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This content is taken from the Lancaster University & Royal Institution's online course, Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp . Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds How is scientific knowledge constructed? There are many different sorts of answers to this question. But one of the prerequisites to undertaking successful scientific research is keeping a notebook. Most scientific notebooks have some sort of discernible order to them, recording the preparation and outcomes of experiments, perhaps jotting down interpretive and theoretical ideas. Davy’s are different. Many of them contain, in addition to experimental descriptions, drafts of poems, philosophical speculations, and drawings that occasionally have no relevance to the text, sometimes on the same opening. Furthermore, he would start a notebook at one end, and at some point, begin it again from the other.

Skip to 0 minutes and 50 seconds Here, he had more in common with the notebook habits of poets such as Shelley, rather than with his fellow chemists. One effect of Davy’s approach is that many of his notebooks convey an immediacy to his experiences, which can be lacking from more conventional note keeping practices. For example, after inhaling seven quarts, nearly eight litres of nitrous oxide, the 20-year-old Davy wrote in his notebook, in August 1799, in one-inch-high letters, “Davy and Newton,” surely an unconscious indication of his vaunting ambition to do for chemistry what Isaac Newton had done for natural philosophy a century before. The notebooks that have survived can be dated to specific periods of his life.

Skip to 1 minute and 31 seconds The earliest ones we have were started at the age of 16 and covered the period when he lived in Penzance and his time working for Thomas Beddoes at the Medical Pneumatic Institution in Bristol between 1798 and 1801. There are a few notebooks relating to his time at the Royal Institution, since he recorded many of the experiments he carried out here in the official folio laboratory notebook. These included the isolation of potassium in 1807. As these were official notebooks, not even Davy wrote poems in them, though he did tend to treat them as if they were his own property. They had to be recovered from his executors after his death.

Skip to 2 minutes and 8 seconds Then there are the notebooks he kept during his European travels, particularly 1813-15 and during the last few years of his life before his death in Geneva in 1829. Most of the notebooks that have survived from Davy’s time at the Royal Institution record his extended geological and mineral collecting expeditions throughout Britain and Ireland, undertaken each summer between 1804 and 1806. Davy was particularly interested in how rocks were formed chemically. This led him to take a particular interest in the hexagonal basalt columns on the north coast of County Antrim, including Giant’s Causeway, which are recorded extensively in his notebook with large numbers of drawings. The structure of the columns suggested that they were caused by molten rock rapidly cooling.

Skip to 2 minutes and 53 seconds The obvious source for the necessary heat were volcanoes. And for the remainder of his career, Davy devoted enormous efforts to their understanding. This involved visiting major volcanic sites in Europe, including Vesuvius twice, and in 1814, the Canigou in south-east France, about which he also wrote a poem. Despite a large amount of work recorded in his notebooks, Davy only published one paper on the subject, and that was right at the end of his life. Sometimes, despite huge effort, the contents of notebooks do not contain enough information to be turned into publications. In the summer of 1805, Davy crossed from the north of Ireland to the north of England to visit the poet William Wordsworth.

Skip to 3 minutes and 34 seconds There he met, for the first time, Walter Scott. And at some point, these three men climbed Helvellyn, the third highest mountain in England. Of this climb Scott retained fond memories. Wordsworth commented that he was proud to stand on Helvellyn with two such men as Davy and Scott. While Davy recorded in his notebook that the summit was made of greywacke, failing to mention the presence of Scott or Wordsworth on the mountain. Understanding these notebooks, and those of other scientific figures, tells us much about the actual hard practice of constructing scientific knowledge. A scientific paper or book usually seeks to make an argument about the natural world and does not usually reflect the processes by which that knowledge was constructed.

Skip to 4 minutes and 18 seconds In Davy’s case, these notebooks provide that insight. But because of his individualistic, not to say idiosyncratic, note keeping practices also provides us with valuable insights into how he combined what might be viewed today as wildly separate practices.

Davy’s notebooks in the Royal Institution

Watch this video and think about how scientific knowledge is constructed by such practices as writing notes and drawing pictures in notebooks.

There will be a quiz on this video in the next step.

  • Do you use notebooks and if so, what for?

You can see some of the poet Percy Shelley’s notebooks here.

We ran a crowdsourcing project with Zooniverse in the summer of 2019 (https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/humphrydavy/davy-notebooks-project) whereby people from all around the world helped to transcribe 5 of Davy’s early notebooks. The results of this will be published on a website by 6th December 2019 (website address to follow by the end of this course!).

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This video is from the free online course:

Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp

Lancaster University