Mr Darwin's Incredible Shrinking World

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way . . .

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, first published 1859.

ISBN 174196279X or 9781741962796, written by Peter Macinnis, to be published October 1, 2008 in Australia by Pier 9 and November 17, 2008 in Britain by Murdoch Books

For information from the publisher, see this link.

Find it on Amazon UK (release date 17 November, 2008).

Here is a link to an Ockham's Razor talk about the book: until November, you have a choice of listening to an mp3 file as well, but now, and after mid-November, you can also get the transcript from the first link. Cover, Mr Darwin's Incredible Shrinking World

This book is written for general readers with an interest in history, science and technology. The sesquicentenary of Darwin's The Origin of Species is at the end of 2009, and many will acclaim that publishing event as something that changed the world forever. I argue that Darwin's book was amazing, but it was a symptom rather than a cause. Evolution was just one of many fresh ideas emerging around then to keep the ferment of science bubbling along.

It was a time when seahorse teeth, gutta percha and dog droppings ceased to be important industrial raw materials. It was the time when competent, trained, professional scientists began to dominate in science and the time when two leading scientists might find that they could no longer understand each other's work. 1859 was the year scientists in several disciplines began to accept ideas that were, to lay people, counter-intuitive. Notions of energy, chemistry, evolution on a time-scale too long for us to observe, invisible agents (germs) were being blamed for disease, and Mendel began his careful study that teased out the laws of genetics.

The pattern isn't perfect, of course, because there was no cabal of scientists single-mindedly plotting to make 1859 a special year, but 1859 seems to be a watershed year, the centre of change in an era that was very different from anything before or after.

Most of the changes of 1859 helped bring the world closer together. Steam trains and ships provided more reliable long-distance travel, tunnels, bridges and canals shortened journeys, telegraphs allowed the faster spread of news, taxes on paper were being dropped, and steam presses printed the papers faster. Steam presses needed to keep going, and so the railway novel came into its own. The railway also imposed timetables on people who had never considered the need for such things before.

In large cities, faster transport allowed the rich to live further away from the Dark Satanic Mills, and commute each day, so suburbia came into its own. Parks and gardens were seen as important, but so was tourism. Where once travel from Britain to Australia or America was seen as a one-way trip, now writers and gold seekers might venture there, and return home, enriched with ideas or metal.

The gold of Australia, California and other parts of the USA provided the riches to drive a society where technology and science were valued because they brought profits.

In Sydney, just down the hill from the brand-new Great Hall of the infant University of Sydney, milk vendors could be seen dipping water into their milk cans from the noisome swamp that is now Victoria Park's Lake Northam. In Woolloomooloo, less than one house in a hundred had a drain or a sink, and water was fetched from the outlet of Busby's Bore in Hyde Park. In November, 75 children under the age of five died in Sydney.

1859 saw the centenary of the birth of Robbie Burns, and if his Brotherhood of Man had not come to pass, there was a sense of it in the air. There was greater religious freedom in Britain and its dominions, unions were organising, and the prelude to the US Civil War was being played out. Italy was working to unification, and the German states were taking note. Many ideas were looking for homes, though some took a little longer: the serfs of Russia were emancipated in 1861, but the ideals were there in 1859.

The book features

However you look at it, the world was different after 1859. Even in an era of rapid change, it was a year of wonders.


Here are some of the changes of 1859. Many of them contributed to joining the world together. The details of how will be found in the book, but these are some of the key events that I use in developing my argument.

In so many ways, the, 1859 was a year in which thinking changed forever, thinking about science, but also thinking about the ways society worked, learned and shared information and ideas. Humanity was beginning to become unified, and that is the story I have told.

Reviews and press mentions:

Sydney Morning Herald, January 21, 2009,
The Australian, February 4, 2009,
The Age, March 7, 2009.

This file is http://members.ozemail.com.au/~macinnis/writing/1859.htm

It was created on February 29, 2008 and last revised on March 25, 2009.


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