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10 posts categorized "Modern history"

17 July 2020

Gilbert White's influence on science

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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!

13 May 2020

Diarists and diaries

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Three manuscript volumes, two open, one closed with a logo showing a dragon on the front.
Diary in the 17th century: The autograph manuscripts of John Evelyn's Diary  Copyright © The British Library Board

‘But one shower of rain all this month.’ - entered John Evelyn in his diary on 29th April 1681. What would you write about April 2020 in your diary?
 
John Evelyn (1620–1706) is one of the best-known English diarists. He is known as a diarist but he was also a scholar, a botanist, a landscape gardener, author and one of the founding members of ‘The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge' (est. 1660).
 
An engraving of a white-haired man in academic dress, holding a large leather-bound book
Diarist: John Evelyn (31 October 1620 â€“ 27 February 1706) Copyright © The British Library Board

Unbeknown to him, Evelyn was also a chronicler of climatic change. His weather notes provide us with data on the period dubbed as the Little Ice Age in Europe.
In his diary he noted numerous extreme weather events. The first reference in 1636: ‘This year being extremely dry’, continued later with extreme cold winters when the Thames froze over for weeks, extreme heat, and extreme wind including hurricanes, and unseasonal weather at various times of the year. 
1st January 1684
The weather continuing intolerably severe, streets of booths were set upon the Thames ; the air was so very cold and thick, as for many years there had not been the like. The small-pox was very mortal.
 
9th January 1684
I went cross the Thames on the ice, now become so thick as to bear not only streets of booths, in which they roasted meat, and had divers shops of wares, quite across as in a town, but coaches, carts and horses passed over.
 
11th August 1695
The weather now so cold, that greater frosts were not always seen in the midst of winter ; this succeeded much wet and set harvest extremely back.
Unlike most weather diarists, Evelyn did not take daily notes but focused on the unexpected. There are three years of exceptionally high number of weather notes in Evelyn’s diary: 1684, 1695 and 1696.  His comparative notes on the weather makes him stand out of weather diarists. 
25th June 1652
After a drought of near four months, there fell so violent a tempest of hail, rain, wind, thunder and lightning, as no man had seen the like in this age ; the hail being in some places four or five inches about, brake all the glass about London especially at Deptford, and more at Greenwich.
 
21st January 1671
This year the weather was so wet, stormy, and unseasonable, as had not been known for many years.
 
21st April 1689
This was one of the most seasonable springs, free form the usual sharp east winds that I have observed since the year 1660 (the year of the Restoration), which was much such as one.
Despite his longitudinal view of how the actual weather compared with previous years of his lifetime, he did not engage with weather forecasting. He took notice, however, of the relationship between weather conditions and health (epidemiology) issues, in line with The Royal Society’s priorities.
 
Keeping a weather diary in the second part of the 17th century was not unusual. In fact, The Royal Society encouraged it. One of the earliest histories of The Royal Society (1667) gives an account of how Christopher Wren’s (architect, another founding member of The Royal Society) initiated the study of the ‘history of seasons’ as the priority of the Royal Society.
The Second Work which he [Wren] has advanced, is the History of Seasons: which will be of admirable benefit to Mankind, if it shall be constantly pursued, and deriv'd down to Posterity. His proposal therefore was, to comprehend a Diary of Wind, Weather, and other conditions of the Air, as to Heat, Cold, and Weight; and also a General Description of the Year, whether contagious or healthful to Men or Beasts; with an Account of Epidemical Diseases, of Blasts, Mill-dews, and other accidents, belonging to Grain, Cattle, Fish, Fowl, and Insects.
Thomas Sprat (1667:315-6)
The Royal Society published a detailed description to support weather monitoring: 'A METHOD For making a History of the Weather by Mr. Hook’ (Sprat 1667:175-182)
The Royal Academy's stamped bookplate, showing their coat of arms in black and white
The bookplate of The Royal Society Note the Latin motto: Nullius in verba (Take nobody’s words for it)
Wren’s initiative is better understood in the context of extreme weather events and unusual seasons. Weather lore was not fully reliable for farmers and seamen any more. April showers did not necessarily happen – as Evelyn recorded in 1681. Finding out the laws and the cause of weather became a priority for a growing naval power. Evelyn, as an active member of the Royal Society, must have been aware of Wren’s initiative but did not follow any rigorous rules in his diary.  
 
Evelyn’s diary inspired scholars across disciplines over the last 400 years. One of them, J.M. Winn, M.D. (1848) - motivated by a severe winter in England in 1846 - extracted weather (and epidemiology) related entries from John Evelyn’s diary and concluded that Evelyn’s observations corroborated Howard Luke’s theory of a ‘cycle of seven years in the seasons of Britain’. Howard (see his work on clouds) made his theoretical proposition based on his own daily weather diary. Regardless of the accuracy of his conclusion, Winn recognized the value of Evelyn’s longitudinal dataset over a period of extraordinary climatic and social changes. Winn, similar to Wren and Evelyn himself, was keen to account for the link between extreme climatic and social events; a topic that has become part of our daily conversation as well this spring.
 
The British Library holds The John Evelyn Archive, a collection of his autograph diary, correspondence and related documents. This year marks John Evelyn’s 400th anniversary of birth (31 October 1620).
 
