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W.B. Carpenter and the wonder of microscopy

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The development of the distinction between science and literature took shape during the 19th century. This paper will argue that William Carpenter’s The Microscope and its Revelations, first published in 1856, straddled that divide. It was a form of literature that ‘bridged’ a style of science communication characterized by narrative and aesthetically loaded language of wonder, and a burgeoning style steeped in passionless and restrained language. I will address where wonder appeared in the text and explore how Carpenter prescribed a method of microscopy that promoted the experience of wonder alongside codes of behaviour encouraged by the new ‘men of science’. This paper will draw on contemporary concerns surrounding education and the moral virtues of hard work to demonstrate how, for Carpenter, the character of the individual could be trained through microscopy as much as his intellect. I conclude that The Microscope and its Revelations presented the experience of wonder as the ultimate reward for the diligent student who sought to understand, not merely see, the world through the lens of the microscope.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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