Sunday, March 6, 2022

Edward J. Gillin's "Sound Authorities"

Edward J. Gillin is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Leeds. He is the author of The Palace of Science: Scientific Knowledge and the Building of the Victorian Houses of Parliament and Entente Imperial: British and French Power in the Age of Empire. He is coeditor, with H. Horatio Joyce, of Experiencing Architecture in the Nineteenth Century: Buildings and Society in the Modern Age.

Gillin applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Sound Authorities: Scientific and Musical Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Britain, and reported the following:
Page 99 finds the reader half way through a quote from Mary Somerville, explaining sound’s movement and how musical notes cause those of the same frequency to vibrate sympathetically. Somerville encourages her readers to try this by placing a vibrating tuning fork on a pianoforte’s soundboard and listen to how it caused the instrument’s sympathetic notes to sound. Page 99 then details how she extended this sonorous explanation, analogously, to the motions of light and heat. In particular, it was her intention to persuade her nineteenth-century readers to think about such natural phenomena not as projections of particles, but as impulses, transmitted between the particles of a communicating medium. To do this, Somerville invoked John Herschel’s famous cornfield analogy. In sound and light, “each particle vibrates perpendicularly to the direction of the ray; but these vibrations are totally different from, and independent of, the undulations which are transmitted through it, in the same manner as the vibrations of each particular ear of corn are independent of the waves that rush from end to end of a harvest-field when agitated by the wind.” Here was a way for readers, lacking mathematical training, to conceive of how sound and light travelled.

The Page 99 Test works for Sound Authorities because it shows how Somerville is presenting herself as a trustworthy guide on sound. Analogous explanations and suggested experiments for readers to perform in their homes were ways of building authority. Somerville’s uniting of heat, light, and sound embodied her own harmonious vision of a well-ordered universe, created and governed by a Divine Author. In 1830s Britain, such a theological understanding of nature found a sympathetic audience. Again, this overlap between religious and scientific values is a central theme of the book: producing sonorous knowledge raised philosophical, moral, and aesthetic concerns. Somerville was just one authority on sound. Away from the readers of scientific treatises, broader social audiences looked to a diverse range of guides in matters of sound and music, including clergymen, mathematicians, musicians, and composers. Page 99 explores the writings of just one of these protagonists, albeit a particularly celebrated and influential one. In early Victorian Britain, few commanded such respect on questions of natural philosophy as Mary Somerville.
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--Marshal Zeringue