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Discover Science at the British Library


We are the British Library Science Team; we provide access to world-leading scientific information resources, manage UK DataCite and run science events and exhibitions. This blog highlights a variety of the activities we are involved with. Follow us on Twitter: @ScienceBL. Read more

03 April 2018

Augmented reality - it isn't just for catching mons.

The most recent GREATforImagination post covered an augmented reality app created by Nexus Studios for the US Presidential administration in 2016. Augmented reality is a halfway point towards the more famous virtual reality, in which CGI elements are added to a real-time image of the user's surroundings, using either a mobile device screen or virtual reality goggles. The most well-known applications at the moment are for entertainment, such as the famous game Pokemon Go, or our own use of it in our Harry Potter exhibition.


However, there are some more practical uses for augmented reality in the worlds of science and engineering.

The construction industry still largely uses 2-D documents to indicate what should be built. However, why not create augmented reality images of objects in situ for people to copy? Or why not help utilities workers "see" underground pipes before they start digging holes?

An obvious application is in the world of chemistry, where physical 3-D models of large molecules have been familiar for decades, but can take a long time to build. Digital models can be created much more quickly, and AR equipment allows scientists to interact with them with increasing realism. There's a freeware program to try it yourself, if you have some chemistry and computing knowledge.

AR can also be used in surgery, either for training purposes or to allow surgeons to "see" what they are doing during minimally invasive surgery.

(All the articles linked are open access, so you don't have to come to the Library to read them)

13 March 2018

Did Man Get Here by Evolution or by Creation?

In 1967, Jehovah's Witnesses publish a little blue volume asking Did Man Get Here by Evolution or by Creation? Half a century later, a copy shows up in the British Library, in a box of books left as part of the John Maynard Smith Archive.

John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) was a British evolutionary biologist and no supporter of Jehovah's Witnesses in any form. Rather, he had been an atheist ever since discovering the writings of population geneticist J.B.S. Haldane at the age of 15 – and a 'semi-conscious atheist before that'. Going into Eton's school library, he found Haldane's essay collection Possible Worlds and its 'mixture of extreme rational science, blasphemy and imagination, was a way of thinking that I had never encountered before'. It inspired Maynard Smith to read up on evolution and eventually – after a detour into aircraft engineering – to study it with Haldane and turn it into a successful career. So how did he come to own such a curious little book?

We have to go back to 1967 again. In October of that year, a Mrs Daphne Taylor of Sheffield packs up the book and posts it to Sussex University. 'Dear Professor,' she writes, 'Please find enclosed a small gift which I hope you will accept and enjoy reading.' Why send it to Maynard Smith? Has she sent it to any other evolutionary biologists? We don't know, but her motivation becomes quite clear as she goes on to say that she knows several people 'including teachers interested in evolution' who 'have found it most enlightening.' She wonders if Maynard Smith would let her know his views 'on any of the points brought out in the book'? There is, unfortunately, no record of any reply.

But is it telling that he kept both the book and, folded inside it, the accompanying letter? We do know that Maynard Smith had a continued interest in religion and creation(ism). The archives contain a short manuscript from his later years on "The Evolution of Religion" (co-authored with David Harper); in the 1960s he discussed science and religion on the radio and in 1986, following an invitation by the Oxford Union, debated the motion "That the Doctrine of Creation is more valid than the Theory of Evolution" (198 noes, 115 [or 150; the recording is unclear] ayes).

Proof for an intelligent designer? From "Did Man Get Here By Evolution Or By Creation?", p.71. Copyright © Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society of Pennsylvania.


What do the Jehovah's Witnesses ask and affirm in their volume? Evolutionary teaching saturates everything, even religion. But 'what do you personally know of the evidence for or against the belief in evolution? Does it really harmonize with the facts of science? We invite your careful examination of this matter, as it has a direct bearing on your life and your future.' The running argument is one that had been first used by William Paley in his 1802 book Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity – nature is too complex for there not to have been an intelligent designer or creator. Paley famously used the analogy of a watchmaker: suppose you were to find a watch on the heath, and upon examining it and its complexity, would you not suppose there has to have been a watchmaker? Similarly, the Jehovah's Witnesses argue that 'what is made requires a maker'. Liking DNA to 'complex blueprints for future development', they wonder: 'And when we see blueprints responsible for the building of beautiful bridges, buildings and machines, do we ever contend they came into being without an intelligent designer?' What is more, there is not enough evidence for evolution (while all the existing evidence is compatible with the Bible), it's all just a theory based on conjecture and wishful thinking, unsupported by fact, and, really, not proper science at all.

The conclusion? The truly 'honest seekers after truth must acknowledge that the evidence is overwhelming that man got here, not as a result of evolution, but by means of creation by God.'

