Patricia Fara

Lab Lit

The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing


Oxford University Press 448pp £20 order from our bookshop

What is now the Oxford University Museum of Natural History was originally built during a modernising drive by Victorian dons worried about Oxford’s reputation for providing science facilities far inferior to those at Cambridge. Critics ridiculed the architects of this new Science Museum for constructing an old-fashioned edifice resembling a Gothic cathedral: even the chemistry laboratory was modelled on the abbot’s kitchen at Glastonbury Abbey. The fundraising guide stipulated that the building should in itself ‘teach some great lesson’, and the latest scientific theories were literally hewn into the structure. The layered columns displayed geological epochs, and the plants on the capitals were accurately carved and carefully classified. To complement these scientific lessons, John Ruskin convinced several wealthy benefactors to finance statues of great heroes who would inspire undergraduates as they strolled by to their lectures. After a good deal of wrangling, the first eight sculptures were in place by 1860. They included not only iconic figures from the past – Isaac Newton, Hippocrates, Gottfried Leibniz – but also recent scientists and engineers such as Humphry Davy and George Stephenson. Like secular saints, each was identified by a personal attribute: an apple for Newton, a lens for Galileo, a condenser for James Watt.

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