James Clerk Maxwell: Building the Cavendish and time at Cambridge


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Just sent off the final (I hope) version of my chapter James Clerk Maxwell: Building the Cavendish and time at Cambridge, to appear in Raymond Flood, Mark McCartney and Andrew Whitaker (eds), James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) to be published by Oxford University Press.

It’s been a fascinating exercise, re-examining the evidence (and finding some new) on a topic that has already been extensively covered.


Using Ngrams to test the prominence of the Cavendish Laboratory


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I was asked recently about the rise to prominence in British physics of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge.

Certainly the Cavendish received a very good press from its alumni, former pupils and co-workers of its first professor, James Clerk Maxwell, and his successors Rayleigh, J J Thomson, and Rutherford, which ensured its prominence in history.  But is this a historical reconstruction? Or was the laboratory prominent from the time of its foundation in 1874, and if so, why?

I’ve been playing about with examining this using google’s Ngram viewer as a contribution to my forthcoming book chapter on Maxwell and the Cavendish. The Ngram measures the yearly count of a phrase, normalised by the number of phrases published in the year, in a corpus of over 5.2M books digitised by google up to 2009.[i]  It thus, potentially, gives a measure of how prominent a phrase (or institution) was in the public consciousness of the time. It is a very useful tool for tracking the frequency of certain types of phrases (and entirely useless for others).

Of course, the frequency of the phrase “Cavendish Laboratory” in absolute terms tells us little about the lab’s prominence – it needs to be compared to other laboratories.  The other obvious laboratory for comparison would be Sir William Thomson’s in Glasgow, or one of the London Colleges, but they lacked unique and distinctive names in the 1870s and hence could not be reliably tracked by Ngrams (I tried).  Oxford, however, had recently established a physical laboratory, the “Clarendon Laboratory”, and this served as a comparator.

Then, to test the hypothesis that the initial prominence of the laboratories might be linked with the prominence of their first directors, I threw “Clerk Maxwell” (professor at Cambridge) and “Robert Clifton” (professor at Oxford) into the mix. The caveat here is that there may be noise from other, non-related, Clerk Maxwells or Robert Cliftons (another reason for not trying to compare with William Thomson which is a much more common name).

Thus, the chart shows the Ngram comparing the phrases ‘Clerk Maxwell’, ‘Cavendish Laboratory’, ‘Robert Clifton’ and ‘Clarendon Laboratory’.


The Ngram shows how Maxwell’s public profile rose through the 1860s and 70s, until his death in 1879 and was followed by the profile of the Cavendish Laboratory after its foundation. However, Maxwell was much more in the public eye than was the Cavendish. Clifton, and the Clarendon, were much less prominent in the literature of the time, but there is less discrepancy between the lab and its professor.

It appears that the Cavendish Laboratory was prominent – at least compared to Oxford’s lab – from the time of its foundation, and its fame probably had a lot to do with the fame of Clerk Maxwell.

[i] J-B. Michel, Y. K. Shen, A. P. Aiden, A. Veres, M. K. Gray, W. Brockman, The Google Books Team, J. P. Pickett, D. Hoiberg, D. Clancy, P. Norvig, J. Orwant, S. Pinker, M. A. Nowak, and E.L. Aiden.’ Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books’. Science (Published online ahead of print: 12/16/2010)

Do adult learners need open licenses?


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It is difficult to discuss OER without reference to the means by which content might be shared (typically online), or about the licensing that facilitates that openness – writes my colleague Ronald Macintyre

A question raised by the JISC-funded UKOER Delores project, that was working both with teaching staff and directly with learners, is, “is licensing really an issue for learners?”  What matters for learners, they claim – after focus groups with the learners – is that the resources are freely available and accessible to them.  They are not likely to want to re-use or repurpose them, so the license does not matter.

Whilst students might in many situations benefit from the unrestricted use of material – allowing them to borrow and re-use in the manner of the teacher – as learners, often all they need is ‘read-only’ access to the material from which they can then draw new knowledge. Even the most restrictive licence would not prevent their entirely legitimate use of the resource as study material and so, it follows, that, for the purposes of an individual learner OER provision, non-restrictive licences should not be a prerequisite. Material which carries no licence at all and which has clear, and restrictive, copyright may for the student at least be of equal value to that carrying the least restrictive of licences (Delores final report).

This claim foregrounds a tension that seems to me to be developing in practices around OER, especially in the sphere of adult and lifelong learning that our OER4Adults project focuses on  – that the expectations of practice that arise from the historical development of the “OER movement” and the motivation underlying much of the funding for OER initiatives, may not match the way they are being used in practice in adult and lifelong learning.  OER have a twin history in the development of open source software and that of reusable learning objects.  In both cases, development was within a community of practitioners (software developers or teachers) to whom collaboration, reuse and repurposing was a fundamental basis for effective and efficient development.

