Science blog

Exploring science at the British Library

5 posts from October 2015

27 October 2015

Science education: A short guide to resources at the British Library

Tonight we host our 30th TalkScience event, ‘Science in schools.’ Here we outline a range of British Library resources that may be useful for science education researchers. The guide is by no means exhaustive but will give you a flavour of the resources held across the Library’s collections.

 Educational Research

Our collection of academic monographs and peer reviewed journals, including key titles such as Science Education, as well as literature produced by membership organisations such as the British Educational Research Association and the Association for Science Education, contain a wealth of practical and theoretical research into science pedagogy.

Bibliographic databases, such as The British Education Index, Australian Education Index, Web of Science, and SCOPUS[1] can be used in our Reading Rooms to find references to a range of content related to science education, including books, journal articles, conference papers, and research reports across various disciplines.

Girl DNA

We collect curriculum resources,including textbooks and other teaching aides,[2] giving an insight into the content of school science lessons, while popular science titles and children’s science books offer a wider context for gauging scientific literacy.

 Education policy

Debates over education can be traced through a range of official publications from Parliament, ministerial departments and agencies. Hansard, the report of proceedings of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, is available to browse in the Social Science Reading Room, and full text searches of Parliamentary papers can be conducted via the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers database.

Changing practices of inspection and assessment in the UK can be charted through the reports of regulatory bodies such as Ofsted and Ofqual, and research published by international agencies such as UNESCO[3] provides a global context for understanding legislative change in the UK.

Digital documents

The online resources described in this section allow full text reports to be downloaded remotely for free.

The Management and Business Studies Portal contains documents such as research reports, briefings, case studies, and working papers produced by research institutes, professional societies, government bodies, and trade unions, which have been curated into subject areas; ‘Technology, Innovation and Change’, and ‘Accounting, Finance and the Economy’ are particularly relevant to science education.

The Social Welfare Portal offers information on all aspects of social welfare in the UK and overseas, including education from early years to postgraduate level. Research reports, consultations, and policy proposals issued by think tanks, universities and campaigning charities among others, are selected for inclusion by the Library’s social policy curators.

EThOS facilitates free access to the full text of 160,000 digitised UK doctoral theses and can be searched for titles relating to science education.

Contemporary commentary

NewsroomCommentary on educational change in the UK can be traced through our newspaper collection, which spans the national as well as regional and local press. The British Newspaper Archive contains 12 million fully searchable pages, and we subscribe to a range of newspaper electronic resources, including key titles such as The Times, the Daily Mail, and The Guardian.

Our Broadcast News service has more than 40,000 news programmes recorded since 6 May 2010, many of which can be searched by subtitle. International comparisons can be made by searching the online resource NewsBank: Access World News, containing full-text newspaper articles from over 12,000 newspapers worldwide. In addition, titles from the professional press including the weekly Times Educational Supplement and Times Higher Education are available in our Reading Rooms.

The UK Web Archivesecures permanent online access to key UK websites and has been organised into searchable special collection and subject areas, including ‘Education & Research’.

 Life stories

The British Library Sound Archive contains a huge collection of recorded sound and video. Interviews with scientists and engineers recorded as part of the Oral History of British Science initiative can be accessed on site and are searchable through the Sound and Moving Image catalogue.

Voices of science

The Voices of Science web resource offers curated access to audio and video highlights from the interviews, organised by theme, discipline and interviewee. Many of the interviewees reflect on their education, giving a fascinating insight into their experience of school science.

Science at the British Library

The British Library holds most of the scientific monographs published in the UK, a large proportion of the English-language journals published in Europe and North America, and an extensive collection of both peer-reviewed journals and professional journals, which can be accessed in our dedicated Science Reading Room. We are developing collaborations with UK universities and Higher Education Institutes, and our events programme engages the public with topical scientific issues. Follow us on Twitter and read our blog to find out more!