The question of evolution or creation is of course not new – Paley's watchmaker analogy may be familiar, but more will have heard (of) the story of the 1860 debate between Thomas Huxley ("Darwin's bulldog") and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce: are you descended from monkeys on your grandmother's or your grandfather's side? (The story itself has been highly sensationalised: contemporary accounts suggest that it was much less dramatic.) But organised creationism, in the sense in which it is most commonly understood today, is very much shaped by American Evangelical Christians and emerged in the 20th century. Stephen Jay Gould referred to it as a 'local, indigenous, American bizarrity' – but it has in fact not been confined to America. In Britain, especially recently, creationism has been discussed mostly in the context of education (free schools). Maynard Smith, while obviously not involved in those recent debates, discussed whether there is a conflict between science and religion in a serious of radio broadcasts aimed at school audiences in 1964. He concluded that there are cases and ways in which they do contradict each other but agreed with Christians in so far as to say that there seems to be something remarkable – but not necessarily unique! – about human intelligence in comparison to animals. He debated creationists, once together with Richard Dawkins – famously or infamously, one of the most outspoken critics of creationism and religion. Dawkins remembers that in the 1986 debate, Maynard Smith 'was, of course, easily able to destroy the creationist's case, and in his good-natured way he soon had the audience roaring with appreciative laughter at its expense.' Interviewed by the British Humanist Association – who are actively lobbying against creationist influences – in 2001, Maynard Smith finally summarised his views on religion as follows:

'I think there are two views you can have about religion. You can be tolerant of it and say, I don't believe in this but I don’t mind if other people do, or you can say, I not only don't believe in it but I think it is dangerous and damaging for other people to believe in it and they should be persuaded that they are mistaken. I fluctuate between the two. I am tolerant because religious institutions facilitate some very important work that would not get done otherwise, but then I look around and see what an incredible amount of damage religion is doing.'

So how did man get here? Obviously, Maynard Smith's answer would have been very resounding, "by evolution"!

John Maynard Smith c. 1965. Copyright © University of Sussex.


Posted by Helen Piel. Helen Piel is a PhD student at the University of Leeds and the British Library. She is part of the AHRC's Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme and working on the John Maynard Smith Archive, exploring the working life of a British evolutionary biologist in the post-war period.

This post forms part of a series on our Science and Untold Lives blogs highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2018.

Further reading:

The book and letter are now catalogued and can be found in the John Maynard Smith Archive (Add MS 86839 C)

Krasnodebski, M. (2014). Constructing creationists: French and British narratives and policies in the wake of the resurgence of anti-evolution movements. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 47, 35-44.

Numbers, R. (2013). Creationism. In M. Ruse (ed.). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Darwin and Evolutionary Thought. Cambridge [etc.]: Cambridge University Press.

Pallen, M. (2009). The Rough Guide to Evolution. London: Rough Guides Ltd.

Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society of Pennsylvania (1967). Did Man Get Here by Evolution or by Creation? Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society of New York, Inc. & International Bible Students Association Brooklyn: New York.


19 December 2017

James Greathead and the tunnelling shield

Shield instagram
This GREATforImagination post commemorates the development of the tube tunnelling shield by the South African engineer James Henry Greathead. The patent, GB 1738/1874, is not online but you can see it if you visit the Library with a Reader Pass. Tunnelling shields allowed deep tunnels to be driven through soft earth, instead of being dug as trenches and then covered up. The shield protects workers cutting the earth at the tunnelling face. It slowly moves forward, with the tunnel being lined behind them to ensure that it doesn't collapse. They are the forerunners of the modern giant tunnelling machines used to dig the Channel Tunnel and the soon-to-open Elizabeth Line.

The first shield was invented by the British-based French engineer Marc Brunel, father of the more famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and patented as GB 4204/1818. In 1825-41, father and son used it to construct the Thames Tunnel from Wapping to Rotherhithe. First opened as a pedestrian tunnel, it is now part of the London Overground route from Highbury to New Cross.

Greathead's teacher, the engineer Peter Barlow, patented an improved shield in 1864 as GB 2207/1864. Barlow's key innovations were making the shield circular, increasing its strength, and lining the tunnel behind the shield with iron rings instead of Brunel's brickwork, which was stronger and faster. Although this version of the shield was patented in Barlow's name alone, Greathead is thought to have played an important role in the design. Greathead's patent of 1874 further improved the shield by using water or air to force debris back from the shield face into the tunnel, using hydraulic rams to force the shield forwards, and introducing the use of compressed air to further reduce the risk of collapse in very soft soil.

Greathead shield patent
Image from Greathead's patent GB 1738/1874



Greathead planned the construction using his shields of the first three deep-level tube lines in London - the City and South London Railway from Bank to Stockwell (now part of the Northern Line), the Waterloo and City Railway from Bank to Waterloo (now the Waterloo and City Line), and the Central London Railway from Bank to Shepherd's Bush (now part of the Central Line). However, his first main project in London was a now forgotten one - the Tower Subway beneath the Thames from Tower Hill to Tooley Street, which was originally opened in 1870 as a cable railway tunnel, but only lasted as such for less than six months before the operating company went bankrupt. It remained as a foot tunnel until 1898, when it was closed thanks to the opening of Tower Bridge. Since then it has carried water mains and, recently, telecommunications cables. At only six feet in diameter, it was not particularly popular as a foot tunnel.

