Julian Hunt
17 July 2012

Science and Dickens

Dickens put these ideas into practice through literature, by surreptitiously popularising science as he weaved the latest observations and even theories into the stories in his very human and apparently 'unscientific' novels.

Like others, as I first read Charles Dickens’ novels, David Copperfield, Pickwick Papers, Great Expectations, and Hard Times, I was bowled over by their great characters and their adventures in vividly described Victorian milieu of schools, businesses, law, and crime, on the beach at Yarmouth, and in London’s foggy streets.

Everyone has their own reactions and maybe learns some lessons; I laughed a lot, to the annoyance of my wife, as I took many weeks slowly reading Dombey and Sons in the changing scenes of North London and the arrival of the railways. My cautious approach to finance has probably benefited from Mr Micawber’s advice that if one’s income only just exceeds expenditure – that leads to happiness, otherwise there is misery. But I did not think I was reading novels written by someone with in fact a deep appreciation of science and its wider intellectual and cultural connections.

Like most readers I generally thought of DickensBorn Friday 7 February 1812 as being highly critical of the social and environmental consequences of the scientific and industrial revolutions of the 19th century. This was the moral aspect of his novels that the literary critic F. R. Leavis so much admired. His descriptions of the polluted atmosphere and rivers – the Great Stink – and their effects on people’s health are even well known to politicians, as the leader of the Green Party in the House of Commons Caroline Lucas recently reminded readers of the Guardian.

My view of Dickens’ interest in science changed completely when I read his last novel Our Mutual Friend, published in 1865, which revealed his considerable knowledge of the great developments in science and how that these had become part of people’s understanding of the world around them, although this point has been missed by most critics of Dickens’ writing and by his biographersFor instance the recently published biography by Claire Tomalin, 2011.Charles Dickens A life, Viking..

As Giles Foden pointed out, Dickens had written about science over many years in the magazines that he edited, Household Words and All the Year Round. These covered current affairs from politics to railways, and even science policy. Dickens’ general view of science, which most journalists and politicians share today, was that there would be greater progress even at a technical level if science was better explained to the public and other scientists. His more profound and ambitious objective, in which he preceded Henri Poincare’s Science and Method by 50 years, was to inform the public so effectively that it would enable those who became interested to explore for themselves wider generalisations of scientific ideas. This, he argued, would lead to a deeper appreciation and, to use the modern idiom, people’s involvement in issues related to science.

Dickens put these ideas into practice through literature, by surreptitiously popularising science as he weaved the latest observations and even theories into the stories in his very human and apparently ‘unscientific’ novels. In at least one case, like other writers before and after him, by generalising certain current ideas, he proposed an important scientific concept before it had even been considered in the scientific literature!

At the same time Dickens poked fun at scientists and their supporters, but no more than he did in every book with every professional and business character. In Hard Times written in 1851 he ridiculed the standard school-master view of the science as being “stick to facts Sir – root out everything else.” He was humorous about the amateur scientists gathering in the Pickwick Club, ostensibly driven by pure curiosity, to consider “speculations on the source of the Hampstead Ponds with some observations on the theory of tittlebats.” This was a gentle satire on the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which was set up in 1836 to popularise science and its applications.

In Our Mutual Friend the gloomy wine waiter at a dinner party pouring out a dodgy Chablis – apparently a common problem then – was described as being like an analytical chemist, saying under his breath “you wouldn’t drink this if you knew what it is made of.”  Scientists in the City were in Dickens’ view also very suspect, forming dubious companies like Collapse, Vortex, Docket and Company; obviously he had in mind high tech fluid dynamicists.

But when it came to individual scientists Dickens wrote admiringly about them in his essays, particularly those whose work he used in his novels. John Dalton of Manchester, famous for his discoveries in chemistry, also wrote on meteorology which Dickens reviewed in one of his essays, and which later appeared in Oliver Twist in the wintery scenes of snow being blown in extraordinary patterns by the wind. The fearsome ocean waves experienced by transatlantic travellers in Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens learned from the pioneering US Naval oceanographer and meteorologist, Lt Maury.

countless miles of angry space roll the long heaving billows..a boiling heap of rushing water… mad return of wave on wave...ending in a spouting-up of foam that whitens the black night; incessant change of place, and form, and hue; ...louder howls the wind, and …the wild cry goes forth upon the storm ‘A ship!’.”

