I am a mainstream historian with an interest in the cultural history of the first space age (1957-72), which I like to think gives me a wide-angle view of aspects of scientific progress that we tend to take for granted. My first book in this area was Earthrise: how man first saw the Earth (Yale, 2008) which looked at the first views of Earth from space: how they came to be taken, what their impact was, and the history of the idea of the whole Earth. It dealt with the unexpected connections between the space programme and the environmental movement.
2001: A Space Odyssey
My next space-related book is planned to be 2001: Space Odyssey and Space Age, a study of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s landmark 1968 film. It’s been called the most scientifically accurate film ever and it represented some of the big ideas of the 1960s at their most optimistic: space travel, human evolution, extraterrestrial intelligence, and cybernetics. The recent opening of the Kubrick Archive allows us at last to understand this extraordinary film in its fullest context.
I’m fascinated by the way in which ideas that we used to think of as part the future are now part of history: the idea that mankind faced an ‘atomic crossroads’ of extinction or utopia; the idea that space travel was part of our ‘manifest destiny’ or even our evolution; and the rise of the scientific belief in extraterrestrial intelligence. There are unexpected connections between all these things, and tracing them tells us a lot about where the optimism of the 1960s came from, and what happened to it in the decades that followed as environmentalism and realism kicked in.
I try and approach modern received wisdoms in the same way as those of the past, by examining their assumptions. As a mainstream historian my field is early modern and modern Britain, c.1600-1850. I am working on the history of the Peterloo massacre of 1819, one of the formative episodes in the development of modern democracy and the 1612 affair of the Lancashire witches, England’s biggest peacetime witch trial, whose 400th anniversary is being marked by numerous events.
‘Picturing the Earth from Space’ feature, NPR
‘Seeing our Planet, Finding Ourselves’ feature, PRI
Yale University Press interview with author
‘In Our Time: the Calendar’
‘Seeing the Earth’
8th Swiss Biennial on Science, Technology & Aesthetics, The Large, the Small, and the Human Mind, Lucerne, January 2010.
History of science publications
‘Stanley Kubrick and the Dawn of Man’, in Stanley Kubrick: New Perspectives ed. P. Kramer, T. Ljujic & R. Daniels (Black Dog Press, forthcoming 2013).
‘The Challenge of Space: Arthur C. Clarke and the History of the Future, 1945-75’, History and Technology issue, ‘European Astroculture’ (forthcoming 2012).
Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth (Yale University Press, 2008), xvi + 236 pp.
‘Calendars or Clocks? Lived Time in Early Industrial England’, in Urban Europe in Comparative Perspective: papers presented at the Eighth International Conference on Urban History ed. Lars Nilsson (Stockholm, 2006).
‘The Calendar’, Dictionary of Early Modern Europe 1450-1789 (New York: Scribner, 2004).
Time’s alteration: calendar reform in early modern England (UCL Press/Taylor & Francis, London, 1998), xix+243pp.
Peterloo and the age of reform
Interview about the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 in episode 3 of ‘Elegance and Decadence: the Age of the Regency’, BBC4 (interview starts at 42.50 minutes into programme.