How poets sold popular science to Bible Britain

How poets sold popular science to Bible Britain

A book explaining how 19th century writers helped explode traditional ideas of Creation has landed a prestigious award from across the pond.

History lecturer Dr Ralph O'Connor has been recognised by the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts for his book The Earth on Show: Fossils and the Poetics of Popular Science, 1802-1856.

He was awarded the Michelle Kendrick Memorial Book prize, the second accolade for the book this year after the British Society for Literature and Science presented Dr O'Connor with its annual prize.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, geology – and its claims that the earth had a long and colourful pre-human history – was widely dismissed as dangerous nonsense. But just fifty years later, it was the most celebrated of Victorian sciences.

The Earth on Show tracks the astonishing growth of geology's prestige in Britain, exploring how a new geohistory far more alluring than the standard six days of Creation was assembled and sold to the wider Bible-reading public – decades before Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species.

Dr O'Connor said that geology's success owed much to the literary techniques of authors like Hugh Miller, Gideon Mantell and Charles Lyell, who used poetry and spectacle to promote the new worldview and persuade people that science posed no threat to religion, even in its more conservative forms.

He said: "These science-writers were very shrewd. To get the public on side they marketed spectacular visions of past worlds, piquing the public imagination with glimpses of man-eating mammoths, talking dinosaurs, and sea-dragons spawned by Satan himself.

"These writers included men of science, women, clergymen, biblical literalists, hack writers, blackmailers, and prophets. They borrowed freely from the Bible, modern poetry, and the urban entertainment industry. In effect, they created new forms of literature to transport their readers into a vanished and alien past. What they wrote eventually morphed into full-scale science fiction. The public lapped it up."

Dr Ralph O'ConnorA lavishly illustrated blend of the history of science, literary criticism, book history, and visual culture, The Earth on Show rethinks the relationship between science and literature in the nineteenth century.

President of the BSLS, Professor Dame Gillian Beer described Dr O'Connor's book as "spectacular".

"He demonstrates the ways earth science declared itself to broad audiences during the Victorian period. He does so by exploring the immense variety of visual display, from panoramas to museums to illustrated books and cartoons. [It] is a richly argued, very readable, and an innovative account that shows a new science making itself by making itself known."

For more information on The Earth on Show, click on:

http://www.press.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/hfs.cgi/00/240081.ctl

For a review of this book in Nature, click on:

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v451/n7175/full/451129b.html

And for more information on the British Society for Literature and Science visit http://www.bsls.ac.uk/

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