Science blog

Exploring Social Science at the British Library

Introduction

Find out about social sciences at the British Library including collections, events and research. This blog includes contributions from curators and guest posts by academics, students and practitioners. Read more

06 November 2020

Data Debates: Bots in the Polling Booth

Is AI helping or hindering democracy?

Data debate 2

Over the last few years, we have seen a range of concerns about the impact of new technologies on democratic process, especially in terms of the impact of online propaganda and misinformation on a rise of populism. There is a worry that the ways of influencing voters of all political persuasions are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and especially that we do not sufficiently understand the role that AI plays in affecting democracy both for good and bad. Or, are we overstating the role that AI plays in societal and political changes of our time? What are the opportunities to improve and better safeguard democracy? Moreover, what is the role of governments, tech giants, and citizens in making sense of the role of AI in the future of democracy?

The Alan Turing Institute and the British Library Data Debate is open to all who wish to engage with these questions. You can join us for a live online discussion on 10 November 2020 at 5.30pm. 

Writer and broadcaster Timandra Harkness will chair the debate. Timandra presents BBC Radio 4 series, FutureProofing and has presented the documentaries, Data, Data Everywhere, Personality Politics & The Singularity.

Data debate 1

From a previous Data Debate chaired by Timandra at the British Library

Our panel of experts include:

Dr Kate Dommett is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on digital campaigning, political parties, data and democracy. Dr Dommett has recently served as Special Advisor to the House of Lords Committee on Democracy and Digital Technology. She was awarded the 2020 Richard Rose Prize by the Political Studies Association for an early-career scholar who has made a distinctive contribution to British politics. Her Book, The Reimagined Party was published in 2020.

Dr Paolo Gerbaudo is a sociologist and political theorist. He is senior lecturer at King's College London where he directs the Centre for Digital Culture. He is the author of Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism (2012), The Mask and the Flag: Populism, Citizenism and Global Protest (2017), The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy (2019). He is currently completing a book on politics after populism and pandemic titled The Great Recoil.

Dr Jonathan Hopkin is Professor of Comparative Politics in the Department of Government and European Institute at the London School of Economics. He is the author of Anti-System Politics: The Crisis of Market Liberalism in Rich Democracies (2020, Oxford University Press). Previously he taught at the Universities of Bradford, Durham and Birmingham, and held visiting positions at Johns Hopkins University Baltimore, the University of Bologna, and the Autonomous University of Barcelona.  He has published widely on the party politics and political economy of Europe in journals such as the British Journal of Sociology, European Journal of Political Research, Governance, Journal of European Public Policy, New Political Economy, the Review of International Political Economy, Party Politics, Politics and Society and West European Politics.

Professor Helen Margetts is a Turing Fellow and Director of the Public Policy Programme at The Alan Turing Institute, and Professor of Society and the Internet at the University of Oxford and Professorial Fellow of Mansfield College. From 2011 to 2018, she was Director of the Oxford Internet Institute, a multi-disciplinary department of the University of Oxford dedicated to understanding the relationship between the Internet and society, before which she was UCL's first professor of Political Science and Director of the School of Public Policy (1999-2004). After an undergraduate degree in Mathematics, she worked as a computer programmer and systems analyst for Rank Xerox and Amoco before returning to study political science at LSE (MSc 1990, PhD 1996), where she also worked as a researcher.

Professor Nishanth Sastry is Joint Head of the Distributed and Networked Systems Group at Department of Computer Science, University of Surrey. He is also a Visiting Researcher at The Alan Turing Institute, where he is a co-lead of the Social Data Science Special Interest Group.

Data Debates is a collaboration between The Alan Turing Institute and the British Library and aims to stimulate discussion on issues surrounding big data, its potential uses, and its implications for society.

Registrations are now open.

Join the conversation #TheDataDebates

22 October 2020

In our Hebrew Manuscripts exhibition, "Tsurat ha-arets" by Abraham bar Hiyya

A manuscript page written in Hebrew including a geometric diagram of circles.
A page from "Tsurat ha-arets"


Our Hebrew manuscripts exhibition continues until next year. You might not expect it to have a whole section on science, the prize of which is the manuscript numbered Or 10721, a copy of Tsurat ha-arets ("Form of the Earth") by Abraham bar Hiyya, with some additional works. It is thought to have been transcribed in the 15th century by one Joseph ben Se’adyah Ibn Hayyim. It is fully digitised at http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=or_10721_fs001r.

