Tables Turned at the Royal Society’s Twilight Science

Guest blogger and honorary Conscicom-er Richard Fallon recounts recent happenings at the Royal Society. Photos by Berris Charnley.

Without much hesitation, science historians will tell you that nineteenth-century science was theatrical. It’s easy to write that, and imagine a crowd of well-dressed ladies and gentlemen politely applauding the latest magic lantern slide of a Megalosaurus’s shinbone, or an ultra-magnified drop of Thames-water, but can we run a field test on it? On the 29th of June, at the Royal Society’s free Twilight Science evening, that’s exactly what we did. Twice. Readers of this blog will recall Matt Wale’s report on our first run at a public conversazione and magic lantern show, ‘Conversations on Nature’, which was held at the University of Leicester back in November. Now armed with Dr Geoff Belknap’s new (1890s) magic lantern, we took the show on the road as what I assume to be one of the very few history-of-science-themed theatre groups: the Strolling Players. Sihouette pic Whereas in Leicester we preceded the magic lantern show with a display of various Victorian paraphernalia, in London we tried something different. That something was a short play, ‘The Tables Turned’, in which a group at the Piccadilly Literary and Philosophical Society debate the scientific validity of Victorian spiritualism. A rather one-sided debate, you might think, but there’s no better subject to demonstrate the heterogeneousness of Victorian science, where the divide between those things we now see as serious, like evolutionary theory and microbiology, and what we would probably consider quackery, like phrenology and mesmerism, was frequently non-existent.Magic lantern slide Melanie Keene, of the University of Cambridge, acted as the President of our debate, while Matt reported the proceedings. Geoff played the part of the sceptic, while I was the night’s believer in table-turning, spirit-rapping, and probably ectoplasm as well (why not?). And even though it was a very sultry evening, we were all in full Victorian dress from Leicester’s Little Theatre. After our debate, we opened up the matter to the (very well-attended) floor. Not too many spiritualists in the audience, I felt, although it’s hard to feel credulous when you’re surrounded by the judging eyes of so many paintings of dead scientists. That’s the Royal Society for you.

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