When you hear of Charles Dickens, you most likely instantly think of classic works of literature, such as A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, or Great Expectations. However, seldom does one hear he was a man of science – let alone an early science communicator! Indeed, George Henry Lewes, a prominent writer, critic, and amateur physiologist of the Victorian era declared Dickens was “completely outside philosophy, science, and the higher literatures” following a look at his library. Unbeknownst to many us, however, Dickens was indeed an individual heavily influenced by science, with much of his work being inspired by a variety of scientific aspects, from the human body to the Earth itself.
Dickens was at the centre of Victorian society, with a devoted audience taking his word as gospel, from his novels to the magazines he published and edited. Consequently, his fame put him in touch with several notable scientists of his day and age including Charles Darwin, chemist Jane Marcet, botanist Jane Loudon, and Michael Faraday, to name a few. Furthermore, his work was admired by the likes of Florence Nightingale, who would even prescribe his novels as treatment to the soldiers she nursed.
Dickens’ lifetime saw a number of key scientific breakthroughs, which lay the foundations for modern science, such as the acceptance of the age of the earth, the theory of evolution, and the second law of thermodynamics. Dickens himself felt so deeply about these issues that he campaigned for various scientific theories, as well as publicly criticising other aspects of science. Unfortunately, little is spoken today about how Dickens has helped shape scientific understanding, and how he tried to solve social problems through inspiring his audience with his books. Unbeknownst to us, Charles Dickens is indeed a man of science, and should be recognised for his contributions to the modern era.
“Dickens is a man of science, and should be recognised for his contributions to the time”
Last month, the Charles Dickens Museum opened a new exhibition to try and address this lack of understanding – Charles Dickens: Man of Science looks at his work to try and show he was a key science communicator of the age. Speaking to Felix, Guest Curator Dr Adelene Buckland, senior lecturer in nineteenth-century literature at King’s College London, said that they believe this was the first exhibition of its kind to focus on Dicken’s interest in science. Dr Buckland said: “Dickens was a famous writer, but his powers of observation and his connections as one of the most famous men in Britain at the time meant that he was also a leading communicator of science. He communicated science through his journals and magazines, and campaigned on it, on behalf of lots of his friends.”
Dr Buckland was also clear about the importance of Dickens’ role in shaping public understanding of science: “Dickens is a great example of a science communicator; however, he is not someone we would associate with science, as he did not have a background in science or scientific training, and was mainly associated with the arts. He campaigned for a science that everyone could do, or be involved in and participate in – a science that is exciting and enlivening. He was a pioneer of that idea that science matters most when it reaches more people!”
Here at Imperial, a lot of great research is going on. However, much of the time it is confined to scientific journals. If you want your research to reach the masses, then take inspiration from Dickens: look for science communication events, team up with someone who has an interest in the arts, or try something unusual to grab people’s attention!
Charles Dickens: Man of Science is on at the Charles Dickens Museum (closest tube: Russell Square) until 11th November 2018. Tickets for museum and exhibition: £9.50 adults; £7.50 concessions; £4.50 children; free for <6s.