The Frontispiece, title-page, and two first pages of cvhaptersw from The Fairy-Land of Science. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

In 1879, Arabella Buckley (1840-1929) proved herself to be as adept as Charles Kingsley in popularizing science for young readers when she published The Fairy-Land of Science. She is at one with Kingsley in believing that ‘the forces of nature....are one and all the voice of the Great Creator, and speak to us of His Nature and His Will’ (p. 117).

Left two" The first page of “The History of a Piece of Coal” and a two-page spread from that chapter in The Fairy-Land of Science. Right: An illustration of the human ear. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Buckley also wrote The Moral Teachings of Science (1892) and A short history of natural science of the progress of discovery from the time of the Greeks to the present day. For the use of schools and young persons (1876). But who now reads Buckley and other women who wrote to popularize science among the young? And yet she was well connected. She had been Sir Charles Lyell’s secretary and in the Preface (p. vii) to Winners in Life’s Race or the Great Backboned Family (1883) she acknowledges some distinguished men who have given her ‘valuable assistance’. They include Cort Haddon (1855-1940), a well-regarded anthropologist credited with founding the Cambridge School of Anthropology, and William Kitchen Parker (1832-1890), Hunterian Professor of Anatomy and Physiology in the College of Surgeons of England. Above all, she acknowledges help from a most prestigious source, a fellow Spiritualist, Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913). He, of course, has the outstanding distinction of sharing with Darwin the development of the theory of evolution through Natural Selection. It was Buckley's former employer, Lyell, who, along with Joseph Dalton Hooker, an English botanist, arranged for Darwin and Wallace to give a joint presentation on the 1st July 1858: 'On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection'.

‘The Threshold of Backboned Life’ (1897), the first chapter of Buckley’s Winners in Life’s Race or the Great Backboned Family exemplifies her strategy for explaining scientific concepts to her young readers, in this instance, the theory of Natural Selection:

What a curious world this would have been in which the stag-beetle and the atlas-moth could boast. These lower forms, however, were not destined to have the world all to themselves, for in ages, so long that we cannot reckon them, another division of Life’s children had begun to exist which possessed advantages giving it the power to press forward far beyond the star-fish, the octopus or the insect. This was the Backboned division, to which belong the fish of our seas and rivers; the frogs and toads, snakes, lizards, crocodiles, and tortoises; the birds of all kinds and sizes; the kangaroos; the rats, pigs, elephants, lions, whales, seals and monkeys’. [Winners in Life’s Race or the Great Backboned Family p. 3, 1883].

If you were to substitute ‘Vertebrata’ for ‘Backboned’, ‘marsupial mammals of the family Macropodidæ’ for ‘kangaroos’, and ‘tailless amphibians of the genus Bufo’ for ‘toads’, you would be challenging a young audience with questions which they could answer by referring to a zoological text-book or by asking an informed older person, but you would not be stumping them with the arcane, ludicrous and redundant questions asked by the pedagogues of Kingsley’s Laputa (2013, pp. 162-3). Clearly Buckley, unlike the Laputans and Granville Penn, is shaping her language to accommodate a junior audience.

Her greatest contribution to popularizing science appears in her explaining classic methods of the inductive scientist who describes past events that he has not witnessed. He does so by using an inductive analogy based on what he can see in the present and the evidence from resulting formations. For the sake of her young readers, she relies implicitly on this method supplemented by their imaginations as she explains the formation of clouds and precipitation. In The Fairy-Land of Science she starts with established facts about how much water is drawn up from the earth into the sky. For instance, three quarters of an inch of water is lifted from the Indian Ocean every day ‘silently and invisibly’. She asks a question: ‘What, then, becomes of all this water?’ The answer combines knowledge which her readers have already acquired with imaginative surmise about the origins of cloud formations:

Let us follow it as it struggles upwards to the sky. We see it in our imagination first carrying layer after layer of air up with it from the sea till it rises far above our heads and above the highest mountains. But now, call to mind what happens to the air as it recedes from the earth. Do you not remember that the air-atoms are always trying to fly apart, and are only kept pressed together by the weight of air above them? Well, so this water-laden air rises up, its particles, no longer so much pressed together, begin to separate, and as all work requires an expenditure of heat, the air becomes colder, and then you know at once what must happen to the invisible vapour, - it will form into tiny water-drops, like the steam from the kettle. And so, as the air rises and becomes colder, the vapour gathers into the visible masses, and we can see it hanging in the sky, and call it clouds. When these clouds are highest they are about ten miles from the earth, but when they are made of heavy drops and hang low down, they sometimes come within a mile of the ground. [p. 40].

She challenges their imaginations (‘We see it in our imagination first carrying layer after layer of air up with it from the sea’), calls on the familiar for assistance (‘it will form into tiny water-drops, like the steam from the kettle’) and relies on what they have learned in previous lessons (‘Do you not remember that the air-atoms are always trying to fly apart?’). Her methodology leaves little to be desired.

Related material


Buckley, Arabella. The Winners in Life's Race or the Great Backboned Family.New York: D. Appleton & ompany,1883.

Buckley, Arabella. The Fairy Land of Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press,1879.

Penn, Granville. Conversations on Geology comprising a familiar exposition of the Huttonian and Wenerian System; The Mosaic Geology, as explained by Mr. Granville Penn; and the late discoveries of Professor Buckland, Humboldt. R. McCulloch, and others. London: Samuel Maunder, 1828.

Torrens, Hugh. Images of the Earth: Geological Communication. Buckinghamshire U.K: British Society for the History of Science, 1981.

Last modified 16 January 2019