Thursday, November 19, 2015

Melinda Baldwin’s "Making 'Nature'"

Melinda Baldwin is a lecturer in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. Her research focuses on the cultural and intellectual history of science, particularly scientific publishing and other forms of scientific communication, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She has held fellowships from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the National Science Foundation, and the Situating Science Cluster grant at York University. Baldwin earned her PhD in History from Princeton University, an MPhil in History and Philosophy of Science from Cambridge University, and a BS from Davidson College.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Making Nature: The History of a Scientific Journal, and reported the following:
Making Nature is about the history and development of Nature—today one of the world’s highest-profile scientific publications. The book follows Nature’s story from its foundation in 1869, through its eventual adoption as a major organ of scientific communication in Britain, and finally into its post-World War II transformation into an internationally renowned scientific journal.

Page 99 of Making Nature happens to be the last page of Chapter 3, “Defining the ‘Man of Science’ in Nature.” The chapter focuses on a period in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when Nature’s most prominent contributors were using the journal to advance a very specific set of criteria for a true man of science.* Nature’s contributors argued that a man of science had to be someone who devoted his time to original scientific research—a contrast with earlier eras, when the line between “expert” and “layman” was significantly more fluid.

This focus on research created a problem in 1919, when Nature’s publisher Macmillan and Company set out to find a successor for Nature’s founder and first editor, Norman Lockyer. Lockyer’s preferred candidate was his assistant Richard Gregory, but Gregory was not a researcher and could not meet the criteria Nature’s contributors had set forth for a man of science.

Lockyer and the Macmillans eventually decided that Gregory’s knowledge of the journal outweighed his lack of research qualifications. Page 99 finds Gregory thriving as Nature’s editor in the 1920s and 1930s, having successfully carved out a unique role for himself within Britain’s scientific community. He cast himself as science’s emissary, a charming spokesman who could tell British laymen exactly why science was important to their nation.

The chapter and the page end with a question: “Could Nature make a claim to be the world’s leading scientific journal, not just the most prominent British one?” As it turns out, the answer was probably “no” until well after Gregory retired—but those in search of a more complete answer will have to read the rest of the book!

* British scientific researchers preferred to be called “men of science” rather than “scientists,” for reasons I discuss elsewhere in the book, and also in this blog entry for The Renaissance Mathematicus.
Visit Melinda Baldwin's website.

--Marshal Zeringue