Greathead died in 1896, before the Waterloo and City or Central London opened. Original Greathead shield parts can be seen in two places in London. One of the shields used to construct the Waterloo and City Railway was abandoned underground when the line was completed, and discovered during reconstruction of Bank station for the Docklands Light Railway in the 1990s. The outer ring was left in place and can be seen, painted red, at Bank in the deep-level passageway between the Waterloo and City Line platforms and the other tube lines and DLR. The outer rings of the shields used to construct the Rotherhithe road tunnel under the Thames were erected as archways before both entrances to the tunnels, from the Highway in Limehouse and Brunel Road in Southwark. A statue of Greathead stands in King William Street in London, near Bank where those three first tube lines all started from. The statue is not just for decoration - the plinth hides a ventilation shaft for the tube station.

Greathead statue
Greathead statue in King William Street



Further reading:
Croome, Desmond F and Jackson, Alan A. Rails through the clay. Harrow Weald: Capital Transport, 1993. Shelfmark YK.1994.b.4557
Maidl, Bernhard, and others. Mechanised shield tunnelling. Berlin: Wilhelm Ernst & Sohn, 2012. Shelfmark (B) 624.193
Stack, Barbara. Handbook of mining and tunnelling machinery. Chichester: Wiley, 1982. Shelfmark 82/04476
West, Graham. Innovation and the rise of the tunnelling industry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Shelfmark m05/35230

Greathead statue photo by Dr. Jacqueline Banerjee, first published at Victorian Web.

30 November 2017

Digital preservation and the Anne McLaren Papers

Today on International Digital Preservation Day we present a guest-post by Claire Mosier, Museum Librarian and Historian at American Museum of Western Art: The Anschutz Collection, concerning the digital files in the Anne McLaren Supplementary Papers (Add MS 89202) which have just been made available to researchers. As an MA student Claire worked as an intern at the British Library in 2015 helping to process digital material.


AM30NovImage 1
Dame Anne McLaren. Copyright James Brabazon

The developmental biologist Dame Anne McLaren was a great proponent of scientists sharing their work with the general public, and gave many presentations to scientists as well as the general public. Some of the notes, drafts, and finished products of these presentations are on paper, and others are in digital formats. The digital files of the Anne McLaren Supplementary Papers are comprised mostly of PowerPoint presentations and images. Digital records are more of a challenge to access, and give readers access to, as they are not always readily readable in their native format. This leads to unique challenges in determining and making available the content. 

AM30NovImage 2
‘HongKong2003Ethics.ppt’ Page from the presentation ‘Ethical, Legal and Social Considerations of Stem Cell Research’, 2003, (Add MS 89202/12/16). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

 Throughout her career, McLaren gave presentations not only for educating others about her own work, but also on the social and ethical issues of scientific research. Many of her PowerPoint files are from presentations between 2002 and 2006 and cover the ethical, legal, moral, and social implications around stem cell therapy. These topics are addressed in the 2003 presentation ‘Ethical, Legal, and Social Considerations of Stem Cell Research’ (Add MS 89202/12/16), which briefly covers the historic and current stem cell research and legislation affecting it in different countries. A presentation from 2006 ‘Ethics and Science
of Stem Cell Research’ (Add MS 89202/12/160) goes into more detail, breaking ethical concerns into categories of personal, research, and social ethics. As seen in these presentations and others, Anne McLaren tried to present material in a way that would make sense to her audience, some of the presentations being introductions to a concept for the more general public, and others being very detailed on a narrower subject for those in scientific professions. 

AM30NovImage 3
‘Pugwash 2006’ Page from the presentation ‘When is an Embryo not an Embryo’, 2006, (Add MS 89202/12/163). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

 From looking at her PowerPoint documents it seems McLaren’s goals were to educate her audience on scientific ideas and encourage them to think critically, whether they were scientists themselves or not. However, this is hard to confirm, as the PowerPoints are only partial artefacts of her presentations, and what she said during those presentations is not captured in the collection. While she did sometimes present her own views in the slides, she presented other viewpoints as well. This is seen in the presentation for the 2006 Pugwash Conference (Add MS 89202/12/163) titled ‘When is an Embryo not an Embryo’ which presents semantic, legislative, and scientific definitions of the term embryo before a slide reveals McLaren’s own views, then goes back to legislative definitions before the slideshow ends. The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs were created to ensure the peaceful application of scientific advances, and McLaren was a council member for many years.


Both the newly released Anne McLaren Supplementary Papers (Add MS 89202), along with the first tranche of McLaren’s papers (Add MS 83830-83981) are available to researchers via the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue. Additionally one of Anne McLaren’s notebooks containing material from 1965 to 1968 (Add MS 83845) is on long-term display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery.