The science in his novels usually connects nature to people and animals. In the opening page of Bleak House (1852) one reads a naturalist’s notebook transformed into art;

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. … Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; … Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, …as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

One is reminded of Oscar Wilde writing in 1889; only artists enabled people to ‘’see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. But… they did not exist till Art had invented them.”

But no Oscar Wilde could then conjure up the extraordinary geological perspective that Dickens does to heighten the mysterious gloom of the London scene:

…as much mud in the street as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes---gone into mourning, one might imagine, for death of the sun.

Dickens’ last novel Our Mutual Friend (1865) was written after Darwin’s Origin of Species had been published in 1859. The great developments in classical physics and mathematics across Europe were also publicly debated, with scientists like Lord Kelvin and Sir George Stokes taking a prominent public role.

The most dramatic scenes in this novel take place in the East End of London along the Thames, where an old man is being rowed by his young daughter in a small boat among the barges and sailing ships. She is horrified as he collects floating bodies for their few coins in their pockets. The descriptions of the watery environment, on which their livelihoods depend, are focussed on the ripples, waves and eddies produced by the boats and the tidal currents. A current apocalyptic explanation is given for the darkening and polluted atmosphere, namely that the fading strength of the Sun is also to blame; “while the Sun itself, when it was for a few moments dimly indicated through circling eddies of fog, showed as if it had gone out and were collapsing flat and cold.”

A literary guide to Dickens suggests that this refers to the recent scientific studies by Lord Kelvin in 1862,which followed the earlier 18th century analysis in Paris by Laplace, which concluded that the power of the sun would slowly run down. (This was an understandable error since it was not until the mid twentieth century before the discovery was made that nuclear fusion will keep the sun going for several billion years into the future).

Some novelists manage to introduce scientific ideas in novels very effectively through conversations; the Gaffer’s children Lizzie and Charlie sit in their riverside house looking at the burning gases and coal in the grate, while waiting for their father to come home.

Then as I sit a-looking at the fire, I seem to see in the burning coal – like where that glow is now ---it comes like pictures to me Charlie.

That’s gas, that is”, said the boy, “coming out of a bit of a forest that’s been under the mud that was under the water in the days of Noah’s Ark. Look here! When I take the poker – so – and give it a dig----.”

After being asked to think earlier about the mysterious future of the Sun, here the reader is being taken on an imaginary journey back in time to prehistoric era, which many of his readers would have heard about in the recent public debates about evolution and the age of the Earth.

The drama later moves to the water’s edge, where the waiting becomes ominous as the father’s boat fails to return. As elsewhere in this novel, the protagonists were carefully observing their surroundings,

At this time of their watch, the water close to them would be often agitated by some impulsion given it from a distance. Often they believed this beat and plash to be the boat they lay in wait for, running in ashore; and again and again they would have started up, but for the immobility with which the informer, well used to the river, kept quiet in his place.”

This is a significant statement in which one could say that art is learning from science. A new concept is introduced that an eddy or a vortex has an impulse, which was produced by a force, in this case by movement of a boat. In fluid dynamics and mathematics this is a subtle and complex idea (still being studied today in different situations), because although a vortex produces motions over a wide area in different directions, there is both a net forward motion and force.

The first paper on this concept was written by Kirchhoff in Germany, four years after the novel was published, in 1869, and obviously uninfluenced by it. The idea was later elaborated and publicised by Lord Kelvin, and became ‘the Kelvin impulse’.Around this time was the beginning of the mathematical study of fluid dynamics, for example the flow of a fluid (water) about a moving rigid body (boat). See Horace Lamb, 1932. Hydrodynamics. Sixth Edition. Cambridge University Press, page 160. The first edition was published in 1879.