Celebrating Evelyn comes in style for many people who started keeping a diary this spring, written, audio, photo, or video diary, for recording their story of the Covid-19 epidemic, the impacts and the questions raised by this epidemic and the unfolding climatic changes. Evelyn, Wren, Howard were not professional meteorologists. But their observations, insights, and understanding of the importance of weather contributed to the history of meteorology, history of science and the history of civilisations.
 
Your Covid-19 Chronicles can also be part of The British Library's latest born-digital archives initiated by BBC Radio 4’s. Read here how your Covid-19 stories can make history.
An image shows a teacup, a closed laptop computer with monitor, a pen, a cloth-bound book and a pair of earbud headphones
Diary in 2020 [Photo: A. Deri, 6 May 2020]

Further reading
British Library to find home for Covid Chronicles (3 minutes)
Hear Polly Russell lead curator at the British Library tell Evan Davis how the Covid Chronicles might be used by future researchers.
30th April 2020
Evelyn, J., W. Bray (ed.) 1952. The diary of John Evelyn.   Vols. I-II. Dent.
BL Shelfmark W11/6235 Vol I; W11/6236 Vol II
Digitized editions of Evelyn’s diaries on http://www.archive.org & http://www.gutenberg.org 
Sprat, Th. (ed.) 1667. The History of the Royal Society of London, for the Improving of Natural Knowledge. London.
Winn, J.M. 1848. Notes on Meterology. Annual Report of the Royal Institution of Cornwall. Appendix II. Vol. 29. pp. 38-45.
BL Shelfmark Ac.1225
 
Many thanks to Phil Hatfield for his helpful suggestions.
 
Written by Andrea Deri, Science Reference Team

16 March 2020

Caroline Herschel born 270 years ago today.

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A close-up image of a handwritten manuscript on paper
The first page of the letter from Caroline Herschel on display in the Treasures Gallery

Happy birthday Caroline Herschel!


Today is the 270th anniversary of the birth of the German-born British astronomer Caroline Herschel, who discovered eight comets and fourteen nebulae. She also produced an expansion and correction of the previous main British star catalogue, created in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century by John Flamsteed, and made substantial contributions to the catalogue of nebulae and star clusters published after her death by her nephew John F W Herschel. She made heavy contributions as well to the work of her elder brother William Herschel, famous as the discoverer of Uranus.


Caroline Hershel was born in 1750 in Hannover in Germany, the daughter of a military musician. As the youngest daughter of her family, it was assumed by convention at the time that she would devote her life to helping her mother maintain the home and look after her father and elder brothers, which she resented. Her escape from this came when her brother William invited her to move to England and join him in Bath, where he was working in the family tradition as a musician. Caroline became a promising singer, but when her brother shifted his interests from music to astronomy he assumed once again that she would naturally help him in his own career. Over the years, despite this unwilling beginning, she became genuinely enthusiastic for the subject. In 1782, William was appointed Royal Astronomer by George III (not to be confused with the older position of the Astronomer Royal at Greenwich) and the pair moved to Datchet near Slough, to be closer to the royal home at Windsor. In 1787, William pursuaded the King to pay Caroline a salary in her own right, making her the first woman in Britain to be employed as a scientist.


The work was not just intellectual but physically demanding. William and Caroline had to construct their own telescopes and spend hours in the open air at night making observations. William's telescopes were some of the largest in the world at the time, being from twenty to forty feet in length. On one occasion, Caroline fell and impaled her leg on part of a telescope, losing a two ounce lump of flesh and suffering an injury which a military surgeon later told her would have entitled a soldier to six weeks spent in an infirmary.


Caroline's contributions have traditionally been undervalued due to a mixture of her personal shyness (coupled with disdain for people who she considered intellectually inferior) and her willingness to publicly depict herself as merely a submissive helpmeet to her brother, to avoid controversy, which were played up by subsequent commentators who wanted to depict her as conventionally feminine. Letters to her family which we hold here at the BL reveal her as a rather more strong-willed person, with a sardonic sense of humour.


After William's death in 1822, Caroline moved back to Hannover, where the position of her home in the centre of the city prevented her from much astronomical observation. In response, she devoted herself to compiling the catalogue of nebulae and star clusters. She died in 1848, increasingly physically frail in her later years but mentally sharp until the end.
We hold three copies of the first edition of Caroline Herschel's catalogue of stars, at the shelfmarks L.R.301.bb.2, 59.f.4, and B.265. The copy at L.R.301.bb.2 bears the bookplate of Charles Frederick Barnwell, at one time assistant keeper of antiquities at the British Museum, and is bound with a copy of the star catalogue of Francis Wollaston, another astronomer of the same era.


The letter from Caroline Herschel currently displayed in the Treasures Gallery is taken from the section of the Charles Babbage papers dealing with astronomy, Add MS 37203. It is a copy of a letter originally sent to Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal of the era, who was one of the few friends who Caroline was comfortable enough with to make an extended visit to. Her letters to close relatives while living in Hannover, which show a more outspoken side to her, are found at Egerton MS 3761 and Egerton MS 3762. The "Egerton" refers to the fact that they were purchased by the British Museum Library with money from an endowment created specifically to acquire manuscripts in the bequest of Francis Henry Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater.