10 November 2017

Using science to build international relations: a short introduction to science diplomacy

Today, on World Science Day for Peace and Development, scientists and policymakers attending the World Science Forum in Jordan are discussing the role science can play in nurturing diplomatic relations.

Science diplomacy is an umbrella term for a wide range of activities in which science and technology are leveraged to foster ties between nations. Governments are aware that collaborating with international partners to achieve scientific goals can further their national interests. Consequently they are paying increasing attention to the idea of science as a diplomatic tool.

How is it practised? On a bilateral level diplomats co-ordinate scientific agreements which commit signatories to pooling resources by sharing knowledge and collaborating on research projects. Such agreements can open up opportunities for product development and trade deals, and are becoming an important part of the UK’s strategy to expand its research and innovation horizons post-Brexit.

Jo Johnson Ruth Garber
Jo Johnson (UK Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation) and Judith G. Garber (U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs) signed the first U.S.-UK Science and Technology Agreement on 20 September 2017 in Washington, D.C. The UK is putting £65 million into the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE). Photo credit: STFC/FCO

Science is a global enterprise in which international collaboration is the norm. In particular multinational teams are needed to run large experimental facilities such as the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) which are beyond the scope of individual countries. One of the by-products of these neutral working environments is science diplomacy. Scientists can develop long-lasting, cross-cultural relationships that sometimes help to bridge difficult political situations from the bottom up. Proposals for these huge infrastructure projects are often driven by an incentive to stimulate co-operation as much as for a need to build scientific capacity.

This was the case for the SESAME synchrotron which opened earlier this year in Jordan. The synchrotron’s powerful light source can be used to study the properties of a range of different materials, attracting researchers from across the Middle East, including Iranians, Israelis and Palestinians.

SESAME construction
Countries from across the Middle East have come together to build SESAME. Photo credit: SESAME

Science diplomacy also comes into play in resolving sensitive international disputes. When negotiations to limit Iran’s nuclear programme stalled, credit for their successful conclusion went to the two physicists, one Iranian and one US, who worked out the scientific details of the 2015 deal.

Four negotiators
The scientists and Ministers who negotiated the Iran deal: US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, US Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Vice President of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization Dr Ali Akbar Salehi. Photo credit: U.S. Mission Photo/Eric Bridiers

Scientists and diplomats also work together in addressing global issues such as climate change, antimicrobial resistance or cross-border public health crises. Using scientific evidence is fundamental when negotiating coherent responses to shared challenges, and government science advisers are seen as a key mechanism in getting science into policymaking. Gradually foreign ministries around the world are appointing their own science advisers to channel scientific research into the work of their departments.

Various strategic funding programmes, some of which focus on meeting the UN’s sustainable development goals, support the aims of science diplomacy. These international collaborative projects generate the necessary evidence to inform policymaking while also stimulating partnerships that foster trust between nations.

Climate ready rice Newton Prize
The Newton Fund project ‘Climate Ready Rice’ is being conducted by scientists from Sheffield University in the UK, Kasetsart University in Thailand and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines.Photo credit: IRRI

It is unclear how to evaluate the impact of science diplomacy activities, but participants agree that they only work when based around excellent science that generates mutual benefits.

Emmeline Ledgerwood is an AHRC collaborative student with the British Library Oral History department and the University of Leicester. She is preparing a policy briefing on science diplomacy as part of an AHRC-funded policy fellowship at the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology (POST). The briefing will be published by POST in December 2017.

POST runs several fellowship schemes with Research Councils, learned societies and charities, through which PhD students are sponsored to spend (usually) three months working at POST. Some fellowships are also open to postdoctoral researchers in academia and industry.  

You can follow @EmmeLedgerwood and @POST_UK on Twitter.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author alone, not of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.

08 November 2017

121 Discovery Sessions in Science

eference specialists in our reading rooms offer 121 discovery sessions which can be booked through our web site at:

We are all aware of the great advantages of digital access and technologies but not the impact on our individual and public health.


A recent example of such a 121 discovery session explored the research topic of the negative psychological and health impact of digital technologies and the aim to understand the emerging trends for the next decades, of this digital and artificial intelligence revolutions on our mental, emotional, social and cultural well-being.

