The Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery

Thanks to the good offices of Derby Museums and Art Gallery we were able to film there recently to create a video about The Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery.

The museum is closed on a Monday so it was possible to get some shots that really show off the beautiful Joseph Wright Gallery where the Orrery painting hangs in pride of place.

You can view the video on Youtube.

Yet another book to do after the Alchymist lecture !

My lecture on Joseph Wright’s The Alchymist in search of the Philosopher’s Stone discovers Phosphorus, at Derby Museum and Art Gallery on 23rd November, generated sufficient interest for me to decide to write it up as yet another mini-monograph. I will get on with this while the iron is still hot so to speak.

However, this means that in addition to a Kindle book on Time and Time Travel in Physics, Fiction and Philosophy (which is three parts written), I now have four new Enlightenment Mini-Monographs on the go at once. The others are on Herbert Spencer, Thomas Hobbes, and Margaret Cavendish. The Herbert Spencer volume which I had hoped to get out before Christmas will clearly now not be finished until 2017.

Change to Lecture on 23rd November 2016 – now on ‘The Alchymist’

The lecture at the Derby Museum and Art Gallery at 2 pm on 23rd November was going to be on both Joseph Wright’s painting ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’ and his ‘The Alchymist, in search of the Philosopher’s Stone, discovers Phosphorus’. However having stumbled upon some major surprises when investigating the Air Pump, I have concluded I need to undertake further investigations before going public. They may lead to a major discovery or else turn out to be a complete red herrings. The worst outcome would be being unable either to prove or to refute my conjectures.

Even if the investigation of the Air Pump  does turn out to be a wild goose chase, it is taking me through some interesting countryside which I will share with people at a talk in March next year.

In the meantime the lecture on 23rd November will be exclusively on ‘The Alchymist’. Recent close attention has led me to a number of observations which do not appear to have been made before. While not world-shattering, these observations may justify treatment in a mini-monograph of their own. I will see what the audience on 23rd thinks about that.

Upcoming Lecture on the Alchymist and the Air Pump

After successfully decoding Joseph Wright’s Orrery painting and identifying the ‘Philosopher’ with as much certainty as is possible, I felt obliged to take a look at his two other main scientific paintings. The Alchymist of course imagines an actual historical event – the discovery of Phosphorus by Hennig Brand in 1669 – but the alarming painting ‘The Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’ appears to depict a contemporary occasion. The painting raises important questions about the ethics of scientific experimentation. It is a more complex painting than ‘the Orrery’ but is it possible to determine whether the event shown actually took place and if so where and with whom ?

New Edition of Franklin out

Having given a talk at Lichfield during their ‘Year of Lunarcy’ – celebrating the 250th anniversary of the organisation of the Lunary Society by Dr William Small – I have created an extended new edition of the Franklin volume. the main additional material relates to Franklin’s stay in Lichfield in July 1772, when he and Erasmus Darwin attempted to isolate what we now know as ‘methane’. Though they were unsuccessful, Franklin’s write-up of his attempt in the first volume of Joseph Priestley’s ‘Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air’ led directly to Volta’s successful isolation of the gas in Italy.

New Venture into Electronic Publishing

I have resisted the suggestion that I should normally make my Enlightenment mini-monographs available on Kindle, since I want to redirect people to the actual Shops at Derby Museum and Erasmus Darwin House in Lichfield. However I have decided to experiment with the electronic publication of something completely different.

My first Kindle publication is an expanded, and now lavishly illustrated, version of a piece I wrote for the Cambridge Review to mark Stephen Hawking’s 50th birthday. (He will be 75 next year !) Its whimsical title is taken from a remark by Einstein, viz. Did God have any Choice in the Creation of the World?  Look for it on AmazonI would be very interested to know what people make of it !


This venture has prompted me to prepare a similar electronic publication for the piece I began a result of giving a warm-up talk before Robert Lloyd Parry’s one-man performance of H.G. Wells The Time Machine at the Derby Guildhall in 2014. This volume will take a little time to complete, thanks to all the pictures I am having to create to try to make some complex ideas intuitively clear, but it will be a full-sized book entitled Time and Time Travel in Physics, Fiction and Philosophy.

Quandary pondering

Lecturer paying homage to Philosopher (cropped) copy

The author paying homage to the Philosopher lecturing on the Orrery before speaking on 10th November 2015 (photograph Anne Powers)

Welcome to the new website for Quandary Books.

It features the series of ‘mini-monographs’ on Enlightenment figures which I’ve been writing to support Derby Museum and Art Gallery and Erasmus Darwin House in Lichfield. (Some of them have also been on sale at Derby Cathedral, Chatsworth House, and the Buxton Museum.)

The first five are already into their second editions, despite sales having relied previously just on ‘passing trade’. People have commented that these little books should be more widely available since, though the pretext for writing them has been that they had connections with Derbyshire, the people I discuss are of world significance.

It is an interesting discipline to be limited to the number of pages which can be made into a stapled booklet. This keeps the cost down, even in full colour. One has to write to fit the page (including illustrations and footnotes) and the total number of pages has to be a multiple of four.

They have all involved voyages of discovery for me and all of them contain at least something you will not find anywhere else. It would have been easy to turn them into full-sized books – without actually adding any content ! – but the idea is that they would be so cheap as to be irresistible.

And in any case the profits go to support the work of important cultural charities. So do have a look !
Jonathan Powers