THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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41 posts categorized "Science"

17 October 2018

Religious unbelief in the life of Professor Sir Fred Holliday

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Over half of respondents in the most recent British Social Attitudes survey indicated that they have ‘no religion’. All evidence suggests that the majority of this group are also either atheist or agnostic. We are able to say, then, that religious unbelief affects a very significant proportion of British people, but what else can we say about it? Religious Unbelief is little studied and not well understood, a situation that the £2.3m Understanding Unbelief project at the University of Kent seeks to change.

In a partnership with the Understanding Unbelief project, National Life Stories at the British Library is examining some of its collections of oral history recordings, with unbelief firmly in mind. What do interviewees – recorded in projects with no particular focus on religion – say about their lack of religious belief? This blog reports on one discovery: the presence of unbelief in an interview with Professor Sir Fred Holliday, recorded in a number of sessions between 2009 and 2011, part of the collection ‘An Oral History of the Water Industry’.

Fred Holliday [1935-2016] was a marine biologist who served as founding Chairman of Northumbrian Water, Vice-Chancellor and Warden of the University of Durham, Director of Shell and of British Rail. His obituaries tend to comment on his interest in science as a child, usually mentioning the decomposing snake under his mother’s bed. None that I have seen refer to his equally longstanding interest in and engagement with religion, strongly present in his British Library interview. In this interview he explains that from “about the age of twelve” he became closely involved with the family of the local Methodist minister (“they more or less adopted me [...] I learnt so much from him”) and that, because of this, he began to “announce hymns in the chapel, even try my best at a sermon”. The interviewer asks how he felt about giving these sermons, and Holliday’s reply stresses that he treated them as intellectual projects and as performances:

Fred Holliday on writing sermons (C1364/5)

FredHollidayRiverDec1960Sir Fred Holliday on the River Dee in Scotland as a young researcher, December 1960

In this clip, Holliday is keen to explain that in writing and giving the sermons, he was driven not by religious belief of his own (or even a valuing of religious belief in general), but by the enjoyment of cerebral work (“I did enjoy taking a really tough, tough Old Testament passage and – what I now know to call an exegesis – [laughs] and really unpicking it”) and the enjoyment of being looked at and listened to (“I liked attention I guess”). Nevertheless, he was clearly a Christian unbeliever (rather than, say, a nonreligious unbeliever); his unbelief was experienced through engagement with Christianity.

As the interview moves forward, Holliday confirms that he was not affected “in any [laughs] spiritual or religious sense” by the experiences in the chapel and that he differed from the Minister who “had a very, very strong inner faith” and from members of the “working class” congregation who were imagined (by himself and the Minister) as simply ‘having’ “belief”:

Fred Holliday on belief and on his scientific training (C1364/5)

In line with observations in Lois Lee’s Recognising the Non-religious (2015), we might note that while Holliday sees the (religious) worldview of others as a source of psychological comfort, he does not seem to see his own “science training” and its associated worldview as offering him anything analogous.

Holliday took his own “belief or lack of it” forward in a life that included more sermon-giving: “I’ve preached in the Church of Scotland and I’ve preached, God help me, in York Minster and Durham Cathedral since”. As Warden of the University of Durham, he interacted with the then Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, who he says “agreed with me” on aspects of Christian non-belief but who “outraged the congregation at Durham cathedral, and he did what Mr Homer had told me never do: he attacked the widows and orphans, not willingly and knowingly but he was less willing to compromise than I was”. Holliday himself continued – at least until this first interview session in 2009 – to want to describe publically the shape of his Christian unbelief while not “upsetting” his audiences:

Fred Holliday on his belief in "Einstein’s god" (C1364/5)

FredHollidaybinocularsSir Fred Holliday

At this point in the interview, he expressed his opposition to the form of unbelief promoted by fellow biologist Richard Dawkins: “read his work, know it, sympathise with a lot of it, but why oh why does he become so evangelical in this atheism”. Two years later, in 2011, when he recorded the final interview session, his position may have shifted. A period of treatment for “quite an aggressive cancer”, involving hospitalisation, seems to have made him question the value of preserving conventional religious faith in others – an experience that runs counter to what is widely held to be the case, that personal crisis encourages religious belief (though this assumption is challenged in writing by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others, as well as in emerging findings of research led by Christel Manning):

Fred Holliday reflects on his approach to religion (C1364/5)

Holliday’s generosity in giving up precious time to record a final interview session has afforded a relatively rare direct view of personal change over time. He shares the particular sights and sounds that unsettled a long-held combination of personal unbelief and valuing of religion. His reflections are detailed and multi-layered, but he certainly seems to have come to question the golden rule of his mentor: “don’t undermine the peace of mind of the widows and orphans”.