We can advise our researchers on the stages in which they can follow to create literature reviews and manage their projects:

  • Formulation of initial research questions. List these and value the questions in their own right and that may not have definitive answers.
  • Scoping the areas of interest and defining what is out of remit.
  • Getting into the mind set and language discourse of the literature and its authors.
  • Using the subject specific language terms to search the relevant databases and catalogues.
  • Developing a search strategy and limits e.g. last 10 years, country focus, population group,  material type  
  • Browse e-resources and iteratively refine search terms to re-input into another cycle of database interrogation

The examples given by our researcher of the psychological and behavioural impact of digital technologies induced phenomena that can create mental health issues include:

  • Depersonalisation and objectification
  • Online trolling and abuse
  • The selfie syndrome and online body perception issues
  • Online sexual grooming and predation
  • Rise of Internet junkies, surfers spending up to and more than 6 hours a day online
  • Withdrawal into digital fantasy worlds, are we creating the mental space cadets of the future? What impact does violence online have off-line?
  • Online digital addictions e.g. online gaming and gambling
  • Enhanced social phobias: anxieties around and breakdown of human to human communication and reliance on the intermediation of digital communication technologies
  • Digital exclusion/inclusion and equality issues

We aim to encourage our researchers to ask these key that can challenge and change our future thinking and lifestyles.  Simon Baron-Cohen, in “Zero degrees of empathy : a new theory of human cruelty, questions where are we going as human beings in our era of technological materialism. What impact is this having on our psyche?


The British Library offers a wealth of resources, both in print as books and online in terms of e-resources for researchers of technology trends and their future directions.  How can these risk factors be mapped, evaluated and what interventions devised to ensure digital content and tools support our notions of health and remain our servants and not our masters? Some of these issues are explored in “Irresistible : why we can’t stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching by Adam Alter, 2017 available in the library collections.

What are the emerging pathologies from these digital technologies and what do the technology utopians, doomers and ludites say about the pros and cons of our current digital revolution? This is a very multi-disciplinary area of research encompassing medicine, mental and psychological health,   social science, economics, business and cultural shifts. Our range of e-resources can open windows into these areas of knowledge through our e-resource directory to be found at:

Recommended databases include: SCOPUS, WEB of Science, PsychInfo and PsychExtrat, PILOTS, Medline and PubMed, ASSIA (Applied Social Science Index and Abstracts), Sociological Abstracts, Business Source Complete, ABI Inform Global, Business and Industry (Gale), Management and Business Studies Portal etc. Most need to be used onsite, a few are free offsite.

Our challenge is to learn lessons from the past and try and predict the pitfalls ahead as we move rapidly from the first industrial revolution in Britain to the global information technology, digital Internet based revolutions of bits, bytes, robots and artificial intelligence.

Paul Allchin, 

Reference specialist, science

23 October 2017

The realization of Star Trek Technologies

Star Trek captured my imagination as a child and I have been a trekkie ever since, so you can imagine my surprise earlier this year when a new book was placed by a colleague on our new book shelves in the science reading rooms, entitled “The realization of Star Trek Technologies: The Science, Not Fiction, Behind Brain Implants, Plasma Shields, Quantum Computing, and More” by Mark E. Lasbury, published by Springer,  2017.

Star Trek 9783319409122

Source: Springer permissions:

The science collections, here at the British Library, often include unusual gems, and this must be one of my favourites. The story was modelled on Jonathan Swifts "Gullivers Travels" and various American wild west and adventurer literature and became a media prism of the times. Many contemporary issues were played out in the scripts including racism, power, politics, warfare, rise and fall of empires, and these always had a moral dimension.

The cultural impact of Star Trek was enormous as it spawned a dedicated fan base over decades, who campaigned to keep it going in difficult times and ensuring it was a commercial success in the good times. The philosophy behind Star Trek enshrined values of hope, humanity, equality and the search for new knowledge and wider horizons.    

Spock and Kirk

Source: Leonard Nimoy - Wikipedia, Wikipedia 1507 × 1911 Search by image, Nimoy as Spock with William Shatner as Captain Kirk, 1968. Nimoy and Star Trek ...

Star trek, the US sci-fi franchise was created by Gene Roddenberry and the original series was launched in 1966 on the NBC TV network and followed the adventures of the explorer star ship “Enterprise” led by Captain James Tiberius Kirk in the 23 rd century. Gene created a new world in the imagination of generations of fans and this evolved into a wealth of characters, narratives,  TV series, films and even a constructed or artificial language, Klingon. We even hold a 1992 “Klingon dictionary : English/Klingon, Klingon/English” by Marc Okrand in our collections.

Image of Enterprise Star Ship

Mark Lasbury’s book explores the science behind this Star Trek world and helps us understand where the line between todays actual science and our science fiction is transforming into science fact as the decades roll by. He explaims the science of cloaking and invisibility, the variety of replicators from nanobot micro engineers, to 3D and 4D printers, to organic and cellular fabrication of human tissus, blood vessels and food.

Gravitational waves were predicted by Albert Einstein in 1906 and detected in 2017 by the physicist Nobel prize winners, Rainer Weiss, kip Thorne and Barry Barish and the author speculates on the nature of gravitons as both space time curvatures warped by celestial bodies and multi-dimensional points within the energy strings of superstring theory.  The author explores gravitons that could be used as deflector shields and tractor beams, the use of plasma and electromagnetic shields, the technological state of play of computational linguistics and the Universal Translator (UT).