That use is also within such a community may (but only may) be a valid assumption within formal education, where much resource use by learners is filtered by and through the teacher.  As learners become increasingly self-directed, though, there is, by definition, less and less filtering.  In adult education and lifelong learning, where much learning is non formal, we have to think very carefully, probably on a case-by-case basis, about where we can assume that the users of resources belong to the developer/reuser community.

However, and equally, we cannot assume that learners – formal or non formal – are not reusing and repurposing resources.  Increasingly (perhaps) learners are in the habit of contributing back the outputs of their learning, in blog posts, Wikipedia articles, posts to forums, etc.  As with any work of knowledge creation, sometimes their outputs are sufficiently re-worked that, provided proper references are given, licensing should not be an issue.  Sometimes not. Where learners contribute online, we have evidence that they do so – but we have no/little idea of the numbers of those who do not do so.  Is the proportion of the iceberg that is submerged changing?  Is the openness of OER instrumental in changing learner practices with resources?  In what contexts, or for what types of learner, does it matter to learners whether resources are openly licensed or not?

James Clerk Maxwell archives


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I’m writing a book chapter for a new edited volume on James Clerk Maxwell.  On a recent visit to the archives in Cambridge University Library I came across his original letter of application for the new Chair of Experimental Physics at Cambridge [1] (which is not included in Harman’s Scientific Letters and Papers of James Clerk Maxwell) , together with the voting slips of the electors [2].

In their biography of Maxwell, Campbell and Garnett claimed that Maxwell was persuaded to stand, “on the understanding that he might retire at the end of a year, if he wished to do so.”[3]  This may have been an informal understanding that he reached with his supporters, but there is no formal indication of it in his letter of application. It reads:

23 Feb 1871
The Revd The Vice Chancellor
It is my intention to stand as a candidate for the Professorship of Experimental Physics, the election for which is announced for the 8th March.
I am
Your obedient servant
James Clerk Maxwell

He was elected unopposed on 8 March 1871 (we knew that). Theoretically anyone on the university electoral roll (ie. the 300 or so resident members of Senate) could vote . In practice, those who bothered to go and vote for him were:

William Pike, Downing
Henry Sidgwick, Trinity
Mr Trotter, Trinity
T.G.Bonney, St John’s
Sedley Taylor, Trinity
R.C.Jebb, Trinity
A. Cayley, Trinity
James Porter,  Peterhouse
E.A. Swainson, Christs
Joseph Wolstenholme, Christs
R. Kalley Miller, Peterhouse
N M Ferrers,  Gonville & Cauis
William H Thompson, Trinity

[1] Cambridge University Library VCCorr VI 2.2 (Maxwell’s letter of application)
[2] Cambridge University Library O.XIV.39 (the voting slips)
[3] Lewis Campbell and William Garnett, The Life of James Clerk Maxwell (London: Macmillan, 1882) p348

A reply to George


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Thanks a lot to George for his response to my previous post. This started out as a short comment in reply, but grew like topsy into another speculative post.

First, I agree with George that there is a body of literature that describes non-digital scholarship with a similar lens to Kumashiro et al. However, there is also a body of literature about the ways that scholars have collaborated, and I think that to examine one without the other risks missing important points. Indeed, for me, some of the most interesting debates arise from the tension (creative, I hope) between these two views – a tension that goes back at least to classical Greece (eg.Leach) and whose most recent manifestation is as much to do with the rise of the “professional” or “expert” in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as to do with managerialism and marketisation. So I agree with George that interesting questions are which scholars are participating in which ways. What purposes do they use these media for and under what circumstances do they use others? How truly “open” are the debates and are they still excluding “others” in some way, eg. by the form of language and discourse used? What is the relation between an “open” or “networked participatory” scholar and a “public intellectual” (see, eg. special edition of Philosophy & Rhetoric)? I’m not at all surprised that George has found evidence of reputation building as a motive. It’s one that we have also found prominently in our work on release of Open Educational Resources and is evident also in Downes (2007), OECD (2007), Atkins et al (2007).

However, I am wary of confining such questions to digital media as though these were the only possible media or space for collaboration or for reputation building – this closes down options and limits research. I am also wary of framing research on digital scholarship in terms of a debate about the relations of technology and society that was current in the 1980s and 90s, rather than looking at the processes of co-evolution of the two. George mentions co-evolution, but doesn’t really explore the implications in terms of the type of study required – though there are lots of examples in his paper that would be the starting point for a more nuanced and in depth study. This sort of work is now being done in the realm of science studies (see, eg. Carl May).