This blog is by Dr Paul Merchant, Oral History Interviewer, National Life Stories, The British Library. Alison Gilmour interviewed Sir Fred Holliday for An Oral History of the Water Industry. The complete interview can be listened to on BL Sounds.

15 October 2018

Recording of the week: Montserrat Volcano Observatory

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This week's selection comes from Emme Ledgerwood, Collaborative Doctoral Award student with the British Library's Oral History department and Leicester University.

“I think great science comes from this natural curiosity”

This recording for #EarthScienceWeek comes from Stephen Sparks, a volcanologist who describes how the Montserrat Volcano Observatory advised the government of Monserrat during the eruption of the island’s volcano in 1995. In this clip he reflects on the relationship between science, policy and decision-making, and the value of curiosity-driven science when providing scientific advice.

Stephen Sparks: the social benefits of volcanography (C1379/89) 

021I-C1379X0089XX-0003A1

This clip is featured on the Voices of Science website. The website draws clips from the National Life Stories Oral History of British Science project which includes over 100 life story interviews with scientists and engineers.

Follow @EmmeLedgerwood , @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

20 July 2018

Mrs Boulton and the woodland warbler

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Have you ever noticed how some animals are named after people? Hume's Partridge. Lady Amherst's Pheasant. Waller's Starling. I come across this quite a lot when cataloguing new collections and have often wondered who these people were.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that these species were named after the naturalists who discovered them. Now, there are no rules that say you can't name a new species after yourself, however it's generally regarded as bad form in most taxonomic circles. Helps keep the egos in check etc.  It's perfectly acceptable to name a species after somebody else though. Most names are given as a declaration of admiration or love, however a few have been chosen out of spite. What better way to insult a critic or a rival than by naming a disagreeable specimen after them? Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, was the king of the nomenclature slap down. Mess with Linnaeus and you could be sure that a smelly weed or a boring nettle would soon bear your name.

In this particular example we're going to look at Mrs Boulton's Woodland Warbler, Seicercus laurae. Now more commonly referred to as Laura's Woodland Warbler, this little songbird can be found in the dry forests and swamps of central Africa. The species was discovered in 1931 by the American ornithologist W. Rudyerd Boulton (1901-1983) who specialised in the avifauna of Africa. While assistant curator of birds at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Boulton made several research trips to Africa accompanied by his first wife, the ethnomusicologist Laura Crayton Boulton (1899-1980). It was with Laura that he discovered this previously unknown warbler which he named in her honour.

Laura's Woodland Warbler, recorded at Mount Namba, Angola by Michael Mills (BL ref 163291) 

The Boultons continued to explore the ornithological and musical treasures of Africa until the mid 1930s when their marriage began to fall apart. The couple finally divorced in 1938 and, though Laura continued in the field of ethnomusicology, Rudyerd's professional life took an entirely different turn. In 1942 he joined the African branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the US intelligence agency formed during World War Two, where his knowledge of the landscape, people and politics of central African countries was put to good use. In the same year he married his second wife, the socialite, poet and psychic Inez Cunningham Stark. Though mainly based out of Washington DC, Boulton was heavily involved with operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, most notably the procurement of uranium ore for the Manhattan Project.

At the end of WWII, Boulton continued working in intelligence for several years, including a stint with the CIA, until, apparently at least, turning his back on espionage in 1958. A year later he created the charitable Atlantica Foundation with his third wife, the wealthy widow Louise Rehm. The remit of this foundation was broad but ambitious, aiming to establish and support research into zoology, ecology, fine arts and parapsychology. The couple based their operation out of Zimbabwe and were by all accounts generous supporters of research and education in the area until their deaths in 1974 (Louise) and 1983 (Rudyerd).

