MOOCing Humphry Davy

Professor Frank James reflects upon the experience of bringing Humphry Davy's work to life in a new online course

  • Sir Humphry Davy (1778–1829) by Archer James Oliver c.1810, Oil on canvas, 231.2 x 141 cm

    Credit: The Royal Institution

The life, poetry, researches, lecturing and politics of Humphry Davy (1778-1829) are currently receiving considerable attention from scholars in both the history of science and of literature. For instance, Sharon Ruston and Tim Fulford (assisted by me, Jan Golinski and David Knight) are preparing a four-volume edition of Davy’s letters due to be published next year by Oxford University Press. Earlier this year the Royal Institution hosted a one-day symposium on Davy which we hope to publish in the near future.

Why is Davy receiving all this attention? To a significant extent this can be attributed to the cultural turn that history of science has taken in recent years. Scientific knowledge is not just the product of scientists working in their laboratories writing papers and producing objects with practical applications. It is also a body of ideas which of necessity, as many many historians have shown, relate closely to other areas of culture and society, such as art, religion and literature. It is in this latter area that Davy assumes particular significance due his writing poetry and close friendships with those major Romantic figures, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, as well as his connections with other writers such as Walter Scott and William Wordsworth. Indeed, during the latter part of 1800 Davy saw through the press in Bristol the second edition of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads that seminal text of English Romanticism. Such links have always given Davy a special position in the history of science and of literature and he thus makes an excellent site to explore their highly complex and contingent links.

A key element allowing these projects to go ahead has been the support that Sharon Ruston, Professor of Romanticism at the University of Lancaster, has received from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. This included supporting making a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) entitled ‘Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature and the Lamp’ filmed and edited at the Royal Institution by the Ri Channel. The MOOC, which anyone can sign on for, will run over four weeks starting on 30 October and can be accessed for free. Each of the four MOOC sections comprise a sequence of usually half a dozen short (c. 5 minute) films and additional material. A variety of experts (me, Sharon Ruston, Tim Fulford, Richard Holmes, Hattie Lloyd, Andrew Lacey, Simon Bainbridge and Rachel Platel as well as two Christmas Lecturers Mark Miodownik and Peter Wothers) explore various aspects of Davy’s life and legacy including the replication of one his more spectacularly dangerous experiments. Many of Davy’s notebooks, letters and apparatus held in the Royal Institution’s collections were filmed to illustrate and support the points made in the MOOC and make for a rich visual experience.

See below for one of the videos in the series, the recreation of Humphry Davy's potassium volcano by Professor Peter Wothers.

Making the MOOC was an interesting and sometimes challenging process. Because each component is relatively short, it had to be tightly scripted to a firm deadline (I wrote my scripts while I was giving a series of lectures in São Paulo). In turn, this meant that I had to read from an autocue, the first time I had done so, much preferring to ad lib from notes. So, I am sorry to say, that for at least some of the scenes, I look like a startled rabbit. 

However, the MOOC will provide to a broad public audience throughout the world an overview of the current state of scholarship relating specifically to Davy, but also current thinking about the relationships of science within society and culture, especially literature. The course, which once webcast will remain available, will be rounded off with an event, which again anyone can attend at the Royal Institution on Sunday 26 November where many of the contributors will be present to discuss the MOOC and Davy.

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