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29 October 2014
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Fantastic
Simon Schaffer at Teatro Greco, Taormina

Light Fantastic



Interview with Simon Schaffer


How did you originally get involved with Light Fantastic?


Annabel Gillings, who produced the programmes, contacted me about a series on light.


I think the original idea was for a science-based series using optics, vision and so on to communicate interesting discoveries in physics and chemistry and how light works.


I thought this approach would be mistaken, as it judged past events as either good or bad, depending on whether they delivered us to where we are now.


She was interested in my approach so we met up and worked out ways of dividing up the whole history of optics into four hours!


How is Light Fantastic different from a straight science-based documentary?


Unlike some public science writing and broadcasting which explains the roots of where we are now, this series is about understanding the roots of where we were.


In other words, the past of the sciences is presented on its own terms, showing the context for the development of the ideas, the significance of forces like theology, culture and economic development.


To imagine there have always been scientists is very misleading.


Before the 19th Century no one calls themselves a scientist, they don't cut up the world like that.


I look at the preoccupations of the clergymen, medics, industrialists, engineers and professors who make breakthroughs.


Take Newton: you can't understand what he is doing in the 1660s, experimenting with prisms and sunlight, unless you realise he is obsessed by the problems of religion and God.


Light interests him because it's the principle of divinity, or how creation happens.


Realising the meaning of those experiments to Newton, in theological terms, demonstrates just how different the intellectual environment was to our current one.


I think the programmes challenge the 'conflict thesis': the idea that the progress of science has always been contested by established religion.


Almost all the people I mention in the series are creationists. Galileo was a believer. He wanted the church to agree that the Earth goes round the Sun because he didn't want the church to be wrong!


You emphasise the connection between new scientific understanding and craftsmanship in the programmes…


Yes. Innovations like the spy-glass, dyeing cloth and making specs really mattered.


New phenomena, theory and stories are always related to new hardware becoming available, new relations between scholars and craftsmen and economic developments.


I think this is well illustrated in the electric light story where the market plays such a key role.


The programmes seem to cover a vast territory, you visit Hven in Denmark, Sicily and Egypt comes into it…


Yes. I wanted to link up what Brits were up to in the period 1600 to 1900 and what other cultures, people, savants and natural philosophers are doing to give a networked picture of the development of the sciences.


Did the people at the forefront of the discoveries share any common traits?


I think the best way to think about the extraordinary gallery of rogues and heroes who crop up is not so much to think of them as psychological types but to try and think of them as social types.


What kinds of job, enterprise, role and vocation put Europeans into a situation where they make a scientific breakthrough?


What type of society is it that puts people into positions that then allow them to do the kinds of things the programmes describe?


Alhazen, Galileo and Tycho Brahe are all men who advised the state, who were in turn trusted by the state and who in all three cases got into trouble with the state when those relations of authority and trust broke down.


In all three cases it's between the reliability of the expert and the breakdown of trust that the new knowledge of optics emerges.


Was there anything you particularly liked about making the programmes?


I loved going up in the balloon on the island of Hven looking down on Tycho Brahe's garden, not just because I'd never been in one, but also because it was such a testimony to the creativity of the BBC - the production team had decided to film me in a balloon quite spontaneously, after they saw the seemingly unappealing location.


The programmes also have some very fine moments of surreal juxtaposition, like the dissection of the ox eye in the case of Descartes, filmed in Smithfield.


I loved talking about Descartes in Smithfield. The director, Jeremy Turner, had many brilliant ideas like that.


Was the television a good way to communicate your ideas?


There are optical affects which you can communicate on the screen but which you simply can't do any other way.


I really enjoyed showing visually how things bend through lenses and I think the replications worked brilliantly - like Count Rumford's colour experiments and Tom Wedgwood's attempts to make silver nitrate blacken and so on.


Those are the best ways to communicate that the history of science is the history of work: it's lots of different human beings collaborating in groups to work very hard over long periods of time with the hardware to hand.


It was also great to be able to use the Victorian scientific equipment like the wave apparatus and telescope to illustrate these people's ideas.


On the other hand, it takes a very long time on telly to communicate an idea I think I communicate in a sentence when I'm writing, or talking or teaching, because so much else has to be going on.


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