic self-doubter dithered for years before eventually proposing an unprovable explanation of an evolutionary process that was already generally accepted in principle.

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