But what of the woman who inspired the name of our woodland warbler? Laura Boulton became a renowned field recordist, filmmaker and collector of traditional musical instruments from around the world. During her life she embarked on almost 30 recording expeditions throughout Africa, Europe, Asia and North America, amassing tens of thousands of sound recordings, photos, films, books and instruments. She experienced first hand advancements in recording technology, beginning her career with an Edison phonograph before progressing to a disc cutting machine and eventually a portable reel to reel recorder. Her legacy can be found in various institutions across the United States, from the Center for Ethnomusicology at Columbia University to the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University. 

Boulton LP  One of Boulton's published collections of ethnographic field recordings (BL Shelfmark 1LP0247765)

When beginning my research I never imagined that two such colourful characters would be behind the name of this rather inconspicuous little warbler. Two years after the discovery of Laura's Woodland Warbler, Rudyerd was himself taxonomically immortalised by the American herpetologist Karl Patterson Schmidt, who named a new species of Namib day gecko, Rhoptropus boultoni, in his honour. And in case you're wondering, Schmidt must have liked Rudyerd. Rhoptropus boultoni is a pretty cute gecko.

Follow @CherylTipp for all the latest wildlife news. 

26 June 2018

Fulton at 50: how civil service reform affected government scientists

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On 26 June 1968 Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced to the Commons the publication of the Fulton Report, the outcome of the first major inquiry into the civil service for more than 100 years.

Fulton front page

Fulton committeePhoto credit: Contemporary Record, 2 (2) 1988, p.49

The committee, appointed in 1966 to examine the service’s structure, recruitment, training and management, were a mixture of senior civil servants, MPs, academics and representatives from industry and the trade unions. Their task, according to Wilson, was to “ensure that the service is properly equipped for its role in the modern state”. One of the criticisms of its scope was that it did not look at the relationship between Ministers and their civil servants, the focus of a recent report from the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee.

Here Fulton committee member Norman Hunt describes the work of his team 1:

Norman Hunt (M5929)

Out of this intense scrutiny exercise came a list of 158 recommendations, the sheer volume of which hindered the report’s implementation. Some were promptly put into effect, such as the creation of a Civil Service Department and enhanced training provision through a Civil Service College, while others, for example the hiving-off of public services, took decades to filter through.

One of the report’s conclusions was that “many scientists, engineers and members of other specialist classes get neither the full responsibilities and corresponding authority, or the opportunities they ought to have.”2 The civil service was built around a framework of vertical classes which inhibited the movement of specialists into the upper tiers. Consequently, management of the civil service was concentrated in the hands of generalists who rose up through the administrative class.3

Lord Fulton (T5341)

One of the more immediate changes post-Fulton came with the introduction of a unified grading system aimed at bringing coherence across the classes. This created resentment among some civil servants who felt they had been downgraded. Anthony Kelly, a materials scientist working at that time at the National Physical Laboratory, is one example.

Fulton person 1Photo credit: The British Library

Anthony Kelly (C1379/54/12)

Nevertheless opportunities for career progression opened up as a result of the report. Roger Courtney, who was to become director of the Building Research Establishment, appreciated the changes that came out of it.

Fulton person 2Photo credit: The Building Research Establishment

Roger Courtney (C1802/01/09)

For him, the new Senior Professional Administrative Training Scheme (with its memorable acronym SPATS) led to a job at the heart of government in Cabinet Office.

However while the report’s aim of getting more specialists into management positions looked good on paper, in reality it was not so straightforward.

Sir John Charnley, an aeronautical engineer at the Royal Aircraft Establishment who went on to manage Ministry of Defence research programmes, explains the issue:

Fulton person 3Photo credit: The British Library

John Charnley (C1379/30/16)

This tallies with Roger Courtney’s assessment:

Roger Courntey (C1802/01/09)

Fifty years later, the challenge of getting more scientific expertise into the policy-making environment remains a question debated at a national level, while historians continue to evaluate the Fulton report's long-term impact on today's civil service.

