Sunday, December 19, 2010

How (Not?) to Popularize the History of Science: Tycho Brahe (again)

Posted by Darin Hayton on 12/19 at 10:42 PM

How Stuff Works, part of the Discovery Channel empire, produces a podcast “The Stuff You Missed in History Class.” Narrated by co-hosts Sarah and Deblina, most episodes are between 15 and 30 minutes. Judging by the reviews, this is an ideal length for commuters and casual listeners. The favorable reviews often cite the hosts breezy, conversational style, interesting and unusual topics, and the fine research used to produce the shows.1

Capitalizing on the recent Tycho Brahe mania, “The Stuff You Missed in History Class” produced Tycho Brahe: An Astronomer’s Untimely Demise. The hosts claim that they are going to offer more insight into the unusual circumstances that surrounded Brahe’s death. They rehearse the traditional accounts—possible bladder infection, burst or torn bladder, or kidney disease—but then implicitly dismiss these by saying: “Even at that time though there were some rumors going around, some murmurings that maybe murder had been involved.” After all, they tell us, he had enemies. But who would want to murder him?

Before answering that question they offer a general biography, adding little that isn’t found in the wikipedia entry on Brahe. They take some license with the interpretation, the details and adding color to liven up the story. They make Brahe into something of a cross between a modern astronomer and a college student:
“He [Tycho] was living large out on the island of Hven, throwing parties, drinking, eating lots, and really not treating his tenants well at all.” When King Christian IV of Denmark withdraws his support, Brahe moves to Prague where, in 1600 he hires Kepler as an assistant. Kepler is very different from Tycho, different background, though he has a good reputation as an astronomer.

Here is, predictably, the key to the podcast: emphasizing the tension between Brahe and Kepler, from their very different social status to their competing theories about the solar system:
“He’s [i.e., Kepler] also a Copernican, so opposite. Opposite theories. They don’t believe the universe works the same way. So he thinks the planets orbit the sun. It seems like it would be really hard to have a productive partnership with another astronomer if you had such a fundamental difference.”

While they perhaps could have worked well together, Kepler ultimately sabotages any possible relationship by coveting Brahe’s observational data: “He [Kepler] really wanted to work with Tycho so he could use his data. But then of course he comes to Tycho and Tycho’s totally stingy with his observations and data.”

The two butted heads. They argued. Kepler even walked out and left at one point. Conveniently, “Tycho dies suddenly in 1601 and Kepler after that becomes the imperial mathematician in Prague, which gives him access to all of Tycho’s data.”

“Kepler’s work definitely benefits from having this data. Which comes of course from Tycho’s death. So, suspicious, so when these findings about the mercury poisoning came out a lot of people started thinking ‘What did this guy have to gain from it?’ But there’s no proof.”

Because there is “no real proof,” the hosts offer two other possible murders: the Jesuits who didn’t like Brahe’s Protestant influence over Emperor Rudolf II; Christian IV as mastermind who urged Erik Brahe to murder Tycho. Although they admit there is no proof of murder, and probably can never be any proof, they clearly build the entire show around Brahe’s murder. As an afterthought, the closing lines of the episode suggest that Brahe might have poisoned himself by ingesting his own mercury-based medicine.

What can we take from this podcast, and the apparent success these podcasts have? First, don’t make people read; instead, let them listen. But don’t make them listen for too long. Second, don’t lecture at your audience. There is a virtue to colloquial expressions and breezy presentation. The two hosts sound like they are gossiping about mutual acquaintances rather than presenting a 25-minute historical vignette. Third, some details matter but most can be fudged or ignored. And interpretations should be made to enhance enjoyment or add dramatic tension rather than to deepen understanding. Finally, historians of science have relinquished a vast domain in which they could exercise their expertise. Giving up this domain has real consequences: scores of people will hear “Tycho Brahe: An Astronomer’s Untimely Demise” and spread the word that Kepler probably poisoned Brahe to get his data. And if not Kepler, then the Jesuits (because we can blame the Church for everything), or Brahe’s own relative. That seems unfortunate.