Further reading:
Brock, C. The comet sweeper. Thriplow: Icon, 2007. Shelfmark YC.2008.a.3165, also available as e-book in the British Library Reading Rooms.
Hoskin, M. Herschel, Caroline Lucretia (1750-1848). In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2005. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/13100. Available online in British Library Reading Rooms.
Winterburn, E. The quiet revolution of Caroline Herschel. Stroud: The History Press, 2017. Shelfmark YK.2018.a.6511, also available as e-book in the British Library Reading Room

09 March 2020

Donald Michie (1923-2007): ‘Duckmouse’, a modern-day polymath

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This post is part of a series highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2020.

Codebreaker? Geneticist? Computer scientist? There is no single label which best encapsulates the wide reach of Donald Michie’s career as a scientist. In nearly 70 years of research, Michie crossed paths with some of the most well-known scientific names of the twentieth century, such as Alan Turing and Trofim Lysenko, and was at the forefront of two contrasting fields of scientific research.

Michie was born to a middle-class family in Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar) in 1923, son of a British Empire banker. As was typical for young British boys of the Empire, he was sent back to Britain to boarding school for his education, attending Rugby School.

As a young man, fresh out of school and armed with a scholarship to study classics at Balliol College, Oxford, Michie accidentally found himself on a codebreaking course at Bletchley Park in 1942, in the middle of World War II. Intending to attend a Japanese language course, he had inadvertently turned up six months early, but was pointed to a codebreaking course, which he excelled at, returning after hours to revise and practice. Upon completing the course, he was assigned to the Newmanry (a group within Bletchley), cracking the Lorenz cipher.

Black and white photograph of a young white man in collar and tie
Donald Michie c. 1940s (Add MS 89072/1/5). Reproduced with permission of the estate of Donald Michie.

 During his time at Bletchley, Michie befriended Alan Turing, whom he bonded with over their (relatively) poor standard of chess play. Their shared interest in playing chess badly and work on what we would now consider early computers led Michie and Turing to wonder: could machines be taught to play chess? And, beyond that, could machines think?

The latter question would form the basis of one of Turing’s best-known papers in 1950, a paper which still influences modern computer and AI research. The former led to Michie and Turing theorising their own chess-playing programmes on paper, with the hope that one day they could run them through a computer to test who’s played better. The programmers of Manchester’s early computers put paid to that prospect in the early 1950s, and the Turing-Michie computer chess match never took place.

One popular story abounds for Michie and Turing: during the war, Turing was known to trade his money for bars of silver, which he then buried in various spots around Bletchley Park. He made no note of the location of his silver, for fear of wartime invasion and discovery by the Germans. Post-war, Turing enlisted assistance from Michie to help locate it using a ‘gimcrack’, home-made metal detector. The search for Turing’s buried silver ingots around the grounds of Bletchley proved fruitless, and they remain lost to this day.

Following the end of the war, Michie turned his attentions away from computing and took up his place at Oxford, however not to study classics, as originally planned, but medicine instead. In his own words: ‘After the war, I had been switched on to computing, but there weren’t any computers to do experiments with. I had to do something, so I became a biologist.’ Michie earned his PhD in mammalian genetics in 1953 under the supervision of Ronald Fisher, then moved to the Department of Zoology at University College London. There, he worked alongside his second wife, Anne McLaren, exploring genetic inheritance in mice. Large parts of Michie and McLaren’s work together has become central to the field, such as their work indicating that inbred mice were not best for experimentation. Perhaps most notably, their pioneering research on embryo transfer on mice would later be developed, especially by McLaren, to form the basis of human IVF treatment.

Michie’s research in the 1950s also brought him into contact with the ongoing debate in Britain around the work of Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko was a scientist whose theories dominated Soviet genetics and agricultural science from the 1930s to the 1950s. He took a Lamarckian approach to genetics, arguing that acquired characteristics could be inherited. For example, a mouse which grows a long tail in response to a hot climate could then pass this trait on to its offspring. This theory was hotly contested outside the Soviet sphere of influence, conflicting as it did with the prevailing theories of genetics in Western Europe and the USA. Michie, however, saw some value in Lysenko’s theories and advocated for them to be tested in Britain by both professional scientists and amateur gardeners, hoping this would give the approach greater credibility.

Michie eventually came face-to-face with Lysenko in a chance encounter during a visit to the Moscow Institute of Genetics in 1957. Having camped across Europe in an old car with a friend, Michie met up with McLaren in Moscow, where the two of them interviewed Lysenko. Michie found Lysenko ‘stubborn, impatient, bigoted [and] intolerant’, yet also recognised qualities of ‘energies focussed in the search for understanding and the urge to communicate it’. According to Michie, it would take someone of Lysenko’s temperament and talents to make meaningful scientific advances, or even to ‘revolutionise’ an ‘old branch of knowledge’.

A black and white photograph of four men and two women in a room.
Donald Michie (far right) and Anne McLaren (second from right) with Trofim Lysenko (third from left), 1957 (Add MS 89202/5/48). Reproduced with permission of the estate of Anne McLaren.

 Whilst Lysenko’s fame and appeal faded into the 1960s, Michie’s interest in international exchanges and the sharing of scientific knowledge and practices did not. He hosted many Soviet researchers in Edinburgh and undertook numerous visits beyond the Iron Curtain himself, as well as trips to visit colleagues in the USA.