Blogpost by Emmeline Ledgerwood (@EmmeLedgerwood), AHRC collaborative doctoral student with the University of Leicester and the British Library Oral History department. Her PhD research is looking at governments’ attitudes to the management and funding of scientific research, 1970-2005.


1  Crowther-Hunt, Norman, Government and the Civil Service [1], 16 October 1976. British Library catalogue reference M5929. Copyright BBC.

2 The Civil Service [Fulton report], (1968), Volume 1, para. 17, p. 12.

3 Fulton, John, Fulton Report on the Civil Service, 28 June 1968. British Library catalogue reference T5341. Copyright BBC.

22 June 2018

Women, Engineering and British Politics

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June 23rd is International Women in Engineering Day 2018. To mark this and the 100th anniversary of (partial) women’s suffrage in the UK I decided to see what the British Library oral history collections could tell us about women whose careers involved both engineering and parliamentary politics. Neither of these areas was part of systematic oral history fieldwork until the 21st century, when An Oral History of British Science (2009) and The History of Parliament’s Oral History Project (2011) started to gather interviews.

Both projects began by targeting older interviewees and so have not yet captured the increase in participation of women in both fields since the 1970s. The History of Parliament collection concentrates on those who have left office, excluding current MPs such as Margaret Beckett (Labour, Lincoln 1974-79, South Derby 1983 – present), who worked as a metallurgist before moving into politics. She does appear in the recollections of others, including Kenneth Carlisle, interviewed in 2015 by John Barry. Carlisle recalls winning Lincoln for the Conservatives from Beckett in the 1979 general election.

In her interview Emma Nicholson, (Conservative then Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon, 1987-97,) suggests some of the difficulties of combining political ambitions with a technical career. She explains to Emme Ledgerwood why it was only after she stopped working as a computer programmer and systems analyst that she was able to start fulfilling her early political ambitions.

Emma Nicholson on early political ambition (C1503/62/02}

Nicholson joined the industry in 1962, and like other women programmers of her generation benefitted from its willingness to consider entrants from a range of educational backgrounds, in her case one in music.

Emma Nicholson (2)     Emma Nicholson   

Here she describes how she came to take the ‘entrance test’ for International Computers Ltd (ICL).

Emma Nicholson on ICL 'entrance  test' (C1503/62/01)

Once she had completed her training her gender proved decisive in selection for an assignment in Zambia involving setting up key IT infrastructure in the run up to independence in 1964.

Emma Nicholson on setting up Zambian IT infrastructure 1/2 (C1503/62/02)

Emma Nicholson on setting up Zambian IT infrastructure 2/2 (C1503/62/02)

After her election she found herself bombarded by requests from former colleagues eager for her to intervene on proposed legislation concerning software copyright.

Emma Nicholson on copyright legislation (C1503/62/02)

Nicholson now sits in the House of Lords, a chamber that only admitted women in 1958. Here her interests focus on human rights, education, international development and trade.

Perhaps the most vociferous voice for women in engineering to sit in the Lords was Beryl Platt, Baroness Platt of Writtle.

A wartime engineering graduate she joined Hawker Aircraft in 1943 and worked as an aeronautical engineer until her marriage in 1949. Her route into politics was at a local level and she served on Essex County Council for many years. Created a life peer in 1981, she became chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission in 1983, an appointment recalled in her interview by her predecessor Betty Lockwood, interviewed by Margaret Faull in 2014 (C1727/01).

In this role she did much to champion opportunities for women in engineering. This included collaborating with the Engineering Council to launch 1984 as Women into Science and Engineering year and acting as a mentor for a new generation of women engineers, including Joanna Kennedy, interviewed in 2017 by Tom Lean (C1379/126).

Joanna Kennedy on Beryl Platt (C1379/126/04)

A more recent addition to the House of Lords is Julia King, Baroness Brown of Cambridge, created a life peer in 2015. Interviewed by An Oral History of British Science in 2011, when she was vice-chancellor of Aston University, she described herself as ‘not a very political animal’. ) (track 2 31:14, transcript p. 60) Perhaps unsurprisingly she sits on the cross benches from where her contributions have been primarily on issues relating to technology, the environment and higher education.