1In the interest of full disclosure: I found the breezy tone and colloquialisms off putting, the topic trite, and the “research” superficial and problematic. I have no intention of listening to any more of these podcasts and don’t recommend them to anybody else.

Tags: podcasts, popularizing history of science, tycho brahe


Comment posted by LKC on 12/20 at 08:01 AM

Yes, but how did you like it otherwise? wink

Serious question: What is the place of production values in communication of science to popular audiences? Whether its glossy video production, high-quality sound, or simply stylish, jargon-free prose, do production values diminish the perceived seriousness of the work? Is there a threshold effect above which it seems glib; or is it that the clumsier, wobblier, and more lo-fi it is, the more honest and believable it seems?

Comment posted by Darin Hayton on 12/20 at 10:31 AM

Without reifying form and content, I think there may be multiple axes here that affect the production in different ways. Technical production values might include hi- or lo-resolution video, hi- or lo-fidelity audio, glossy or photocopied print. At another level production values such as jargon-free and stylish prose, conversational delivery, dynamic body language and speech intonations affect the final product. Then there are questions of content, of which historical episodes or events to cover, which related themes to explore or to invoke, or which details to include. In the end, these values are going to interact in different ways for different audiences.

To be sure, academically-oriented historians of science could benefit from a more journalistic and engaging prose style. My problem with the style and presentation in “The Stuff You Missed in History Class” was its immaturity. The hosts seemed at times halting and at times rushed. The hosts spoke over each other, interjecting opinions and thoughts as they occurred to them (or so it seemed—perhaps that was a carefully scripted technique). Judging from the reviews at iTunes, most listeners find the podcast believable precisely because of this breezy, informality. Or rather, most people liked it because it was accessible and interesting.

Accessibility engenders believability. But accessibility shouldn’t come at the expense of other production values such as depth and sophistication of analysis, quality of research, and something we might call historical accuracy. Here again, “The Stuff You Missed in History Class” seems to be wanting. In this case accessible becomes believable.

Comment posted by Thony C. on 12/22 at 12:30 PM

Darin, I have just listened to the pod cast and wish I hadn’t and you are quite right to protest loudly and clearly about the nasty mess that pretends to be (science) historical journalism and is full of historical inaccuracies however I would take issue at some of the things you take issue with.

Tycho was a notorious bon vivant and mealtimes in Uraniborg were by all accounts pretty wild however they were not the ground for Tycho loosing Christian’s patronage as claimed in the pod cast, after all he was not doing anything unusual but just behaving like the Danish aristocrat that he was. He was accused of mistreating his serfs and abusing their rights (he was after all a feudal Lord and Hven was his fief) and that did play a role in his loosing the King’s favours.

Kepler did indeed covert Tycho’s observation data and it is the principle reason why he went to Prague (he also desperately needed a job) and initially Tycho did severely restrict his access to that data out of fear of being plagiarised. However in order to get the Kaiser, Rudolph (who was not a red nosed reindeer!), to pay Kepler a salary Tycho proposed the publication of the Rudolphine Tables with Kepler as their editor, which would have given him access to the whole data. Kepler already had his contract in the pocket when Tycho died. In fact this was the main reason Rudolph appointed him as Tycho’s successor in order that the tables should appear. Tycho’s death then proved a disaster for Kepler as Tycho’s son in law Tengnagel claimed possession of the data, it was Tycho’s private property, and as Tycho’s heir the editorship of the tables. Being a skilled diplomat and one of Rudolph’s principle advisors he won the ensuing tug-of-war leaving Kepler looking pretty silly. Tycho’s death was therefore actually disadvantages for Kepler in terms of acquiring access to the data, which he finally only won several years later, as Tengnagel who was not a mathematician finally allowed him to produce the tables on the condition that he retained official editorship and the right to write the preface. Fortunately Tengnagel died before the tables were published, and no he wasn’t murdered, so Kepler did in the end retain editorship.

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