Learning at the British Library

Learning BLOur collection is at the heart of our schools programme. Led by our team of specialist educators, the programme combines a skills-based approach centred around critical thinking, research, and visual, verbal and digital literacy together with opportunities to encounter original and rare objects both onsite, online and nationally. Teaching resources and thousands of high resolution collection items, current academic research, films and animations can be accessed on our website.



Getting Started

  • Use our library website to find out about our collections, online service, and what’s on in the Library.
  • Use Explore the British Library to find details of books, reports, journal titles, newspapers and many more parts of the Library’s collections.
  • Find out about services in our Reading Rooms, and pre-register for a Reader Pass.

[1] Find these on the catalogue by searching for the title then selecting ‘Databases’ under ‘Material Type’ on the dropdown menu to the left.

[2] The best way to find them is by conducting an advanced search in the main catalogue. Use ‘science’, or a particular subject word such as ‘physics’ or ‘chemistry’ as a keyword in the ‘Main title’ search field, then use the exact phrase ‘study and teaching’ in the  ‘Subject’ search field. You can then further refine your results using the drop-down menu to the left of the results list.

[3] Search for UNESCO in the ‘Author’ field and education in the ‘subject’ field

13 October 2015

‘Your Puzzle-Mate’: Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage

On Ada Lovelace Day, Alexandra Ault explores the British Library's collection of correspondence between Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage.                    

Did you know that the British Library holds an incredible set of letters from Ada Lovelace to Charles Babbage? Dating between 1836-1851, the letters from the mathematician and only daughter of Lord Byron to the inventor of the first successful automatic calculator, record a working relationship and friendship between two great minds. Despite Lovelace’s young age when she began writing to Babbage who was twenty-four years her senior, her letters reveal not only an incredible mathematical talent but an organised sensibility.

Letter from Ada Lovelace to Charles Babbage, 10 July 1843, Add MS 37192. Noc

Add MS 37192 contains 29 letters from Lovelace to Babbage which sit with letters to Babbage from other great Victorian inventors, writers and politicians including Charles Dickens, Sir Robert Peel,  Michael Faraday and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Looking at excerpts from letters written by Lovelace to Babbage in 1843, it is possible to see not just collaboration between the two mathematicians, but a friendship whereby Lovelace chastised and encouraged Babbage:

On 19 (?) July 1843 Lovelace wrote

“My dear Babbage, It is quite evident to me that you have been looking over the superseded sheet 4, instead of the corrected one.”

And on the 13 July 1843:

“Will you come at mine on Saturday morning and stay as long as we find requisite. I name so early an hour because we shall have much to do I think. And it certainly must not be later than ten o’clock”. 

Ada Lovelace by William Henry Mote, after Alfred Edward Chalon, published 1839, National Portrait Gallery NPG D5123  NPG CC By

 In her letters, Lovelace displays both a keen sense of humour and dedication to mathematical investigation. On 10 July 1843 she wrote:

“Mr Dear Babbage, I am working very hard for you; like the Devil in fact (which perhaps I am). I think you will be pleased. I have made what appears to me some very important exclusions and improvements”.

21 July (?) 1843:

“My Dear Babbage, I am in much dismay at having got into so amazing a quagmire and botheration with these numbers”.

In this letter Lovelace signs herself off as “Your puzzle-mate” showing both the professional and friendly nature of their relationship.

The British Library has featured one of the Lovelace Letters on their Treasures Page:

Alexandra Ault, Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts 1601-1850.

07 October 2015

The Ugly Truth

On 28th September the British Library hosted the 10th Annual Sense About Science lecture entitled "The Ugly Truth" and delivered by Sense About Science director Tracey Brown. The British Library's mission is to make our intellectual heritage accessible to everyone for research, inspiration and enjoyment. This key purpose aligns with that of Sense About Science who are making research accessible by equipping people to make sense of science and evidence. In this guest post, Voice of Young Science member Sheena Cowell summarizes the lecture highlights.