I think where George and I differ may be on whether values are changing, or whether it is the spaces and ways in which those values can be expressed or performed that is changing. My sentence before the one George quotes makes clear that autonomy and ideals of collaboration and sharing are not new values – though they have existed in tension with monastic ones. (I also wonder whether we mean the same thing when we talk about “autonomy”. I mean absence of control by government or managers. I do not mean that these people are socially isolated).

But this opens up the whole post-modernist debate, and whether values have a stable reality that can be expressed through different media, or whether they exist only in the performance of them. In the latter case, then it becomes trivially obvious that performance in new media is new – but the more interesting question is how is that performance enacted and how does it compare with performances enacted in other media? However, the way George expresses his argument suggests to me that he does assume the objective reality of values, in which case my initial point holds.

In fact, though, I wonder in several places in the paper whether there is a post-modernist interpretation struggling to surface. This is evident in a paragraph that otherwise does not make sense to me:

This transformed view of the mind from a disembodied and objectivist reasoning tool to an embodied, experiential, and social faculty calls into question the validity of monastic scholarly practices which attempt to disassociate the mind, knowledge, and research from social experience This view paves the way for rethinking how scholarly knowledge is acquired, expanded, and validated given the embodied, social nature of human experience. Nevertheless, we should be clear that even though such embodied practice is present in some aspects of academe, it does not represent the dominant academic culture. (my emphasis)

If we take “the mind” as a fairly stable, objectively real, thing – which I think from George’s language throughout the paper that he does – then it is the “view of the mind” that has transformed, not the mind itself – which, indeed, is what he says. However, if it is only our view of the mind that has changed, and assuming that our current view of it as a social faculty is the correct one, then it calls into question the possibility of monastic practices, rather than their validity, ie. all scholarly practices in the past must have been embodied, experiential and social even if this was not talked about explicitly in the discourse of the time. To claim otherwise would be like claiming that nothing evolved before Darwin and Wallace, or that some process other than gravity held the universe together before Newton. Equally, if we are correct in saying that the mind is a social, embodied faculty, then it must be present in all aspects of academe, even if this is only explicitly discussed in the discourse/culture of some.

Now we could get round this objection by saying something like, “the transformed view of the mind legitimates a view/discourse of collaborative scholarly practices.” Or we could take the view that “mind” is a social construct that does, indeed, change with the way we talk about it, and that our discourse powerfully constitutes the way we think as well as the way we behave. This, of course, then raises the thorny issue of distributed cognition (eg. Vaesen 2011) if we are talking about thinking in networks. So, lots to explore and debate here.

Any thoughts anyone?

Networked participatory scholarship


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Eleni has drawn my attention to Veletsianos & Kimmons’ new paper on Networked participatory scholarship. They take a historical approach and “delineate how scholarship itself is changing with the emergence of certain tools, social behaviours, and cultural expectations associated with participatory technologies.”

They build on Burton, Cohen and Weller, and then define Networked Participatory Scholarship as “scholars’ use of participatory technologies and online social networks to share, reflect upon, critique, improve, validate, and further their scholarship.”

So far, so good.

However, while noting that, “it could be argued that scholars have always shared their work with colleagues (eg. face-to-face, via correspondence, over the telephone, through conferences, etc), and disciplines have always had open (and less open) scholars,” they go on, in the rest of their argument, to rely on Kumashiro et al’s characterisation of earlier sholarship as “monastic and lacking ongoing participation, support, and conversation”. In doing so, are they missing some of the most interesting things?

If we accept that scholars have always shared their work, and that disciplines have always had open scholars (there is lots of evidence to support these contentions), then what changes with use of participatory technologies?

One thing is the synchronicity with which the public, and other scholars, can observe the debate, and hence the ways in which they can contribute to it. Some of the ways in which scholars shared and reflected upon their work in the past were private at the time, perhaps not through intention, but because that was what the available technologies enabled. We can re-capture the sharing and reflection now, through archives of correspondence. James Clerk Maxwell, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), and Peter Tait, for example carried on an extensive correspondence with the frequency and brevity of blogs or email, all on postcards, in the 19th century, bouncing half formed ideas off each other. They also published in journals, books, and lectures, their ideas at various stages of development, but these were all in different media. It was only after their deaths, too late to join in, that the entire corpus could be assembled and the debate traced.