Or 10721 was purchased in 1924 by the British Museum Library from the Romanian-British Jewish scholar, and Chief Rabbi of the English Sephardic community, the Rev. Moses Gaster, as part of a large collection known as the "Gaster Manuscripts". Bar Hiyya (1070?-1136) lived in Barcelona during the period of Moorish rule in 11th-12th centuries and was considered the foremost scientific authority of any background in Spain at the time. He probably introduced Arabic algebra into Middle Ages Europe, and his work was key to Fibonacci's introduction of the Hindu-Arabic number system into Christian Medieval Europe, which allowed modern maths to begin there. He published the first general solution of quadratic equations and wrote the oldest known mathematical work on the Hebrew calendar. His book Hegyon ha-Nefesh is considered to be the oldest surviving book on philosophy in the Hebrew language. Outside his scholarly studies, he held the government legal position "sahib al-shurta" of the Taifa of Zaragoza, a kingdom of the era that ruled a large part of Eastern Spain.

Bar Hiyya was the first major figure of Jewish scholarship to use Hebrew rather than Judeo-Arabic for scientific works. He developed a new vocabulary for science in the language and translated many existing Arabic scientific works into Hebrew, to improve what he considered to be the very poor state of mathematical knowledge among Spanish and French Jews of the era.

Tsurat ha-arets is a treatise on cosmology and geography describing the Ptolomaic or Earth-centred view of the universe, generally accepted in Middle Ages Europe. It also describes the division of the known northern hemisphere into seven "climates", or regions divided by east-west lines of latitude.

An earlier post on our Collection Care blog has described the most recent conservation of the manuscript.

Further reading:

Medieval Jewish civilization : an encyclopedia / edited by Norman Roth. London : Routledge, 2017. Available electronically in British Library reading rooms as Non-Print Legal Deposit.

17 July 2020

Gilbert White's influence on science

18th July 2020 is the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of Gilbert White, the "parson-naturalist" best known for his pioneering work on the natural history and history of his parish of Sherborne, Hampshire. A number of posts are appearing on different British Library blogs to celebrate, but this post will discuss his influence on science to this day.

A stained glass window showing a man in a brown habit with a halo, in a country landscape surrounded by birds
Stained glass window commemorating White in Selborne church, showing St Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds. All the birds shown in the window are mentioned in White's writings. Photograph by Si Griffiths under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.


Prior to White's work most scientific biology was based around the study of dead or captive animals in scientists' studies. White, who has been described as "the first ecologist" preferred to observe the animals and plants around his home, over long periods of time. These practices inspired Charles Darwin, whose observations of the finches of the Galapagos Islands initially inspired his thoughts about evolution by natural selection. On a more popular scale, White's influence is seen by some as creating birdwatching as a hobby.

Although more laboratory-centric biologists have occassionally dismissed White-style naturalism as dilatanttish or twee, it has become increasingly important since the mid-twentieth-century, especially in the study of environmental conditions, and of animal behaviour - "ethology".

One of the oldest sites of long-term nature-observation studies in Britain has been Wytham Woods in Oxfordshire. Nicknamed the "laboratory with leaves", it was donated to Oxford University in 1942 by Colonel Raymond ffenell, although some observation had been carried out there since the 1920s. Colonel ffennell was a member of the wealthy and socially prominent German Jewish Schumacher family, who had become rich through his involvement in the South African gold-mining industry, and adopted his wife's surname to avoid anti-German prejudice during World War I. Ever since, a host of research projects have been carried out there on all kinds of animals and plants, as well as climate and soil conditions.

One of the most important discoveries to have been made through long-term environmental observation was the discovery of the damage caused to the environment by acid rain in North America, which came from Gene Likens' observational work at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, beginning in the 1960s. 

A wooden cabinet containing scientific equipment, on a wooden stand, stands in a sun-dappled forest
Equipment cabinet at Hubbard Brook containing apparatus used for continuous monitoring of a stream's pH. Used non-commercially with permission of USDA Forest Service.


A listing of current long-term environmental observation sites is maintained by the International Long Term Ecological Research Network (ILTER) on their database DEIMS-SDR (Dynamic Ecological Information Management System - Site and Dataset Registry). See also the review article by Hughes and others with links to many examples.

The modern science of animal behaviour, or ethology, was developed in the 1930s by Nikolaas Timbergen, Konrad Lorenz, and Karl von Frisch. All three did most of their research on domestic or captive animals, but the discipline would later see the importance of long-term observation of the behaviour of wild animals in their natural habitats. Three of the most famous practitioners of this were the so-called "Trimates", known for their observations of wild apes - Jane Goodall with chimpanzees in Tanzania, Dian Fossey with gorillas in Zaire and Rwanda, and Birute Galdikas with orang-utans in Indonesia. Another example which has achieved fame outside science, although not yet enough, is Dave Mech's disproof, from observations of wild wolves in Minnesota, of the outdated "alpha wolf" model of social dynamics in wolf packs, which has influenced a great deal of beliefs about dog-training and even human interactions, but was derived from observations of what turned out to be disfunctional behaviour in captive animals.

It is also possible to follow in White's footsteps yourself, by taking part in a citizen science project based on observing nature in your garden or in your wider local area. The Countryside Jobs Network maintains a list of opportunities, which aren't just in rural areas.

We hope that you look a bit more closely at the nature around you this weekend!