Studying science at Oxford was not just a matter for the colleges and the University, which set the formal curriculum and degree requirements. It was the students themselves who took an active interest in improving their learning and establishing a ‘hidden curriculum’. They organised their own seminars, discussed scientific exhibits, were sometimes the first in Oxford to reproduce new effects (such as Hertzian waves), and even gave popular lectures on the latest scientific findings in the University Museum, which attracted large numbers of Oxfordians from all walks of life.
Two student-run societies, the Junior Scientific Club of 1882 and the Alembic Club of 1900, stood out among a plethora of other scientific clubs and societies. They became the social machinery that enabled students such as Henry Moseley, Frederick Soddy and Julian Huxley to launch their scientific careers by involving Oxford professors, pressing them for laboratory access and inviting luminaries of British and international science. Their Robert Boyle Lecturers included Nobel Laureates such as Rutherford, WH Bragg and FW Aston, and Conversaziones became early examples of science popularisation by Oxford students.
How unique was the Oxford example? How did it compare with Cambridge, which had its own but rather exclusive Natural Science Club? And can we link the British case to the ubiquitous German student scientific societies or the US scientific fraternities (which were at the beginning of the development of Greek-letter honorary societies)?
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