Another is our ability to capture the debate (or that element of it that takes place in digital technologies). Debate has been at the heart of what scholars do, at least since medieval times, and to enable debate in the absence of easy communication technologies was what prompted the formation of the first universities. Universities brought scholars together in physical proximity over extended periods of time so that they can talk to each other; conferences brought geographically dispersed scholars together temporarily for intensive bursts of talk. But that is what it was – talk – and most of it has left no trace. Only the published papers or books are seen.

Synchronicity and the ability to capture, then, enable both different geographic and temporal dimensions to the debate. Are these changed dimensions what constitute “openness” today? Scholars are doing the same things they ever were, but by using participatory technologies to do them, the dynamics have changed, and the nature of the debate is likely to change too?

Jim Secord has chronicled the changing nature of scientific conversations in the 19th century. Social norms governed what types of topic were appropriate in what situations, and these changed in response to wider social changes, such as the rise of a professional class and the changing organisation of science. Are any such norms and conventions yet evident in scholars use of participatory technologies? Can we observe and chronicle their changes?

If we view things this way, then perhaps there is a wider context in which we might view the adoption by scholars of participatory technologies. Bollier argues that until the 1960s or so, universities operated on the principle that academic research and innovation depended upon cooperation, collaboration and sharing. Aligned with this belief, university management, and funding policies, were based on collegiate principles, allowing considerable autonomy to scholars (McNay 1995*, Van Rooij 2011). The last 40 years, however, have seen increasing managerial control of universities and a “a frankly acquisitive ethic that aggressively seeks private ownership and profit from the fruits of university research” (Bollier). Might one of the social stimuli underlying increasing use by scholars of participatory technologies be the desire for a space in which they can assert their autonomy and ideals of collaboration and sharing? In this case we might expect to see norms emerging about what gets discussed there, and these norms will be affected not only by the scholars, but also by the expectations and interests of the “public” who join the debate – so the question of who else is involved in these debates, and what they contribute, becomes interesting also.

*McNay, I.(1995),“From the Collegial Academy to Corporate Enterprise: The Changing Cultures of Universities”, in T. Schuller (ed.), The Changing University?, SRHE/Open University Press, Buckingham

Bell Burnell & Josephson


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I’ve been reading Jim Al-Khalili’s interview with Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Bell Burnell, famously, found the first evidence of what we now know as pulsars: “It was a major scientific breakthrough, for which her male supervisor and head of her department jointly won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974.”

So, why?

Might a comparison with Brian Josephson be illuminating? Josephson got the Nobel Prize in 1973, the year before the pulsar prize, also for work that he had done as a PhD student at Cambridge. Both discussed their unexpected results extensively with their supervisors and other colleagues. But Josephson was a Cambridge insider with all the assurance that goes with that – and then stayed at Cambridge, apart from a very brief spell at Illinois, well networked in. He was also working in a field of physics where sole authored papers were more the norm. Bell Burnell was an outsider, by her own admission not assured, and went off to other places, working in a field where collaboration was the norm (and having chosen the field partly for that reason, reading between the lines). Had she been an assured insider she might have made sure that her name was first on that paper. Had she stayed in Cambridge, still working with the team, her presence would have reinforced memory of her contribution.

Further, Josephson discovered a mathematical result, that then went looking for a physical interpretation and experimental confirmation. Bell Burnell made an experimental discovery that went looking for a theoretical explanation. Might there be an element of theory being more highly regarded here?

So, not a simple case of ignoring her because she was a PhD student, or because she was a woman – though both undoubtedly contributed. Much more complex interactions at work. If Bell Burnell’s behaviour patterns and career path seem typically female – is she playing a different game by different rules? From her viewpoint it’s not even clear that the question of why she got passed over is an interesting question.

Also relevant:
(Philip Anderson’s account of the discovery of the Josephson effect).



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I’ve just come across this page of wonderful animations of vortices. Maxwell would have loved the leapfrogging vortex rings.  They are exactly what he tried to illustrate in the zoetrope strips he painted, and that are featured in the photo that’s currently at the top of my blog.  This is the first example I know of of a moving picture being used as a teaching aid. Leapfrogging vortex rings were important to him because at the time they were a popular candidate for a model of the atom.

A tool for creating and sharing learning designs


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Just read the outcomes of Sheila MacNeil’s poll on “In the next year, where should JISC concentrate funding for learning, activities and resources?”.  Top of the list was a user friendly tool for creating and sharing learning designs (63% of votes) – which suggests a lot of potential interest and user engagement for the patterns platform that we could tap into.  See http://wiki.cetis.ac.uk/Educational_Content/polls for details of the poll.