Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Q&A with Iwan Rhys Morus



Iwan Rhys Morus is the author of the new book How the Victorians Took Us to the Moon: The Story of the 19th-Century Innovators Who Forged Our Future. His other books include Nikola Tesla and the Electrical Future. He is a scholar of the history of science, and he lives in Wales.


Q: What inspired you to write How the Victorians Took Us to the Moon, and how was the book's title chosen?


A: I’ve been fascinated by the Victorians for a very long time. In some ways, they were very like us, in others, completely different. Even looking back from the 21st century, the 19th century isn’t really that long ago, after all.


But what really fascinates me is what we’re inherited from them – ways of thinking that we like to think are very modern, are actually Victorian in their origins, and that has important consequences. The ways we think about science, and invention, and the future, for example, are the ways the Victorians thought about such things, and one of the reasons I wrote the book was to remind us of the need to be aware of those origins and the baggage that comes with them.


More than anything else, though, the book is about the Victorian origins of how we think about the future, hence the title. That title was my wife’s idea, by the way. I was going to call the book something far more boring!


Q: You write, “We can believe in Victorians with steam-driven computers. And we can believe Victorians or Edwardians traveling to space in ways we can't really imagine of their predecessors.” What about that era makes such beliefs possible?


A: During the 19th century, people started thinking about the future in a completely different way. By and large, before the Victorian period, the future was imagined as being the same as the present. There was a natural order of things. That changed during the 19th century. The future became a different country, and science and technology were re-imagined as the tools to get us to that different country.


One of the reasons we can imagine Victorians with steam-driven computers or Victorians travelling to space is that they imagined those things themselves. During the final years of the 19th century, for example, there was a flurry of excited speculation about that the world would be like in the year 2000, and everyone agreed that space travel would be commonplace by then – the Victorians thought it was already almost within their grasp.


They thought that because they had a new understanding of what science would deliver. Science, as they saw it, was all about making a new future.

Q: Of the various scientists you write about in the book, are there any whose stories especially stand out for you?


A: All of them, really, even the almost forgotten ones like George Cayley and his dreams of flying machines. Charles Babbage stands out though. His obsession with trying to build machines that could think and reason is just so revealing of the ways in which the Victorians thought about the human mind and its workings.


Q: The Guardian’s review of the book, by Katy Guest, concludes by saying, “This book implies that the spirit of Victorian invention was made of arrogance, imperialism and masculinity. Some readers may agree that our future will be made by the same brand of charismatic man. Others might hope that collaboration, open-mindedness and inclusivity will play more of a role in our 21st-century technological adventure.” What do you think of that assessment, and what do you see looking ahead when it comes to the spirit of invention?


A: If I’m honest, I thought it was a slightly peculiar thing to say – expressed as it was as the reviewer’s insight and a potential critique of the book – since it is, after all, pretty much exactly what I say in the final paragraph.


One of the reasons I wrote the book was to invite discussion about how we still think about science and invention with that Victorian mindset. We think, as they did, of science and invention as the province of charismatic men, and that view carries a lot of baggage with it that we might want to rethink.


Victorian scientists called themselves men of science for a reason: they thought science was men’s work. And that assumption, and many others, remain embedded in our scientific institutions and the ways we think about who scientists are.


The Victorians changed the ways in which science was done to make it fit for their century, as they saw it. My final suggestion in the book is that we can follow their example, and remake our science to make it fit for the world we live in now.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Aliens. I’m thinking about the history of extra-terrestrial life and how we think about it. During the Victorian period, for example, it was largely taken for granted that life must exist on other planets – because those planets needed a purpose. William Thomson – one of the period’s leading physicists (though he hated that term!) even suggested that life on earth might have extra-terrestrial origins.


I’m fascinated by what aliens have to tell us about ourselves and how we think about our place in the universe.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: We’ve made a world for ourselves that is entirely dependent on science and technology. That’s generated huge benefits, but also carries huge dangers. Understanding where this technoscientific world of ours comes from is essential, I think, to looking forward, and adapting our world for the challenges that face us in the coming decades.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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