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Durham University

Department of Philosophy

Reflections on Water

Organized by Prof. David Knight with the help of Dr. Matthew Eddy and Dr. Robin Hendry, this series of public lectures brought together eminent scientists, historians, theologians and philosophers involved in current research, to shed new light on the nature and cultural significance of a very familiar substance.  There were two intertwined main themes - both of which address subjects from the 18th century up to modern day.

The first theme was the central place of water in science's evolving understanding of matter.  Until the end of the Enlightenment, water was a symbol, and one of the four elements. In the new chemistry of Lavoisier and his associates, it was perceived with astonishment as a compound of two gases. In 1806, analysis of water established that the 'elective affinity' holding compounds together was electrical.  Following prolonged controversy and an international chemical congress, after 1860 water acquired its modern representation as 'H­2O', making our familiar Periodic Table of elements possible.  Water still remains a puzzling and a special compound, and the historical, scientific and philosophical aspects of its use, identity and intellectual relevance are deeply resonant.

The second theme was the role played by water in the project of mastering nature, the crucial role of technology and medicine in European and colonial cultures. Since most of the Earth's surface is covered by water, global navigators needed to know where they were once they ventured out on the oceans.  On land, water played a key role in religious and medical therapies, respectable and alternative, that soothed souls and healed the body.  In the eighteenth century, spas became centres of civility and 'detoxing' for new leisure classes, and mineral waters big business. More vital for public health were supplies of clean water for the booming cities of the industrial revolution, where piped water and drains made London in the 1870s, for example, self-sustaining for the first time in its history. But the nineteenth century bequeathed polluted rivers to the twentieth; and in our day sufficient clean water for everyone remains a distant objective. Reflecting on water will bring us new understanding of where we are and how we got here.

Lecture Programme

4 November 2009

Dissolving Uncertainties in Water: electric fishes, Volta's alarm-bell, Humphry Davy, and a dynamical science - Prof. David Knight (Philosophy, Durham University)

11 November 2009

Mirror of the Sea: Reflections on the Writings of Joseph Conrad in the Age of Steam and Sail Professor Crosbie Smith (History, University of Kent)

18 November 2009

The Incredible Story of the Guiting Stone Pipe Company 1805-1815, and its operations in London, Manchester and Dublin Professor Hugh Torrens (Geology, University of Keele)

2 December 2009

Water an Element or Compound? Principles, Particles and Elements in the Chemical Revolution Professor Hasok Chang (Science  & Technology Studies, University College London)

9 December 2009

Water: What's so Special about it? Professor John Finney (Physics and Astronomy, University College London)

3 February 2010

Water as an example in philosophical literature Professor Jonathan Lowe (Philosophy, Durham)

10 February 2010

Water in Religious Art and Architecture Professor David Brown (Theology, St Andrews University)

17 February 2010

Going Swimmingly: Rivers of Rebirth and Recreation Professor Peter Coates (History, University of Bristol)

24 February 2010

Water, water everywhere - finding ourselves when all at sea: navigators, astronomers and clockmakers Professor Sir Arnold Wolfendale FRS (Physics, Durham University)

3 March 2010

"Take me to the river" Water Cures in the Twentieth Century Dr Roberta Bivins (History of Medicine, University of Warwick)

co-sponsored by the Wellcome Trust

10 March 2010

The Sparkling Nectar of Spas: Physicians, Clerics and Mineral Water in an 18th Century Provincial Town Dr Matthew Eddy (Philosophy, Durham University) Image credit: 'History of the Water Module', R. Hayward, reproduced from L. Pauling and R. Hayward, The Architecture of Molecules (San Francisco: W H Freeman and Co., 1964).