By the late 1950s, Michie was once again pursuing his interest in artificial intelligence (AI), taking on a bet from a colleague in Edinburgh (where he moved in 1958) that he could not produce a learning machine. The outcome, in 1960, was MENACE (Machine Educable Noughts and Crosses Engine), a matchbox machine which learned, through trial and error, how to play noughts and crosses perfectly. His bet won, Michie threw himself into AI research full-time, co-founding the Experimental Programming Unit at Edinburgh in 1965, followed by the Department of Machine Intelligence and Perception there a year later.

Michie’s importance in AI was perhaps most evident in the early 1970s. Firstly, he and his team at Edinburgh built and programmed a robot, named FREDERICK (Friendly Robot for Education, Discussion and Entertainment, the Retrieval of Information, and the Collation of Knowledge). Freddy II could identify different parts of an object and assembling them. It was amongst the most advanced robots of its kind at the time, integrating perception and action in one machine.

A large robotic pincer grips a crudely-stylised toy car as it rests on a table
Freddy with toy car, c. 1973. Reproduced with the permission of the University of Edinburgh.

 However, this progress was not deemed sufficient. The Science Research Council commissioned Professor Sir James Lighthill to conduct a survey of AI in Britain, and in 1973 he published his report. The report was damning, arguing that progress in AI research was insufficient to justify the funding it was receiving. A BBC TV debate followed at the Royal Institution as part of the series of science debates called, Controversy. Michie, alongside John McCarthy and Richard Gregory, took on Lighthill. The argument was ultimately lost in the eyes of the Science Research Council. AI funding took a heavy hit, with Michie’s department in Edinburgh one of only three university departments left engaging in AI research in the UK. The subsequent decade of AI underfunding came to be known as the ‘AI Winter’ as similar cuts were enacted in the USA.

Michie’s research into AI continued, founding the Turing Institute in Glasgow in 1983. During these later years, Michie returned to Turing’s ideas, in particular the concept of a ‘child-machine’, ‘an educable machine, capable of learning and accumulating knowledge over time’. To this end, Michie developed a chat-bot: Sophie. Sophie was intended as a challenge to the Turing test, i.e. can a machine convince a human it is human? To Michie, ‘the value of the Turing test is not what it says about machine intelligence, but what it says about human intelligence’. He gave Sophie a sense of humour, a backstory, a family; in essence, Sophie had a personality. Apparently ‘Southern California Trash’ was an apt accent for her personality when demonstrating the speech-generating software.

A head-and-shoulders shot of a grinning, balding white man in a suit and tie
Donald Michie c. 1980s (Add MS 88958/5/4). Reproduced with permission of the estate of Donald Michie.

Donald Michie at the British Library
The Donald Michie Papers at the British Library comprises of three separate tranches of material gifted to the library in 2004 and 2008. They consist of correspondence, notes, notebooks, offprints and photographs and are available to researchers through the British Library’s Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue at Add MS 88958, Add MS 88975 and Add MS 89072.

Sources and Further Reading:
Michie, D., ‘Interview with Lysenko’, Soviet Science Bulletin, V (1 and 2, 1958), 1-10.
Michie, D., Donald Michie on Machine Intelligence, Biology and more, ed. by Ashwin Srinivasan, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
van Emden, M., ‘I Remember Donald Michie (1923 – 2007)’, A Programmer’s Place, 2009, https://vanemden.wordpress.com/2009/06/12/i-remember-donald-michie-1923-2007/ [accessed 30 October 2019].

Matt Wright
Matt Wright is a PhD student at the University of Leeds and the British Library. He is on an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership researching the Donald Michie Archive, exploring his work as a geneticist and artificial intelligence researcher in post-war Britain.

22 January 2020

Happy birthday, Francis Bacon

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The 22nd of January is the birthday of the early modern lawyer, politician, and philosopher Francis Bacon, later Viscount St Alban (1561-1626). For the purposes of this blog, he is most famous for his contributions to the gradual evolution of scientific thinking, mainly expressed in his book Novum Organum, first published in Latin in 1620. We hold two copies of the first edition, published by John Bill. One is at shelfmark C.54.F.16, and has a bookplate in the name of John Bentinck, and the second is at 535.k.8.

Title page of Novum Organum naming Bacon in Latin as "Franc. Baconis de Verulamio", showing two large square-rigged ships at sea between two classical colums
Title page of the original 1620 edition of Novum Organum

Novum Organum was intended to be part of Bacon's life's work, The Great Instauration, which would have been a multi-volume work summarising practically all knowledge that existed during his lifetime and suggesting paths for further enquiry. He died long before completing it, although some sections of it dealing with particular subjects existed in manuscript and were published after his death. The book argues for knowledge of the natural world to be developed by collection and juxtaposition of experimental observations, refraining from forming hypotheses too early and attempting to force the information to fit them. While mature scientific method views hypotheses as more significant than Bacon did, his thought was an important reaction to earlier classical and medieval ideas about the natural world, which were based mainly on intellectual speculation.


Novum Organum is also important for its discussion of "idols", or fallacies and habits of thought which interfere with rational thought and prevent people from reaching correct conclusions. Bacon defines four types of these. "Idols of the tribe" are flaws of reasoning which are almost universal among human minds. "Idols of the cave" (an allusion to Plato's Allegory of the Cave) are biases and pre-occupations specific to each individual person. "Idols of the marketplace" are confusions created by the imprecision of language to describe the world, such as when people's understanding of the technical meaning of a word in science is confused by its everyday meaning. Finally, "Idols of the theatre" are mistaken ideas that persist because of their historic prestige and acceptance by authoritative figures.

