December 13th, 2008

Vanitas desk

The Beddoes Conference

Dr. Thomas Beddoes (1760-1808) was a B-list scientific celebrity in the Enlightenment. He accomplished lots of interesting minor things, and more major things in conjunction with better-known people. He helped Humphrey Davies get his start. Coleridge was one of his patients. From his base at 3 Rodney Place, Cliffton, Bristol, he hung out with all sorts of interesting people.

In honor of the two hundredth anniversary of his death, I too hung out with all sorts of interesting people, inasmuch as "hanging out" happens at day conferences. It's better known as "conversation" and "networking". The Royal Society hosted and co-organized, along with King's College London's Centre for Life Writing Research, this conference on "The Doctor of Enlightenment", a fascinating tour through the social networks, research, and politics which defined his better-known achievements. The papers discussed everything from his politics to accusations of his atheism to gout to his interest in German psychology.

Psychology was a new German discipline at the time, and Beddoes subscribed to a large number of German journals, the fledgling one on psychological experiences included. This, the first psychological journal, was full of diaries of people with psychological problems, presented without comment for its readers' analyses. That he'd become a dabbling doctor at all may well be because he was unable to get a Chair at Oxford; rather than be second-rate there, he switched professions.

Beddoes helped Humphrey Davies start his career. Davies was his laboratory assistant for his early experiments with the then recently-discovered laughing gas. Their reliable experience of getting high on laughing gas wasn't replicated by their contemporaries; but is in the modern club scene. Only in the last twenty years have laughing gas's physiological affects been truly understood.

Beddoes was also involved in early battery experiments, although there is less to credit him with there. Still, he's an interesting starting point for exploring major points of experimentation in the sciences during his life. When he died, he was only 48, but he'd lived a rich and interesting life.

The Royal Society is a lovely conference venue: lavish, well-maintained, with a good selection of herbal teas (among others) and freshly-made biscuits for breaks. I caught up with a faculty member from my department in Toronto and talked with members of the Thomas L. Beddoes (his son, a poet) Society. Those of you who are particularly sorry to have missed it may be interested in the Sir Joseph Banks conference in Lincoln on April 18th. (CFP is here.)
Laptop with wireless mouse

Cambridge and Oxford Housing

Dear People in Oxford and Cambridge,

arcana_mundi, historian of science, needs housing in Oxford and in Cambridge for approximately 6 weeks each at some point in the spring, probably March/April/May. She has funding for it, but would like advice on where to stay and any particularly good methods of finding decent housing for the time.