Towards the end of my PhD I was often asked by interested friends and family “So, what have you found out then?” I knew this question was innocent enough, but in the complexity of my project and the stress of trying to write up, I would often revert to something along the lines of “we had this nice idea, but in the end it didn’t quite work”. This was not the truth. I was distilling my results, removing the nuances of my research and giving an answer that was simpler, easier. Science rarely has definitive answers. Scientists spend their days finding evidence to support or disprove arguments and hypotheses within their fields. Uncertainty is accepted. Probabilities and error bars are scrutinised alongside results. But, when it comes to explaining a body of scientific work to a wider audience, this uncertainty is often left out. Evidence is simplified. Results and outcomes are over or understated in order to get a point across. But what harm does this do?

 On Monday 28th September at the Sense About Science Annual Lecture, Tracey Brown gave a talk exploring just that; the difficulty of telling the whole ‘truth’ or challenging ‘truths’ in the public arena. As scientists or even as advocates of evidence, we can sometimes alter the evidential ‘truth’ in favour of a simplified explanation or an uncomplicated argument. However, in her talk, Tracey argued that evidence should be presented warts and all, including the uncertainty and unknowns that it can expose. “The Ugly Truth” explored the concept that the oversimplification of evidence and the lack of critical scrutiny of established claims, can be detrimental to public accountability and to the scientific community itself.

At the beginning of her lecture, Tracey Brown quoted Henning Mankell’s book ‘The White Lioness

“The truth is complicated, multi-faceted, contradictory. On the other hand, lies are black and white.”

This quote to me, sums up the messy nature of scientific ‘truths’. We do not live in a world of black and white, but one of endless shades of grey, where what we know as ‘true’ is constantly changing as science advances and technology evolves.

Tracey explored the many reasons that evidence can be overstated or uncertainties ignored. Often the truth can be difficult. If we look for instance at clinics offering miracle cures for cancer as Tracey did in her talk, we can see that the evidence for these ‘cures’ may be limited. In reality however, it is hard to question these ‘cures’ and destroy the hope they can provide. Other times it may appear in the public’s interest to simplify the evidence to make a point. This is often the case for many public health campaigns. Who cares about the evidence if the outcome is positive? For example the ‘5 A DAY’ campaign, where numbers touted may vary from country to country, but we can all agree that eating more fruit and vegetables is a good thing. And finally, it may be that a ‘fact’ or claim is so well established we don’t even think to question it, or put it under critical scrutiny.

Tracey Brown. Photo: Richard Lakos

While these reasons can be compelling, they can become problematic. If uncertainty and accountability for evidence is not present at every level of public life, how can we introduce it in more nuanced scientific areas? By denying people the opportunity to understand scientific uncertainty, we can become trapped by our oversimplifications. We are left with the fear that uncertainty will be misused by critics and we begin to dread the question “But, are you sure?”

In the end Tracey’s argument comes down to mutual trust. The public needs to be trusted with uncertainty. As a scientific community we must be trustworthy and present the uncertainty that accompanies our work. We need to give the public the tools to ask for and demand evidence and accountability. There will be missteps and misunderstandings along the way. Opinion and motive will always find a way to clash with evidence. But by promoting the true nature of scientific evidence, people will be free to make fully informed decisions in a world where evidence and accountability cannot be ignored.

To listen to Tracey Brown’s talk in full (without any oversimplifications) visit the Guardian website or download the podcast here. To learn more about Sense About Science, or get involved in their Ask for Evidence campaign visit

Sheena Cowell recently completed her PhD at Imperial College London in Medicinal Chemistry and Cancer Imaging. Sheena is a member of Voice of Young Science, a programme to encourage early career researchers to play an active role in public debates about science.Sense About Science is a charity that works with scientists and members of the public to change public debates and to equip people to make sense of science and evidence.

05 October 2015

New opportunities for collaborative PhD research exploring the British Library’s science collections

Applications for collaborative PhD research around the British Library’s science collections are now open to UK universities and other HEIs

AHRC logoThe British Library is looking for university partners to co-supervise collaborative PhD research projects that will open up unexplored aspects of its science collections.  Funding is available from the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships programme, through which the Library works with UK universities or other eligible Higher Education Institutes around strategic research themes.

