Paradigm, No. 25 (May, 1998)

Joint Meeting between the Textbook Colloquium and
the British Society for the History of Science
10th January 1998
Leeds University

Book-borne ghosts who talk in us:
John Tyndall's ways of talking and their residue today

Clive Sutton
University of Leicester


In Paradigm for December 1997 John Issitt raised questions about how we write our analyses of past books -- especially as we try to locate them as cultural objects in particular cultural settings. In teacher education I am interested in the relationship between those old settings and our context of work in schools today and for that I find that the most helpful analytical stance is to think about the systems of discourse, the ways of talking, which were being established in those days.

It is in that spirit I have particularly enjoyed handling some of the books of John Tyndall (1820-1893) and thinking about the qualities of the discourse he helped to establish. I think about his setting and how it connects with, but differs from, the settings which I know. He was successor to Faraday at the Royal Institution, giving highly popular evening expositions and much involved in the politics of the professionalisation of science. The generations of teachers I have in mind were in a the very different situation, picking up assumptions about science and about what it means to teach it. For some of them, at the time when science was being introduced into the public schools, Tyndall's lectures in book form were an inspiration and lecture demonstration became a regular component of school science. Later, even at second and third hand, the approach offered a paradigm in the sense of an exemplar showing how one's craft is done.

Like Faraday's Chemical History of a Candle, Tyndall's books were not 'textbooks' directly, but more a record of the actual events at the R.I. from which a reader can enter into the occasion and hear the persuasive voice of the lecturer. What we hear in that voice is a rhetorical discussion of ideas -- illustrated with tangible phenomena. We do not get simply a lecture demonstration, but more of a demonstration-with-discussion. The lecturer is all the while elaborating the new ways of talking that admit his listeners to the scientific ways of seeing. We hear him working on the visual imagination of his audience at many levels. They can see the material demonstrations, for example with ice on the bench, but from the way these are discussed they also 'see' in their mind's eye what might be going on at the molecular level within the ice crystals. At the super-macro level Tyndall also transports them to the glaciers of the Swiss alps so that they 'see' the progression of the ice there with a scientific eye.

One of the best portraits of Tyndall in action is in a poem composed by James Clerk Maxwell where he picks up this emphasis on theory and the scientific imagination. Maxwell puts these words into Tyndall's mouth, warning the watchers against mere 'fugitive impressions' from the demonstration bench:

Then summon up your grasp of mind,
Your fancy scientific,
Till sights and sounds with thought combined
Become of truth prolific.

The ghostly residue of Tyndall today is to be found not so much in the books which pupils now encounter as in the rhetorical-conversational style which teachers still use at lecture benches. I tried to present some of this view at the January 1998 Colloquium in Leeds, arriving directly from the annual meeting of the ASE which teachers have attended every January for many years and which may be said to have set the tone for school science in Britain ever since the parent organisation, the APSSM, was founded in 1902. Nowadays at these events, up to two thousand teachers assiduously browse the current batch of textbooks in the publishers' exhibition, but I think more about the influence of the conversational demonstrations there. Many of those retain the Tyndallic style, but school books have been going in an opposite direction -- with less of a debate about ideas to explain what we see and very much less about people having ideas and arguing about them. Lacking this human dimension the books, and sometimes the lessons, appear as factual accounts of how things 'just are'.

Even in Tyndall's own work there was a small loss of humanity and tentativeness in his most famous series of lectures, first given in 1862 and first printed in 1863. On the title page for that year is the heading: 'Heat considered as a mode of motion'. He discussed the ways in which people had tried to account for the phenomena of heat. Either there might be an invisible fluid that flows from hotter to cooler places, or all heating effects could be the outcome of molecular motion. Lavoisier and many others had claimed the former and it was still an adequate idea to account for simple heat transfer, but much more evidence inclined the scientific community of Tyndall's time to think of heat in 'dynamical' terms. Nevertheless his science was cautious on such matters -- hence 'considered as' in the title. In later editions, however, he dropped the 'considered as' and left the more assertive title: 'Heat: A Mode of Motion.' He and others had concluded that atoms and molecules must be real, at a time when many still regarded them as just convenient hypothetical constructs.

Today we need ways of dealing not only with the balance of doubt and certainty in scientific discussion in the classroom, but also with overcertainty about science. I have discussed this in a more extended account in: Clive Sutton (1998) A hundred and one science teachers: they still live on in us. School Science Review, 79 (288), 21-26.

Paradigm Catalogue Textbook Colloquium