Monday, 30 September 2013

On scientists presenting history, and the the Gove school of history

I happened to watch Science Britannia over the weekend, ( and was left somewhat confused that such a thing was commissioned. I am not naive enough to not see that presence of Cox is enough in itself to draw viewers, and I have to admit I like his other programmes. Presumably this is the whole reason for the celebrity presents academic programme genre (see Fiona Bruce, Richard Hammond etc).

There were a few problems, however. Firstly, Cox could not help but to bang the drum for the scientific method, something he has repeated in other media appearances. Not a bad thing, it’s an important point, but it seemed a bit like it was being shoehorned in at times. What was most troubling, however, was the whole thrust of the programme. The title Science Britannia perhaps warned of the main problem, but I was still surprised about quite how myopic it was. It was the history of British scientific exceptionalism, straight from the Michael Gove history of science. There is no denying that British science has been influential, but there was no mention of international context to the sporadic examples (both in chronology and field). Indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking that no foreign scientist had done anything of note. Even if it ignored Pasteur, Koch, Bohr, Tesla, Edison, Curie, Einstein and the rest, it needed to be stated that there was a contribution from outside this country – indeed, that science is not just the work of lone geniuses, but men who ‘stood on the shoulders of giants.’ Indeed, for example, the ‘British’ discovery of the structure of DNA had the American James Watson playing a crucial role.

At the end of the episode, however, the reason for this became clear. It read like a funding application for British science. We need to continue funding British science to keep this British exceptionalism going. And therein lies the problem with having Cox as the presenter. And to think historians as excellent as Simon Schaffer are relegated to BBC 4....

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

On infrastructure and HS2

My work on coaling the navy frequently looks at infrastructure. Coal did not simply appear at foreign stations, nor was increased demand simply absorbed by existing infrastructure. Throughout the period I look at (1870-1914) changes are made to ensure that the system employed improves the efficiency and quality of the delivery of coal to stations, despite huge increases in naval demand. It is recognised, albeit a little late, that these changes were the only way to ensure that this infrastructure was as robust as possible, and often large expenditure was allowed because of this.

Thinking about this has made me question modern attitudes towards infrastructural upgrades, and in particular those of the railways. Anyone who has ever used a train, especially to a major city at rush hour, has inevitably complained about the frequent delays, signal failures, and overcrowding. Yet we often do not think beyond simply blaming the train companies for this (and in no way am I absolving them from any guilt here). We have a tendency, as Latour suggested, to blackbox transport infrastructure, just as we do with other services such as energy, television, internet etc. Yet this infrastructure not flawless, it is not infallible, it is a physical entity. I often have to remind myself when using the tube that I can’t complain about it failing to reach my modern expectations when it is 150 years old. The fact is that the demand on rail infrastructure is not static, and there is only so far that ‘modernising’ and ‘improvements’ can cope with this. If reports are to be believed, and my experience seems to confirm them, we have already reached the stage where major changes of infrastructure are needed. This is shown by the fact that some trains run at 60% over capacity, and that worryingly, some train passengers are provided with less space than the minimum legally acceptable for transporting livestock. These statistics suggest that a cost cutting project of repairs and maintenance would be for naught, as at some point a lengthy and huge overhaul of the infrastructure is needed. It is not a problem that will go away, and these measures are akin to using a plaster to heal a compound fracture, despite whatmany have argued.

So why all the opposition to HS2? Firstly, it has been pitched to the public badly, as the government has sought to sell the idea with figures about speed and boosting the economy. I am no economist, but it seems clear that these benefits are questionable, especially when considering the enormous cost. Secondly, is the cost itself – and previous government projects haven’t exactly inspired confidence in this, the Scottish parliament building being three years late and over ten times over budget. Thirdly, today’s population is just not used to huge infrastructural projects. The only of note that I can think of in my lifetime are the Channel Tunnel and HS1, both of which seem to have been a success in the public consciousness. But because of this, we are suspicious of such large outlays, and concerned about large building projects in ways Britons of 60 years ago simply were not. It seems that many believe infrastructural upgrades are regarded as a luxury, but they are not. Other countries have realised this and have upgraded their rail infrastructure. 

Having not seen the intricate details of the plans for HS2, and not being an expert,  I cannot say whether the current plans are feasible. But to blindly suggest that the country does not need any sort of rail infrastructure upgrade is at best foolish, and at worst dangerous. Usingthese projects as a political game thus seems reckless. Infrastructure may be largely invisible, but if we continue to ignore its ability to cope with the demands placed on it, it will become visible when it fails and continues to fail.