It is not clear how much experimentation Bacon actually did. The amusing story spread by the memoirist John Aubrey that he died from pneumonia caused by an experiment to see if a chicken could be preserved by stuffing it with snow is nowadays doubted. His unfinished Utopian book New Atlantis was extremely influential in its depiction of "Saloman's House", possibly the first depiction of a scientific institute, which heavily influenced the founding of the Royal Society, just over thirty years after Bacon's death.

04 December 2019

Oil, storms and knowing part 2: Pliny, Franklin and the IPCC Special Report on Oceans

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This post is the second of a pair to mark the period of the 25th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and is contributed by Andrea Deri, Cataloguer.

In addition to seafarers, fishers in the Mediterranean Sea applied oil as Pliny the Elder and Plutarch described. Divers released olive oil from their mouth and used the oil film on the sea surface as a ‘skylight’ for underwater fishing. Oyster collectors in Gibraltar did just the same. They made use of their observation that oil prevented ripples formation and the smooth surface allowed steadier and deeper penetration of sunlight for increased visibility under the water.

Seal hunters also benefitted from the smooth sea surface created by oil. In their case it was the common seal that ‘released’ the oil as 18th-century Welsh zoologist Thomas Pennant, shared hunters’ observations:

Seals prey beneath the water, and in case they are devouring any very oily fish, the place is known by a certain smoothness of the waves immediately above.

An image shows three seals lazing on a rocky outcrop
Common seals create an oily patch on the sea surface when they consume their oily fish underwater. Seal-hunters were aware of this phenomenon. From Thomas Pennant, British Zoology Volume I Plate XII (London, 1812:167) 728.f.26.

Pouring oil on the sea was practiced and endorsed even by the British Admiralty (1891) as a way to prevent waves from crashing over the vessel:

Many experiences of late the utility of oil for this purpose is undoubted, and the application is simple. […] A very small quantity of oil, skillfully [sic] applied, may prevent much damage both to ships (especially the smaller classes) and to boats, by modifying the action of breaking seas.

The oil was often applied from an oil bag, ‘usually filled with oakum (teased rope fibres), and/or cotton waste, and fish oil was indeed the preferred (and cheapest) medium used.’ The oil bag was hung over the side of the vessel, immersed in the sea, windward, and pricked with a sail needle to facilitate leakage of the oil. […]’

Sea captain J. W. Martin describes the most recent use of oil bag in ‘launching or recovering ships’ boats, embarking or disembarking a pilot’ and makes the point that carrying an oil bag was compulsory in British ships’ lifeboats’ equipment until 1998.

It was Benjamin Franklin whose experiments provided impetus for exploring the science, the physics, behind the phenomenon: why and how oil prevented waves from breaking. In the spirit of Enlightenment Franklin used an experimental approach to triangulate and scientifically account for practitioners’ observations.

The correspondence of English and Dutch ‘learned gentlemen’ reveals their excitement and commitment for compiling oil stories from as diverse sources as possible – ‘ancient’ (Latin and Greek classics), ‘vulgar’ (lay knowledge), anecdotal, published and experimental – in order to defend the authority of either practitioners’ or natural philosophers’ approach to understanding the oil’s wave stilling effect.

Franklin acknowledges his bias towards ‘modern’ (18th century) ‘learned’ people’s knowledge compared to old and lay sources:

I had, when a youth, read and smiled at Pliny's account of the practice among seamen of his time, to still the waves in a storm by pouring oil into the sea […] [I]t has been of late too much the mode to slight the learning of the antients [sic]. The learned, too, are apt to slight too much the knowledge of the vulgar. This art of smoothing the waves with oil, is an instance of both.

This candid self-reflection is all the more interesting as Franklin and his fellow Enlightenment philosophers benefited from the data, which they snubbed at, for formulating their ideas. By privileging the fast-developing scientific approach, the ‘learned gentlemen’ facilitated the shift of epistemic authorities from traditional knowledge to science and contributed to the politically constructed divide between different ways of knowing.

A drawing shows a nineteenth-century rowing boat approaching an endangered sailing ship in a stormy see
A lifeboat approaching a ship in a stormy sea, from Description of the Royal Cyclorama, or Music Hall: Albany Street, Regent’s Park ... (London, 1849) RB.31.a.23(2)

Within the scientific paradigm, integration of practical and scientific inquiry remained a challenging enterprise with resistance from all involved.

However, a new paradigm seems to be emerging in the context of the unfolding climatic changes. While the authority of knowing still held by science, the relevance of local, traditional and indigenous ways of knowing appears to be slowly acknowledged (again):

Scientific knowledge, Indigenous knowledge, and local knowledge can complement one another by engaging both quantitative data and qualitative information, including people’s observations, responses and values. However, this process of knowledge co-production is complex and IK and LK possess uncertainties of a different nature from those of scientific knowledge, often resulting in the dominance of scientific knowledge over IK and KL in policy, governance, and management. [IPCC 2019:37]

The IPCC special report on ‘The Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate’ published in September 2019 portrays science and local knowledge (LK) and indigenous knowledge (IK) as complementary, an attitude that pours oil on the troubled waters of the local knowledge - science nexus.