Our current CDP opportunities include a project to examine the culture and evolution of scientific research, drawing on scientists’ personal archives, and another project to develop digital tools for the investigation of scientific knowledge in the 17th and 18th centuries:

The Working Life of Scientists: Exploring the Culture of Scientific Research through Personal Archives

This project will involve a detailed mapping of the key personal relationships of 20th century British scientists to shed light on the nature, communication and reception of scientific research. It will draw on the Library’s Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts collections, which include personal archives and correspondence from the fields of computer science and programming, cybernetics and artificial intelligence, as well as evolutionary, developmental and molecular biology. As well as being situated within social and cultural history, particularly the history of science and the history of ideas, this cross-disciplinary project is applicable to research in areas such as social anthropology, sociology and social network analysis. It will open up a nuanced understanding of the BL’s collection of the personal archives of twentieth century British scientists. It will enable us to better exploit these valuable collections to research audiences across a number of disciplines.

Hans Sloane’s Books: Evaluating an Enlightenment Library

SloaneEngravedPortraitCroppedThis Digital Humanities projectwill evaluate the library of Hans Sloane (1660-1753): physician, collector and posthumous ‘founding father’ of the British Museum. For over sixty years, Hans Sloane was a dominant figure on London’s intellectual and social landscape. At the heart of his vast collections stood a library of 45,000 books, which – alongside his voluminous correspondence and thousands of prints, drawings, specimens and artefacts – bears witness to his central position in a globalised network of scientific discovery. The CDP project will apply digital techniques to exploit the raw data on over 32,000 items in the Sloane Printed Books Catalogue, and will break new ground by developing digital tools to cross reference, contextualise and analyse the data. This will forge fresh insights into how medical and scientific knowledge was gathered and disseminated in the pre-Linnaean period, with relevance to the history of science, medicine and collecting.


Moving beyond our science collections, there is also a third CDP opportunity for a project on ‘Digital Publishing and the Reader’. This will investigate the changing nature of publishing in digital environments to consider how new communication technologies should be recorded or collected as part of a national collection of British written culture.

Applications are invited from academics to develop any of these research themes with a view to co-supervising a PhD project with the British Library from October 2016. Our HEI partners receive and administer the funds for a full PhD studentship from the AHRC and, in collaboration with the Library, oversee the research and training of the student. We provide the student with staff-level access to our collections, expertise and facilities, as well as financial support for research-related costs of up to £1,000 a year.

View further details and application guidelines.

To apply, send the application form to [email protected] by 27 November 2015.


04 October 2015

From fiction to fact: the science of Animal Tales

Alice Kirke investigates the facts behind the fiction of the British Library’s Animal Tales exhibition.

The Animal Tales exhibition at the British Library explores what our portrayal of animals within literature tells us about ourselves. The natural environment and its inhabitants have inspired generations of writers, but how do some of our favourite, anthropomorphised fictional creatures compare to their real-life counterparts? I set out to discover what the science says about the creatures lurking among the pages.

Cats: aloof and independent?

Valued for their companionship, skill in hunting vermin, and role in numerous ‘funny cat videos’ on YouTube, the domestic cat was first classified as ‘Felis catus’ by the Swedish botanist and zoologist Carolus Linnaeus in 1758. The exhibition features French philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s Essays,[1] in which he famously asked ‘When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?’ People have kept cats as pets for thousands of years. Though they are commonly thought to have first been domesticated by the Ancient Egyptians, who considered them to be sacred, there is evidence of earlier domestication dating from around 9,500 years ago.[2] There are many theories and misconceptions about the behaviour of these enigmatic pets. As predators, cats are very focussed on their environment leading to the common misreading of their behaviour as aloof, and although they are seen as ‘independent’ they are in fact social animals. Cat communication includes a variety of vocalizations as well types of cat-specific body language.[3]


Snakes: slithering and sinister?

