Dr Allan Chapman: The Growth of Science

by Lucy Mellor

Dr Allan Chapman FRAS is a fellow of Wadham College and member of the Oxford University History Faculty, where he specialises in teaching the history of science. He lectures at many institutions across the country, has presented numerous television programmes, and written several popular books. A fascinating man with an unrivalled knowledge of the formation and progress of science in the West, as well as a charming nature, bowtie and pocket watch, I interviewed Dr Chapman to find out more about his own thoughts on science.

It is indubitable that growing up in the Greater Manchester area had an impact on what a young Dr Chapman would eventually choose to pursue. Seeing the effects of the Industrial Revolution on his local area of Pendlebury led to a fascination with machines, chemicals and trains – all the hallmarks of the events of the 18th and early 19th Centuries.  Where had the machines come from, who had invented them, and how: these were questions that led Dr Chapman to an interest in the history of science; as he says, it was the ‘history of ingenuity’.

This led Dr Chapman into this field of study. But what he loves about it so much, and what made him stay, is the way it bridges the gap between the arts and sciences – accessible to all and relatable to those from both sides of the divide.

And, as he rightly points out, the public seem to love it. All of his books have been hugely successful, many people come to hear him speak, and he is constantly being asked to present various documentaries, radio programmes or astronomy shows which people tune in to in huge numbers. It makes science understandable in a way that quantum mechanics never can – instead of attempting to articulate scientific concepts that are often incomprehensible, the history of science tells people what science is. In the eyes of Dr Chapman, here lies its real-world relevance and mass appeal.

Another route into science for artists may be through theology. Dr Chapman has explored the intersection between science and religion in great detail over his career, including writing a book to dispel many of the popular untruths about supposed conflict between the two areas, Slaying the Dragons: Destroying Myths in the History of Science and Faith. A firm believer in Christianity, he strongly opposes the view that science and faith are incompatible; indeed, he believes that apparent skirmishes between scientists and the Church have been greatly exaggerated by historians of the 19th and 20th century. Listening to him explain the evidence, I am inclined to agree.

As far back as the 1st Century, scholars realised that the Bible was not a literal account of the world: the Bible required interpretation as soon as it became clear that the Earth was not flat. Dr Chapman argues that the point of the Creation story is not to actually describe what happened. Instead it should be seen as a fable to make the point that God is the creator, who then gave us the intelligence to work out the details for ourselves.

This is the study of science: to understand the world that God made. It is a compelling argument, and is certainly plausible. Listening to Dr Chapman, there doesn’t seem to be a problem with the theory of Grand Design, and it certainly doesn’t seem to interfere with the empirical study of the natural world. Galileo’s friend Cardinal Baronius himself said that the Bible is to ‘teach us to go to heaven, not how the heavens go’.

People often see the badge of the cross pinned to Dr Chapman’s lapel and stop him to engage him in discussion. He tells of how a ticket inspector on the train back up to Manchester recognised him from TV and enquired whether the star visible in the night sky for the last few days was Jupiter, which Dr Chapman confirmed. Noticing the pin, he then asked whether Chapman was a Christian, prompting a discussion around the intersection between religion and science.

Yet these discussions aren’t always so cordial.  After giving a lecture on modern medicine at Cambridge, Dr Chapman was accosted by a man sneering at his cross and asking how he could be a serious scientist wearing ‘that thing’. As polite and courteous as ever, Dr Chapman responded by attempting to explain how the two are not incompatible. He is a man trying to expose people to the truth about the history of science and religion as he sees it, always in an intelligent and comprehensible way, and always with a friendly smile.

Whether it’s regarding Newton’s debt to Robert Hooke or the Great Debate of 1860, Dr Chapman is challenging assumptions about the history of science. One particular area where he is keen to expose the truth is that of the great ‘Scientific Revolution’ of the 16th and 17th Centuries. He argues that the ‘Revolution’ narrative was created after the fact by 19th-Century historians influenced by the Marxist ideals of great revolutions and the triumph of intelligence over stupidity. In reality, scientific progress was a slow, cumulative process. Its roots can be traced right back to the ‘natural philosophers’ of the Middle Ages – theologians who sought to answer questions about the material world as well as the spiritual.

Neither was (or is) scientific progress the result of a few great men able to see things invisible to the common man, but a collaborative effort often contributed to by amateurs: physicians, lawyers and clergymen. There have been very few genuinely original discoveries that have changed science fundamentally, argues Dr Chapman, rather, every new step is built on the foundations of everything that has come before. Understanding this context is key to the history of science.

Dr Chapman’s keenness to recognise those less well known in scientific history comes out once again when I ask him his favourite story from the history of science. He tells me the tale of John Jones, an illiterate farm labourer born in Wales in 1805. His interest in science began when – as has happened to many of us – his lover ran off with another man. Unlike many of us, however, his next step was to visit the local witch to have a curse put on his unsuspecting rival. Becoming distracted by an astronomical chart decorating a wall of the witch’s lair, he enquires about the stars and forgets all about the curse. Leaving with a new-found knowledge of astronomy, he builds his own telescope and becomes one of the most proliferate observers of stars in the 19th century. Such is his legend that today he is the Honorary President of the Welsh Astronomical Society, and a Welsh hero.

Dr Chapman’s fondness for this type of story demonstrates his heartfelt passion for the history of science. At the very beginning of the course, he turned to me and my fellow students to explain how he simply does this for the love of it. Listening to him talk for the past term, and questioning him today, I am in no doubt as to the truth of this statement.

Chapman’s warmth, kindness and infinite knowledge – from why the Greeks were the only ancient civilisation capable of pursuing science, to the enormity of Charles Darwin’s grandfather’s stomach – make him one of the best historians of science today (although I regret to say I may be biased, as we both do our best local Lancashire accents over cups of tea).

The Poor Print

Established in 2013, The Poor Print is the student-run newspaper of Oriel College, Oxford, written by members of the JCR, MCR, SCR and staff. New issues are published fortnightly during term. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

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