Iain P. Watts
Program: History of Science
Fields of Study: History of Science from 1700; Modern Britain and the Empire
Advisor: Michael Gordin
I specialize in the history of the sciences and medicine in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in the history of modern Britain and the British Empire. My main research interests are in the social and cultural history of science during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period, and in the history of communication, print, and the news. Currently my work is oriented towards understanding how different forms of communication – from newspapers, journals, magazines, and books, to correspondence, public lectures, and conversations – mediated between the scientific world and wider public culture in the decades around 1800.
My dissertation project uses a history of the electrical science of ‘Galvanism’ to map the transnational circulation of what contemporaries called ‘scientific news’ in Britain, Continental Europe and beyond from the 1790s into the 1820s. Galvanism was a novel experimental field concerned with interconnections between electricity, matter, and life, and it captured the attention of scientific practitioners and laypeople alike. It produced a succession of remarkable discoveries, spectacular experiments and unorthodox medical therapies, and raised troubling questions about the material basis of life and death; its history has the potential to illuminate wider shifts in relations between science and its public audiences in this period. Furthermore, Galvanism developed amidst the disruptions of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, when the European scientific world was riven with national and political fault lines. The flow of information between the two great centers of science, London and Paris, was particularly affected by war and blockade, with effects that are still not clear. I aim to understand the consequences of this wartime environment for the practice of science, and for the system of international scientific exchange.
I am originally from Glasgow, Scotland, and was trained in Natural Sciences (MA) and mathematics (Part III MMath) at the University of Cambridge. After these rigors of scientific disciplinarization and a year at a technology startup in the telecommunications business, I finally capitulated to my desire to work and teach in the humanities and retrained in the history of science, technology, and medicine at University College and Imperial College London (MSc), where my masters thesis on Humphry Davy won the MSc prize for best dissertation. I made the move to Princeton’s PhD program in 2009, completing General Examination fields in the History of Modern Science, Modern Britain and the Empire 1780-1880, and the History of Medicine with Professors Michael Gordin, Linda Colley, and Katja Guenther.