A 17th century depiction of Lamia from Edward Topsell's The History of Four-Footed Beasts

Snakes have a sinister reputation in literature and culture. In ancient Greek mythology Lamia, the mistress of Zeus was transformed into a terrifying serpentine demon by Zeus’ jealous wife Hera. In Keats’ poem Lamia[4], displayed in the exhibition, the protagonist appears in her beautiful human form before being transformed back into a serpent at her wedding feast. To an extent, this was a comment on science itself; knowledge of the natural world destroyed its beauty.



 Snakes are perhaps so often portrayed as evil in literature because some species are dangerous to humans, but snakes are diverse creatures- there are over 3,000 species of snake in the world, with at least one type of snake on every continent except Antarctica. There is debate among evolutionary psychologists over whether the fear of snakes is innate. Since those with a phobia of snakes would be more likely to stay away from them and avoid the dangers of being bitten, they had a better chance of surviving and passing on their genes. Recent research suggests that although the fear of snakes is a learned behaviour, people do have a knack for spotting them; when shown images of snakes surrounded by objects of a similar colour babies and young children detected snakes faster than other objects.  

Spiders: creepy crawlies?

Frequent scare stories in the UK press about invasions of deadly spiders prey on a common fear of arachnids. There are over 40,000 different species worldwide, and although the vast majority are venomous most are not dangerous to humans. Arachnologists, experts who study spiders emphasise their diversity in terms of their appearance, habitats and behaviour.

Due to their wide range of behaviours, they have become symbolic of various attributes, including patience, cruelty and creativity in art and mythology.  The character of Anansi, a spider who often acts and appears as a man in West African and Caribbean folklore, has taken on a variety of different traits over time. Anansi Company,[5] featured in the exhibition, is a modern version of tales about Anansi and his friends which are central to Caribbean culture.

Crow: cruel or cunning?

The Crow and the Pitcher, illustrated by Milo Winter in 1919

In common English, corvids including crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays and magpies, are all known as ‘the crow family’.  Ted Hughes’ Crow draws on mythology surrounding the much maligned creature, which is often connected with death.[6] In Irish mythology, crows are associated with Morrigan, the goddess of war and death, and the collective name for a group of crows is a ‘murder’. However, they have also been linked with prophesy, cunning and intelligence. In one of Aesop’s fables, a thirsty crow spied a pitcher containing a small amount of water, which was out of reach of its bill. The crow began dropping pebbles into the pitcher one by one, thereby raising the level of water and enabling it to drink. A 2009 study published in Current Biology which replicated Aesop's fable, found that four captive rooks used stones to raise the level of water in a container, allowing a floating worm to move into reach, showing that the goal-directed behaviour of Aseop’s crow is reflected in actual corvid behaviour. European magpies have demonstrated self-awareness in mirror tests, and crows and rooks have been shown to have the ability to make and use tools, previously regarded as a skill specific to humans and a few other higher mammals. This scientific research suggests that crows are one of the most intelligent animals in the world.

Animal Tales showcases many more familiar yet enigmatic creatures. The wealth of material in the Library collections can be used to trace animals in literature as well as the latest scientific research about their characteristics- come and see the exhibition and follow up with some research into your favourite fictional beasts!

[1] Michel de Montaigne, Les Essais de Michel Seigneur de Montaigne. (Paris, 1602) C.28.g.7

[2] Vigne JD, Guilaine J, Debue K, Haye L, Gérard P (April 2004). "Early taming of the cat in Cyprus". Science 304 (5668): 259

[3] Dennis C. Turner, and Patrick Bateson, The domestic cat: the biology of its behaviour. (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2000) m00/46105

[4] John Keats, Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of St. Agnes & other poems. (Waltham St. Lawrence, 1928)

[5] Ronald King & Roy Fisher, Anansi Company. (London, 1992) C.193.c.8

[6] Ted Hughes & Leonard Baskin, Crow: from the life and songs of the Crow (London, 1973)