Professor Frank James – “What I actually do is history”

Just before his book launch at the IET for the 6th and last instalment of The Correspondence of Michael Faraday, I had the chance to catch a few minutes with Professor Frank James, Professor of the History of Science and Head of Collections at the Royal Institution and editor of the series of books that show the fascinating correspondence of Michael Faraday.

Prof Frank James

Helen: Why Michael Faraday??

Frank: Ah, why Michael Faraday. Well one half of one of my chapters in my PhD thesis was on Faraday, and that I did back in the late 1970s and I thought that at that point Faraday had been done, because there was a lot of Faraday research going on at that point. But when I got to the Royal Institution in 1982 I found this enormous archive there, full with material that had never really been looked at, and had never been published; and then I found the archive here [IET] which likewise had never really been looked at seriously and also had never been published in extensia, so I thought here is an ideal project to produce a major contribution to scholarship.

Helen: Ah, yes… ok. I just found it interesting, because Faraday is just a very specific topic.But you’re generally more interested in the history of physics or the personal lives of physicists . Do you prefer to do that, or would you ever like to do some research style physics?

Frank: No. No, I mean I’m a historian. What I actually do is history. History of science, specifically in this instance, and one of the problems about history of science is that for many years in this country, and in the United States, it’s been seen outside mainstream history, and the job of people like myself and others try to make history of science more a part of historical studies and that actually should have the effect of making, showing how science is actually a cultural activity in its own right but typically scientists try to separate themselves away from this mainstream culture which they’ve now realised since the mid 80s is not a very sensible thing to do.

Helen: Did you always want to do History of Science or did you ever want to do something else??

Frank: I always wanted to do history.

Helen: So the science part just came after the history.

Frank: Yep.

Faraday's Correspondence

Helen: Ah well, fair enough. What would you recommend someone who is looking at universities and wants to do history of science?

Frank: Well, the thing about history of science in this country is that there are not many places that do undergraduate courses. The only institution in this country that does undergraduate courses as a major subject in history of science is University College London, in the Science & Technology Department, at Cambridge you can do history of science as your part 2 in the Natural Sciences tripos but you do need to still do the science part of the tripos before you can get to that part at that stage; and then in various universities around the country there are service courses for history of science, but if you want to do it as a serious subject at undergraduate level then you’ve got to go to University College or Cambridge. In terms of postgraduate, there are many more universities who do that: Cambridge obviously and University College, Imperial College, Manchester has got a very big school, Leeds has got a very big school, and University of Exeter, so the postgraduate levels have much better options for the subject.

So there we have it! And since he has spent the last 25 years working on this project, I suspect Professor Frank James is the top expert on Michael Faraday. Maybe I should have tested his knowledge… ah well, there’s always next time!

(Photos © Helen Giles)

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