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Thursday
Feb282019

A long and illustrious history of mediocrity

I just finished reading "The Spirit of Inquiry" by Susannah Gibson, which I highly recommend. Cambridge University is well known as being one of the very best places in the world to do science, which is one of the reasons that I moved here. With the long and rich history Cambridge has, it is easy to imagine that the current state of appears dates back 810 years, since its founding. "The Spirit of Inquiry" is the story of the rise to greatness of Cambridge science, and perhaps the most striking aspect is how far Cambridge had to rise over the past 100 years, only coming to greatness in the recent history of the University.

Consider the state of Cambridge University 200 years ago. It was described by Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873), the founder of the Cambridge Philosophical Society in 1819, as being in an "unhealthy death-like stagnation". John Gascoigne described the prevailing attitude of the University towards research: "It was no more a professor's business to add to the existing body of knowledge than a librarian feels an obligation to write new books". Cambridge was essentially "an ecclesiastical nursery or place where gentlemen are covered in a varnish of culture" (Nature, 1873).

For 50 years, the Cambridge Philosophical Society lead the movement to reform the ecclasiastical nursery, importing new science and mathemetics from the continent. But the University was ultra-conservative, resisting all efforts to include science in the cirriculum. Opening a laboratory at Cambridge was considered antithetical to "the superior calims of ecclesiastical history and pastoral theology". Even relative progressives such as William Whewell (1794-1866), considered a reformer for supporting the inclusion of science in the graduate examinations, advocated for gradual change - such as suggesting that scientific facts might be included after they had become generally accepted for at least a century!

Consider this quote by Nature, in 1873, comparing Cambridge science to the Continent: 

"It is known to all the world that science is all but dead in England.... It is also known that science is perhaps deadest of all at our Universities. Let anyone compare Cambridge, for instance, with any German university; nay even with some provincial offshoots of the University in France. In the one case he will find a wealth of things that are not scientific, and not a laboratory to work in; in the other he will find science taking its proper place in the university teaching, and, in three cases out of four, men working in various properly appointed laboratories".
It is striking to me that the incredible success of Cambridge science in the past 100 years is more an outlier than the norm across its eight hundred and ten year history.

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