Star Trek team


Harvey P. Lynn, (1921-1986), was the honorary science consultant in the early days of Star Trek, who graduated as an electrical engineer and worked at the RAND Corporation as a liaison officer between RAND and projects for the U.S. Air force. It was his critical input that adapted scripts to be both technically plausible and as it turned out, quite prophetic. Lynn is often credited with inventing the term "phaser", based on laser technology.

Lynn served for almost a year and a half receiving a nominal $50 per episode. Andre Bormanis followed in his footsteps for the the modern spin-off Star Trek live-action productions, while Jesco von Puttkamer also served as as science adviser on the earlier Star Trek:The Motion Picture. Each helped root Star Trek into science fact while launching our imaginations into science fantasy.

The British Library collections include much of this biographical, media business and socio-political background in key references such as:

  • The making of Star trek by Stephen E. Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry. Written by Stephen E. Whitfield, Ballantine Books, New York, 1968, shelf mark 72/27150 and 75/8853 (copies avilable via inter-library lending),  
  • Inside Star Trek : the real story,  by Herbert F. Solow and Robert H. Justman, Pocket Books, US/UK, 1996.  (Shelfmark: YK.1996.b.15904, reference copy),
  • Star trek. I’m working on that : a trek from science fiction to science fact William Shatner with Chip Walker, Pocket Books, London/New York, 2002. ( Shelfmark: YK.2003.a.28505 reference copy)
  • Otherworldly politics : the international relations of Star trek, Game of thrones, and Battlestar Galactica by Stephen Benedict Dyson,  Johns Hopkins University Press,  Baltimore, 2015 (Shelfmark: YC.2016.a.2351, reference copy) in which Dyson explains how these shows offer alternative histories and future possibilities for humanity.

For the Star Trek devotee and researcher The British Library holds both in-depth academic and scholarly works but also a variety of popular cultural resources found in comics, fanzines and science fiction publications. Entrance to the reading rooms is free upon registration, see our web site for further details and check our "Explore" catalogue for collection items of interest.

British Library registration:

 Star Trek official web site:

The Internet Movie Database:

Written and posted by Paul Allchin, Science reference specialist


13 October 2017

Local Heroes: Alphonse Normandy. Pure water and impure food

Alphonse Normandy was born in Rouen in 1809 as Alphonse le Mire. He became a medical doctor but was more interested in chemistry, studying at Heidelberg University with the well-known chemist Leopold Gmelin (now famous for the database of inorganic compounds named after him, which grew out of an 1817 textbook he wrote). He moved to London in 1838. From the 1840s he changed his name to "Normandy" after the region where he was born. He lived for some time in Judd Street near the British Library, where he has a blue plaque at number 91. He died in 1864.

He is mostly remembered for his invention of desalination devices, distilling seawater to produce fresh water. He patented his still design as GB13714/1851 with one Richard Fell. The patent is not online but you can see it if you come to the British Library with a reader pass. It uses two-effect distillation where the heat released in the condensation of the initial steam boils a second load of water, using energy more efficiently and effectively doubling the output. The device also captures formerly dissolved air released during the heating of the water and reintroduces it to the steam, creating aerated distillate and reducing the "boiled" taste. In 1863 an Amendment to the Passengers Act of 1855 declared that passenger ships were allowed to reduce the amount of fresh water they carried if they had a desalinator of the Normandy or the rival Winchester-Graveley design.

Normandy still
Normandy's water still, illustrated in his patent

Normandy's Patent Marine Aerated Fresh Water Co. was incorporated in 1858. After a few years it moved to a large building near Victoria Docks, which finally closed in 1910. During the later years of his life Normandy clashed with the directors and shareholders of the company due to his only assigning the GB patent to the company but retaining the US patent himself, forcing the company to use him personally as a sales agent for distribution overseas. His sons, however continued with the company. Alphonse's son Frank Normandy wrote what was probably the first book on desalination - A Practical Manual on Sea Water Distillation, which is held in our collections at 08767.aa.5, or 628.16 3395.


A surviving Normandy distiller has been found at Fort Zachary Taylor, Key West.

Normandy held many other patents, of which the most notable was hardening soap with sodium sulphate (GB9081/1841). He kept a private laboratory and taught chemistry. He was elected a fellow of the Chemical Society (now the Royal Society of Chemistry) and council member, and was a member of the Royal Institution.

In 1855 he was one of several chemists, doctors and activists to testify to the Select Committee of the House of Commons on food adulteration, a series of hearings that scandalised the British public and led to the first laws against it, although the fight would not truly succeed until much later in the century. Normandy reported that practically all the bread sold in London had been adulterated with alum to make it whiter and to absorb water and bulk it out. He described adulteration of various other foods, in particular the adulteration of coffee with chicory and beer with the neurotoxic tropical plant cocculus indicus. He also briefly described the grossly unhygienic conditions of many London dairies. Ironically, his hardened soap had been banned from sale for some years because the Excise considered the process to be adulteration, which was brought up during the Committee discussion.  

