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