Thanks to Marja Kingma, Curator, Germanic Collections, BL European Studies; Dr. Saqib Baburi, Curator, Persian Manuscripts, BL Asian and African Collections with contributions from Arani Ilankuberan, Curator, South Indian Collections; Phil Hatfield, Head of Eccles Centre, BL Eccles Centre for American Studies and Julian Harrison, Lead Curator, Medieval Historical & Lit., Western Heritage Collection;

References and further reading:

Franklin, B. ‘Of the Stilling of Waves by Means of Oil. Extracted from sundry Letters between Benjamin Franklin, L.L.D. F.R.S. William Brownrigg, M.D. F.R.S. and the Reverend Mr. Farish’. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1774, 64(0), pp.445–460. Available at: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/pdf/10.1098/rstl.1774.0044 [Accessed 3 December 2019].

Gilkes, M. F. ‘A Whatsit’ Mariner’s mirror, 2009. 95(3), pp.336–337. Shelfmark Ac.8109.c.

IPCC, 2019. Summary for Policymakers. In: IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.[H.-O. Portner, D.C. Roberts, V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, M. Tignor, E. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, M. Nicolai, A. Okem, J. Petzold, B. Rama, N. Weyer (eds.). In Press. Available at https://www.ipcc.ch/srocc/  [Accessed 3 December 2019] 

IPCC and Allen, M.R., Global Warming of 1.5 oC?: Global Warming of 1.5 °C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. Technical Summary [in press]. [online] (Geneva, 2019) Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2019/02/SR15_TS_High_Res.pdf. [Accessed 3 December 2019] 

Martin, J.W.C.F. ‘Oil Bag’. Mariner’s mirror, 2010, 96(1), pp.94–95. Shelfmark Ac.8109.c.

Mertens, J. ‘Oil On Troubled Waters: Benjamin Franklin and the Honor of Dutch Seamen’. Physics Today 59 (2007), 36. (P)PQ00-E(51) <https://physicstoday.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/1.2180175> [Accessed 3 December 2019] 

Pennant, T. British Zoology (London, 1812:167) Shelfmark 728.f.26. Volume I Plate XII

Pliny the Elder, Natural history, with an English translation in ten volumes by H. Rackham, M.A. (London, 1938)?
 Book II, CVI. 233 - CIX 235 page 360 Latin, page 361 English translation Shelfmark 2282.d.150

Plutarch, Moralia in Fifteen Volumes, with an English translation by Lionel Pearson and F. H. Sandbach (London, 1965)?
 Volume XI 854 E - 874 C, 911 C - 919 F Shelfmark 2282.d.96.

Taylor, A. D. and J.J.P Hitchfield, The West Coast of Hindustan Pilot: including the Gulf of Manar, the Maldive and Laccadive Islands (London, 1891) Shelfmark V 8711

Wyckoff, L. A. B. ‘The Use Of Oil In Storms At Sea.’ Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 23, (1886), 383–388. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/983222  [Accessed 3 December 2019] 

13 November 2018

The centenary of the 1918 flu pandemic

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A blonde woman in a white leotard contorts herself in apparent pain on a hospital bed, on a background of microscope images of cells.
A dancer in "Contagion", a piece memorialising the pandemic presented at the British Library earlier in November


This November sees not just the centenary of the end of the First World War, but the centenary of the peak of the influenza epidemic that came at its end. The 1918 flu epidemic may have killed fifty million people or more worldwide, over three times the number of people killed in the war. It is thought to have been the third worst disease epidemic ever in Europe, after the fourteenth-century Black Death and the sixth-century Plague of Justinian. 228,000 people died in the UK, with as many as a third of the population infected, although the death rate among those who fell ill was around 2.5%. 1918 was the first year since official records began that deaths in Britain outnumbered births. Epidemiological studies have shown that children whose mothers suffered flu during pregnancy suffered lifelong negative effects on their health and employment histories.

 The flu is still sometimes known as the Spanish Flu, although this is a misnomer that, even at the time, seriously upset the Spaniards. It was associated with Spain because Spain, being neutral in the war, had less media censorship than other European countries, so that the epidemic was more honestly reported. The first unambiguous cases of the pandemic broke out at a US Army base in Kansas in March 1918. The first worldwide wave continued through the spring and summer, but appeared to be no more problematic than ordinary flu. The second, far more lethal wave, occurred in September to December 1918, while a third, less serious wave took place in the first half of 1919.

However, some people have suggested that earlier outbreaks of disease may have been unrecognised early stages of the flu pandemic. Particular suspicion has been cast on an outbreak of a lung disease called at the time "purulent bronchities" which struck the Allied Powers' huge military camp at Etaples in France in early 1917, and a lethal epidemic of lung infection which hit the region of Shansi in China in the winter of 1917-8, although that was believed by local authorities at the time, and many scientists to this day, to have been pneumonic plague.

A major question, especially given the possibility of further flu pandemics in the future, is what made the 1918 virus so lethal. As well as the sheer number of fatalities, it was unusual in killing young and healthy people in large numbers, rather than those who were elderly or frail. Some people have blamed the physical and psychological stresses of the war, and in particular the long-term effects of chemical warfare, for this, but young people also died in countries which were barely affected by the war. It has been suggested that healthy people died because of a phenomenon known as "cytokine storm", where the influenza infection causes the immune system to go into such a state of extreme activity that it itself causes fatal damage to the lungs. This is more likely to happen in people with healthier immune systems, although recent work has suggested that it might be more likely in people with a specific genetic condition in which the first stage of immune response, involving the production of interferon, is unusually weak.