There are other examples where art foretells advances in science and technology such as the planets of Mars suggested by Swift in Gullivers’ Travels and Jules Verne’s writings on space and submarine travel. But where did Dickens get such a technical idea? Probably, in my view, from John Scott Russell a railway and ship engineer who worked as the railways editor for Dickens in the Fleet Street office of his newspaper Daily News. Russell first identified how waves had a force associated with them. He explored this idea in his  famous experiment-reported at the British Association in 1845 - when he galloped, at about 15 mph, along the towpath of a canal near Edinburgh to measure the solitary wave or little mountain of water that moves under its own dynamics for a few miles along the canal when a barge suddenly starts to move. He then applied this idea to the design of steel ships – he was involved in the construction of the Great Eastern with Brunel – by attempting to minimise the force on the hull generated by the waves as the ship moves through the water. It seems quite likely that Dickens would have heard about these stories and made the imaginative leap.  However I cannot find any correspondence between Dickens and Russell on this topic or any reference to interactions between them in Russell’s biography by G. Emmerson (1977).G S Emmerson, 1977.John Scott Russell: a Great Victorian Engineer and Naval Architect.

Returning again to the expectant party on the river, as they counted the hours, they made a further interesting observation;  “The wind carried away the striking of the great multitude of city church clocks, for those lay to leeward of them; but there were bells to windward that told them of its being One – Two – Three...”

The fact  that  sound is  apparently only carried downwind  had been established experimentally in the 1850’s; this (still) is surprising because the sound speed, which was measured  by Isaac Newton among many others, is much faster than the wind speed near the ground. In the 1850’s John Tyndall and Sir George Stokes explained how, because its speed increases with height above the ground, the wind bends the sound waves upwards from downwind sources of noise, so that they cannot be heard on the ground in the upwind direction. The text implies that this is perhaps a new discovery, in yet another new field of science (in this case acoustics).

Dickens expressed his general ideas about how new fields of science emerge in his essay on History of a young ology, (All the Year Round vol. 6, p.187, 1861) his own term for the new sciences of geology, archaeology, meteorology, oceanography etc. He noted that in the early years of an ‘ology’ there may be a “vast multitude of results” that might not be “very accurate or very interesting”. He recognised that individuals are important especially at this stage, as in his attributions of progress in the new science of meteorology to Dr Dalton of Manchester.

The leaders of science today might still agree with this observation, but still they cannot agree about how best to encourage new ‘ologies’. They would probably also agree with Dickens’ (and later Poincare’s) views about the values of public explanation of science and making connections between different branches of science.

Dickens’ thoughtful writing about science and its contributions to his novels, is consistent with his affirmation in the last decade of his life about the broadly beneficial effects of science and technology on the nation and on people’s lives. Peter Aykroyd’s biographyPeter Ackroyd and Jonathan Butler, 2002.Dickens, Vintag explains that despite his reservations about the nationalistic tenor of the Great Exhibition in 1851, “at the very end of his life he was praising the major discoveries and inventions of his period”, while the romantic idealists like Ruskin and Morris disparaged. I would agree with Aykroyd’s conclusion “In that sense Dickens was very much a modern man, very much a man of his period, and highly sceptical about ‘the good old days’”. Scientists can certainly learn something, even today, from Dickens’ ideas and brilliant writing.

Oscar Wilde and many others have pointed out how we all notice that world around us through art, including literature. As we have seen science can also inspire literature. As a more recent example, my son-in-lawGiles Foden, 2009. Turbulence, which concerns the predictability of the weather (first attempted numerically by L F Richardson) and consequences for D Day landings., Giles Foden (author of The Last King of Scotland) has written a novel about turbulence!


Julian Hunt, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, former head of the Met Office and professor of fluid mechanics at Cambridge and currently professor of climate modelling at University College London has kindly allowed the Institution of Environmental Sciences to reprint a talk he gave at UCL on 15 March, 2012. Thanks also go to Bernard Fisher for editing this article.