Total eclipse of the lamp

By Melanie Keene, University of Cambridge

When John Watson met Sherlock Holmes, he was struck by many aspects of the consulting detective’s peculiar character. Alongside his astonishing deductive capabilities and dogged pursuit of criminal minds one had to consider his incessant pipe-smoking and intermittent cocaine-injecting. Not to mention target-shooting, violin-playing, or – of course – that hat.

But most bizarre of all, Watson reflected, was that Holmes did not know about the composition of the solar system:

That any civilised human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realise it.

“You appear to be astonished,” [Sherlock] said, smiling at my expression of surprise. …

“But the Solar System!” I protested.

Why was it so “extraordinary” that an educated person in the late nineteenth century did not know about the order and motions of our nearby planets? Why, indeed, was the composition of the solar system the supreme example of what should be familiar knowledge to everyone, the most “astonishing” thing to be noticed about the far-from-quotidian Sherlock Holmes? And, if such information was supposed to be known by all “civilised human beings in the nineteenth century”, how did they come to know it? The answer, of course, was elementary (education).

Today almost everyone remembers learning about the order, relative sizes and motions of the solar system through everyday analogies, and sensory experiences. “If this basketball,” the school teacher declares, “is the sun, then that blueberry over there is Venus.” But before basketballs and blueberries were familiar inhabitants of the quotidian world, over the past 300 years myriad other objects have found their way to the stars as part of introductory explanations. For instance, for “Tom Telescope” in the early nineteenth century the movement of the earth around the sun was best explained as like that of a rotisserie chicken. This “common occurrence in a kitchen” showed how it was “far better for the bird [the earth] to turn round before the fire [the sun], than the fire to turn round the bird”. Other historic lessons deployed everything from balls and sticks, candles and quilts, to carriage wheels and motor cars to introduce basic positional astronomy. Students could orbit a chair-bound teacher; oranges could stand in for similarly-shaped planets; lamps could be totally eclipsed.

Keene - iCHSTM blog entry 1.doc

A boy, a ball, a teacher and a table-lamp illuminate an eclipse.
Source: Internet Archive

In my paper at iCHSTM I will interrogate how this constellation of familiar objects, and their corresponding sensory and verbal explanations, altered from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century. As a standard part of the pedagogic repertoire of introductory books, lectures, and lessons, exploring the ways in which the solar system was incarnated provides an excellent example of what I have characterised as “familiar science”: how the shifting contours of the familiar world were identified with and mapped onto novel scientific knowledge, in this case of the universe. In particular, my analysis of how and why new objects were brought into introductory explanations, and what those objects were, will elucidate how these lessons contributed to debates over the place of and participants in the sciences. Who should learn astronomy? Why? Where? How? Crucially, what should they learn? The solar system itself, after all, was changing over this period, including the addition of Neptune, a deduction of which even Holmes would have been proud.

Keene - iCHSTM blog entry 2.doc

“The Sun and His Family”: an interplanetary grand prix from the early 20th century.
Source: Authors own copy

Through a close reading of selected examples and artefacts, from the tiny tomes of a miniature library to a trip to the sky-garden, I will reveal the sophisticated ways in which lessons moved between domestic familiar analogy and enacted demonstration, fanciful conjecture and imaginative journey, and didactic exposition and scientific fact. Different types of literary comparisons and embodied demonstrations were deployed, with corresponding explanatory and ontological heft, as the heavens were brought down to earth: domesticated, or “civilised”, in Watson’s phrase. Such contextualising reaffirms the suspicion that familiar analogies were only effective when they were, in fact, familiar to their audiences. This assumption was put to the test by the early twentieth century, when the solar system itself became a familiar model for the atom.

By analysing how familiarity was put to work in astronomical lessons, and how crucial comprehension of the sun, moon, and planets was seen to be, we can perhaps better understand why it was so surprising to Watson that by the late nineteenth century Holmes was one of the few people not at home in the solar system.

Melanie Keene is a Junior Research Fellow at Homerton College, Cambridge. This blog post is based on the paper “Familiarity at work: how to learn about the solar system”, which she is due to give at iCHSTM as part of session T193-C, “Public cultures of nineteenth-century science”, on Tuesday 23rd July.

Follow @melaniekeene on Twitter.

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One thought on “Total eclipse of the lamp

  1. Pingback: Picturing science: teaching maths | teleskopos

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