In 2005, the genetic code of the 1918 virus was sequenced from samples taken from the body of a woman buried in Alaska, which had been partly preserved by the cold climate. This indicated that the 1918 virus was a member of the "H1" type of flue virii. That gave rise to a new theory about the higher death rate among young people - for the previous thirty years the majority of influenza circulating worldwide had been of the "H3" type, so older people may have been more likely to have encountered H1 influenza before and had more immunity to it.

Another mystery is why the 1918 pandemic had so little apparent cultural impact at the time. The most famous deaths from the virus were the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, the artist Egon Schiele (along with his wife Edith, who was pregnant with their first child), and John McCrae, author of one of the most famous poems of WWI remembrance, "In Flanders Fields". It also had a wider historical impact. Some military historians argue that the last major German offensive in 1918 failed only because of flu among the soldiers. The British prime minister David Lloyd George nearly died, although this was covered up at the time. The Versailles Treaty might potentially have been less harsh on Germany, reducing the chances of WWII, if the US President, Woodrow Wilson, had not been incapacitated with the flu during the later part of the negotiations. And the death of the leading USSR politician and administrator Yakov Sverdlov has been said to have opened up an opportunity for Josef Stalin to begin his rise to power. Some suggest that the influenza was not seen by people in general as a separate catastrophe from the war, while others have argued that, despite the death toll, it was seen as "just the flu" in an era when death from infectious disease was still much more common than it is today.

Further reading:

Honigsbaum, M. Living with Enza. London: Macmillan: 2009. Shelfmark YC.2009.a.3229 or m08/.36952
Johnson, N. Britain and the 1918-19 influenza pandemic (Routledge studies in the social history of medicine no. 23). Abingdon: Routledge, 2006. Shelfmark YC.2007.a.11206 or 8026.519925 no. 23
Ministry of Health. Report of the pandemic of influenza 1918-19, Reports on public health and medical subjects, 1920, No. 4. Shelfmarks B.S. 17/1, (P) HF 00-E(18), or 7665.590000
Spinney, L. Pale rider. London: Jonathan Cape, 2017. Shelfmark YC.2018.a.7038, or available in British Library Reading Rooms as Legal Deposit e-Book.

Posted by Philip Eagle

14 March 2016

The secret lives of scientists

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From Brian Cox and his past life as a pop star to Albert Einstein’s career as a patent clerk, PhD placement student Eleanor Sherwood delves into the more unknown pursuits and occupations of well-known scientists. 

Brian Cox 

BrianCox_200
©Vconnare at English Wikipedia
 

Brian Cox is an Advanced Fellow of Particle Physics at the University of Manchester and also conducts research at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.  Although a well-known face in the media, presenting popular TV shows such as The Wonders of the Solar System and The Wonders of the Universe1, Professor Cox has had previous brushes with fame as a member of two separate bands.  Between 1986 and 1992, Cox was a keyboard player in hard rock band Dare and, during the completion of his Physics PhD, Cox also played the keyboard in the more well-known pop rock/dance group D:Ream2,3.  The band’s best-known single ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ was performed live on Top of the Pops in 1994 and was featured heavily in Labour’s 1997 election campaign3

Read Brian Cox’s PhD thesis here via the British Library's online e-theses service, EThOS.

Albert Einstein

Einstein_1921_by_F_Schmutzer_-_restoration
© Ferdinand Schmutzer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Albert Einstein was a theoretical physicist born in Germany.  He is probably one of the most famous scientists of modern times and his most well-known work, the general theory of relativity, forms the basis of modern physics.  However, after graduating from the Swiss Polytechnic School in Zurich in 19004, Einstein struggled to find a job in academia and so found work as a clerk in the Swiss Federal Patent Office in Bern. He worked here throughout his ‘miracle year’ of 1905, where he was awarded his PhD and also published four groundbreaking papers, and only left in 1909 to accept the post of ‘Professor Extraordinarius’ in theoretical physics at the University of Zurich5.

 

Read some of Einstein's many books at the British Library, ranging from explanations of the Theory of Relativity to autobiographical writings

William HerschelWilhelm_Herschel_03

Friedrich William Herschel was born in Hannover yet moved to Bath, England at age 19.  An accomplished astronomer, Herschel is credited with the discovery of Uranus, the confirmation of the theory that nebulae were composed of stars rather than a luminous fluid, as was the opposing theory, and a theory of stellar evolution6. However, Herschel was only a professional astronomer from the age of 43; until this time, William Herschel taught, performed and composed music and was employed for some time as the organist of a chapel in Bath.

Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander_Graham_Bell
By Moffett Studio, via Wikimedia Commons

Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh to a family of elocutionists.  Although he is most notably credited with the invention of the telephone,Bell contributed to many other inventions including metal detectors and early aircraft7, and was also a professor of Vocal Physiology and Elocution at Boston University8.  However, as well as his scientific endeavours, Bell was a teacher of his father’s ‘Visible Speech’ system at a number of institutions for deaf or deaf-mute students.  He also opened his own ‘School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech’; a notable student being Helen Keller, with whom he worked and was friends for over 30 years9.