Here I have concentrated on the relatively few women who made the transition from engineering to parliamentary politics, but a broader definition of engagement with the political sphere and the processes of government would have allowed me to include many more women who have provided advice to government, worked in government research establishments and been involved in campaigning in different ways. As the Oral History collections at the British Library continue to expand we can expect significant new insights into how women have combined engineering and politics to emerge.

Dr Sally Horrocks, Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Leicester, and Senior Academic Advisor to the National Life Stories's project, An Oral History of British Science.

21 June 2018

“And we saw the thing had done a computation” - The modern computer turns 70

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It's been 70 years since the first successful run of the Manchester Baby, arguably the worlds first modern computer. Built in a dreary laboratory at Manchester University, to designs by electronic engineers Freddy Williams, Tom Kilburn and Geoff Tootill, the Baby was built primarily to test the world's first computer memory. At its heart was a Cathode Ray Tube (CRT), the same component used in an old style television set to show a picture, but used in the Baby to store data and programs. Unlike any computing machine before it, Baby could be used for different purposes by simply changing the electronic instructions of its program, making it the first machine to share the basic architecture used most computers since.

In 2009-2010, Geoff Tootill, the last survivor of the original Baby team, was interviewed for An Oral History of British Science, and recounted the construction and first run of the machine in 1948:

Geoff Tootill: Building the Manchester Baby (C1379/02)

GCTca1950-will-be-M0002 croppedGeoff Tootill, circa 1950

For all its electronic complexity, logically Baby was a basic machine. Its circuitry could only do subtraction and its memory held a paltry 1 kilobit of data, about 1/32,000,000th of the memory of the computer I'm writing this on. However, “Baby demonstrated the fact that you could now make a programmable computer,” as Professor Dai Edwards, who joined the computing group a few months after Baby's first run, explains in this video.

This blog is by Tom Lean, National Life Stories Project Interviewer. Tom interviewed Geoff Tootill for An Oral History of British Science (reference C1379/02) in 2010.

03 April 2018

National Life Stories Podcast Episode 6: Science and Religion

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“As soon as you say that you’re working on a project on Science and Religion everyone listening to that will have certain assumptions of what that could mean… you’re probably not thinking about something as unconventional or as imaginative as these examples seem to suggest”

Episode 6 of National Life Stories podcast features Paul Merchant talking to Charlie Morgan about his work on the project Science and Religion: Exploring the Spectrum. The oral histories conducted by Paul were part of a much larger project run out of Newman University, York University and the University of Kent and led by Dr Fern Elsdon Baker and Professor Bernard Lightman. You find out more information on their website.

Episode 6 image

All the interviews conducted by Paul are available on British Library Sounds. Clips in the episode are taken from the following interviews:

If you’d like to learn more check out our collection guide on Oral histories of religion and belief.

National Life Stories Podcast Episode 6: Science and Religion

14 March 2018

Memories of Stephen Hawking in An Oral History of British Science

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Stephen HawkingStephen Hawking, Unknown Date, Source: NASA

A number of interviews recorded for An Oral History of British Science at the British Library speak of Stephen Hawking in their interviews. Tim Palmer was in the audience for his paper on the emission of particles by black holes at the first ‘Oxford Quantum Gravity Conference’ in 1974 [Track one 1:36:14-1:42:55]. Others remember reading his popular science books. In Sir Harry Bhadeshia’s case, A Brief History of Time (in spite of its famous last sentence) inspired thoughts that led to atheism:

Harry Bhadeshia on A Brief History of Time 1988 (C1379/100)

The most charming memories of Hawking are contained in Nicholas Humphery’s interview, part of a wonderful description of Humphrey’s childhood home in Mill Hill. A teenage Hawking is beautifully recalled in the roles of Scottish dancing instructor and drill sergeant:

Nicholas Humphrey remembers a teenage Stephen Hawking (C1672/21)

This blog is by Dr Paul Merchant, Oral History Interviewer, National Life Stories, the British Library. Paul interviewed Tim Palmer, Harry Bhadeshia and Nicholas Humphrey for An Oral History of British Science. The complete interviews can be listened to on BL Sounds.