Cruikshank drinkers
Image from "The House that Jack Built" by George Cruikshank, 1853


In 1850 he wrote A Commercial Hand Book of Chemical Analysis (shelved here at 1143.h.26), a very interesting book covering most chemicals that were used or sold industrially at the time, and various procedures to check for food adulteration. The book notably described early quantitative colorimetric assays of dyes and spices, and microscopic examination of flour to determine adulteration with other products.

Further reading:
Birkett, J and Radcliffe, 2014, D. Normandy's Patent Marine Aerated Fresh Water Company: a family business for 60 years, 1851-1910. IDA Journal of Desalination and Water Reuse, 6(1), pp.24-32. Available digitally in BL reading rooms.

House of Commons Reports from Committees, 1854-5, vol. 8, pp. 221-530. BS Ref 1. Also available digitally in BL reading rooms.

16 September 2017

Staff Visit to the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) Library

On 6 th September a group of staff from the British Library visited  ZSL and found a rich diversity of zoological collections that complements and overlaps with our own.

Contact: Ann Sylph/Emma Milnes, Library. The Zoological Society of London, Regents Park, London, NW1 4RY ( )

History of the ZSL: The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and London zoo was established by Sir Humphry Davy and Sir Stamford Raffles and founded in 1826.

Daily Occurrences:  The Library includes items on the history of ZSL, the most fascinating is a series of volumes called “Daily Occurrences” that record the comings and goings of animals at both London and Whipsnade Zoos, from both of the zoos foundation to the present day.

 These early daily zoo diary entries in print and more recently e-format, document the life and professional practice of the zoos. Dr Beryl Leigh, a ZSL member and former BL curator has recently sponsored the digitization four of these early print records that could become a valuable data set for future researchers to analyse. ZSL are seeking funding to digitise more to make them available online.

Role of the ZSL: librarians, curators and scientists work together on research projects across the globe to advance our knowledge of wildlife, nature conservation and zoo management.

The ZSL has published it’s zoological research since 1830 in the proceedings of  the Zoological Society of London, along with other key titles and reports:

Historical semina papers are available free at;

Building: ZSL Library moved from a central London site to its present location in 1910 and this shell was refurbished in the 1960s and includes the main library and 2 floors of basements with rather precarious rolling shelves.

Collections: focus on zoology and animal conservation, comprises 200,000 items on our shelves, including 40,000 books, 5000 journal titles, the archives of ZSL. The  collections include rare books, illustrated folios, lithographs, paintings and these historical and descriptive type specimen  information remain of great scientific value even today. More about the ZSL archives can be found at:

Online Catalogue: many prints, drawings  and paintings are digitised as thumbnail images on the catalogue in order to enhance the records : Books, journals and archives can be searched using the online catalogue. It also contains links to digitised resources

Social media: Library maintains a monthly blog and tweets about events and new acquisitions of note and the diverse blogs created by the library staff and curators illustrate the wide range of work carried out by the ZSL. For further details see: and follow @ZSLLibrary

Library services: ZSL Library is one of the major zoological libraries in the world, along with the zoological collections of the Natural History Museum (  )and British Library (  )

There is a free access (with proof of address and photo ID on your first visit), and free scanning and copy service after researchers agree to sign a copyright form.


Ann gave an erudite talk on the library and its collections and shared with us representative examples of their historical and contemporary collections. The watershed date for the historicals is prior to 1940 and are reference only while members can loan the modern collection items.

The library is also open for visiting scholars:

the library online catalogue at:

Some memorable items from the show and tell display included the following:


1560 Historiae animalium by Konrad Gessner (1516-1565).

Conrad Gessner: a Swiss naturalist, who attempted to describe all of the animals, actual and mythological at the time, and his 5 book work, Historiae animalium, is one of the oldest in the collection.  These books describe mammals, birds, fish and reptiles, some accurate, but some hybrid, like this ‘giraffe’ below. This is also one of our oldest books in the library includes the unicorn.

The US National Library of Medicine has digitized these texts online under historical anatomies on the web at:

One of the first librarians, a Mr Fish of the ZSL Library organised its collections using an adapted BLISS classification scheme ( ) These eary items need to be brought out of storage so we felt very privileged to be able to survey these illustrations and leaf through the pages. An appointment is needed to view such rare items.


1560 Historiae animalium: Giraffe’ picture by Konrad Gessner (1516-1565).

Brian Houghton Hodgson: (1800-1894),spent most of his life investigating and drawing the birds and mammals of Nepal, the Himalayas in general and Northern India. He wrote more than 140 zoological papers, ranging from descriptions of single species to checklists of the fauna and donated most of these to the ZSL. Further details at:

The British Library curated and offers public access to the Hodgson’s papers through the Asian and African Studies reading room , papers can also be found at the Royal Asiatic Society, the Zoological Society of London and the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The Hodgson papers preserved in the African and Asian Studies Reading Room of the British Library were deposited in the India Office Library in 1864 following earlier deposits (between 1838 and 1845) of Buddhist Sanskrit manuscripts and the complete Tibetan Kanjur and Tanjur.


Digitised catalogues of these collections can be traced through the Digital Himalaya project designed in 2000 by Alan Macfarlane and Mark Turin as a strategy for archiving and making available ethnographic materials from the Himalayan region and based at the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge.  From July 2014, the project has relocated to the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, and is engaged in a long term collaboration with Sichuan University,


Illustrations of the family of Psittacidae, or parrots, the greater part of them species hitherto unfigured… / by Edward Lear (1812-1888). – London : Lear, 1832. Labelled as Platycercus stanleyi (Stanley parrot)

 Edward Lear: is better known for his nonsense poems, including “How Pleasant To Know Mr. Lear” “There Was An Old Man in a Tree” , “The Owl And The Pussy-Cat” , “The Jumblies, ”The Pobble Who Has No Toes etc  yet he was a renowned zoological artist and created numeruos lithographic prints to be found in the ZSL collections. As a talented artist his skills influenced the style of others, such as the ornithologist John Gould and his wife Elizabeth.  One of Lear’s most beautiful works is his volume on the family of parrots, of which the illustrations were based on the birds in ZSL’s parrot house

 Further details and illustrations by Edward Lear can be found at:


Lions by Joseph Wolf

John Gould FRS (1804–1881), the artist, scientist, ornithologist, taxidermist and collector, collaborated with Charles Darwin in identifying the birds from the second voyage of HMS Beagle and from the Galápagos Islands. His work was published between 1838 and 1842 as part 3 of “Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle”, edited by Charles Darwin and held in the library.

Gould was born in Lyme Regis, Dorset, son of a gardener and in 1818 Gould became foreman in the Royal Gardens of Windsor.He visited Australia with his wife in 1838-40 which led to the publication of “The Birds of Australia that included 600 plates in seven volumes, describing 328 species new to western science and named by Gould himself. He also published “A Monograph of the Macropodidae”, Family of Kangaroos (1841–1842) and “The Mammals of Australia (1849–1861) in 3 volumes.

Gould’s links to Austrialia are honoured by the Australian Museum based in Sydney, itself part of the google digital and virtual  tour platform which explores natural history artifacts and specimens  in museums around the world, including the Natural History Museum, London, the American Museum of Natural History and the Museum fur Naturkunde, Berlin. Further details can be found at:,

A contemporary book in the show and tell display was the book entitled “Women in science: 50 fearless pioneers who changed the world” by Rachel Ignotofsky, published by Wren & Rook, London available in print and online, which focused our attention on the interesting role of women scientists at the ZSL.

A leading light was Joan Procter, curator of the zoos reptiles from 1923, who died very young at 34.  Dr Joan Beauchamp Procter (1897-1931) was a brilliant student who kept exotic reptiles as pets, including a crocodile and later contributed to the design of ZSL London Zoo’s aquarium and Reptile House and discovered and described a new species, namely the Peninsula Dragon Lizard. She adopted and tamed one Komodo dragon as a pet and would walk around the zoo with it greeting visitors.

These examples show case the wealth of knowledge and biographical stories hidden in the archives and collections of the ZSL which I would encourage researchers and students of the biosciences to explore further.

 Photographs and text by Paul Allchin,

Reference specialist,

British Library, Science reading rooms

31 August 2017

Edgar Burr and the grooved golf club head

Golf Grooves Twitter

Today's GREATforImagination patent is GB19988 of 1902, the grooved golf club head by Edgar Burr (1866-1908). The grooves allow water and debris to slip away from the ball, so that it can be spun as effectively as a clean and dry one. Adding spin to a golf ball can change its trajectory and cause it to roll in a specific direction once it hits the ground. According to the golfer Edward "Ted" Ray, in his 1922 book "Golf Clubs and How to Use Them", grooved clubs did not become truly popular until the early 1920s, and there was considerable argument in both the UK and USA as to whether they were permitted under the laws of the game. Burr freedom

Very little about Burr's life is recorded in golf history books, but our curators have searched census and births, marriages, and deaths records, and digitised newspapers, to discover some details. Burr described himself on the patent as a stockbroker, but he was also an amateur golfer at the Bushey Hall Club, and wrote a column on the game for the Globe newspaper. His father was a leather worker, and he married in 1896. He was granted the Freedom of the CIty of London in 1900. Unfortunately, his invention does not seem to have made him much money, as he was declared bankrupt in 1906. He died suddenly from gastritis in Sandwich, where he had gone to compete in a golf event.

Thanks to Margaret Makepeace of our East India Company Records team and Untold Lives blog, for her work in researching Burr's life.

Philip Eagle