Polly Matzinger

Polly Matzinger is an American immunologist and has held research posts at The University of   727px-Polly_&_Annie
Cambridge, The Basel Institute for Immunology and most recently at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease in Maryland10.  She is most well-known for her work on ‘The Danger Model’, a theory explaining how immune cells can sense when the body is under attack and thus when to mount an immune response.  Leading up to her scientific career however, Matzinger undertook a number of ‘unconventional’ career paths.  Among many jobs, Matzinger worked as a jazz musician, problem dog trainer and even a playboy ‘bunny’, however it was her job as a cocktail waitress and an evening serving two university professors which led to her being persuaded to pursue a career in science11

Read Matzinger's 1994 review on the Danger Theory published in Annual Reviews of Immunology at the British Library - available to order as a hard copy here from the British Library collections.

Alan Turing

Alan_Turing_Aged_16 (1)
Author unknown, via Wikimedia Commons

Alan Turing was a British computer scientist, cryptanalyst, logician and mathematician, and is widely regarded to be the father of modern computing and artificial intelligence.  Turing is also credited with the design and development of the ‘Bombe’- an electromechanical device which was used during World War II to decipher Enigma-encrypted messages from the German military.  Aside from this, Turing was a talented long distance runner and used to frequently run the 40 miles from his work station at Bletchley Park to London for meetings.  Turing even tried out for the 1948 British Olympics marathon team and, despite being injured at the time, finished with a time only 12 minutes slower than winning time for that year12.

Read all about the life of Alan Turing in the book by Robert Hodges: 'Alan Turing: The Enigma'. Available to order here from the British Library collections

 

05 October 2015

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

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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 Arts-Humanities@bl.uk by 27 November 2015.

 

22 September 2015

‘Impossibly bold and Utopian’: H.G. Wells on education

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Alice Kirke investigates HG Wells’ views on science education ahead of our upcoming TalkScience event.

Although he is better known as ‘the Shakespeare of science fiction,’[1] H.G. Wells began his career as a school science teacher. Science education today needs to cater for the budding professional scientist in order to tackle global challenges such as population growth, climate change, and food security. But it also needs to nurture a greater public understanding of science. In light of these challenges, the anniversary of Wells’ birth, on 21st September 1866, prompted me to revisit his educational ideas.

H. G WellsBorn into a lower-middle class family, Wells immersed himself in books from the library at the Sussex mansion of Uppark, where his mother worked as a lady's maid. He continued to educate himself while he trained as a pupil-teacher,[2] and was eventually awarded a scholarship to the Normal School of Science in South Kensington in London, now Imperial College.

 

Whilst there, he was taught by the eminent advocate of Darwin’s theory of evolution, T.H. Huxley. Wells founded the Science Schools Journal, which provided a forum for the development of his views on science and society. Darwinian notions of progress and degeneration came to inform his understanding of history, the future of mankind, and the importance of education.

In 1937, during his presidential address to the Educational Science section of the British Association, he outlined his concerns over ‘the contents of the minds our schools are turning out.’[3] His address was judged by Nature to be of such historical significance that they published it on the centenary of his birth in 1966. So, what did he have say about education?

In his address, Wells insisted that he was speaking not as a scientist, educator or author but as a ‘citizen’. Ignorance, he argued, led to tyranny, and was a consequence of the failure of elementary education to ‘properly inform’ citizens. He posed the question:

‘What are we telling young people directly about the world in which they are to live?’

Wells advocated a child-centred approach to learning which stimulated curiosity, rather than the old-fashioned rote learning which he believed still characterised schooling in the 1930s. He suggested that instead ‘the weather and the mud pie’ should introduce children to biology and that ‘we ought to build up simple and clear ideas from natural experience.’ Further, he argued that ‘natural experience’ should be the foundation not only of scientific instruction but of education more generally. Geography should give children:

‘a real picture in their minds of the Amazon forest, the pampas, the various phases in the course of the Nile… and the sort of human life that is led in these regions.’

Wells believed that telling children about the physical environment of different areas, and the lives of the people who lived there, would teach them to respect and appreciate the world as ‘one community.’ He described himself as a democratic socialist, and saw education as fundamental to peace; in his Outline of History he claimed that ‘human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.’ He argued that History should be the ‘main subject of instruction’ in schools, and that to avoid the ‘crazy combative patriotism that plainly threatens to destroy civilisation’, it should be based on the recent discoveries of archaeologists, not the squabbles and affairs of past kings and queens.

The education system Wells envisaged would lay down a ‘foundation of knowledge’, enabling people to continue learning throughout their lives, and to engage with issues which were of public concern, including those related to science and technology. In the world conjured up by his A Modern Utopia engineers and scientists have figured out how to meet all human needs, and are part of the elite ruling group known as the ‘Samurai’. But in the real world, Wells believed that science education was not only for scientists.

Image-utopia-pb-no2cLARGE
Frontispiece, H. G Wells, A Modern Utopia (Chapman and Hall, 1905) Shelfmark: 012631.aa.9

Education meant more than the pursuit of reason and intellect, and was not oriented towards purely instrumental economic goals. It was about discovery, questioning and knowledge, and was part of the whole education of the citizen. He concluded his address by reflecting that his educational vision seemed ‘impossibly bold and Utopian’. But he maintained that a reinvigorated education system which would enable people to engage with political, social and scientific challenges was an achievable aim, and a vital one for anyone concerned about the future of civilisation.

Wells’ reflections on education raise important questions for science education today; how should it be taught, and to what end? To debate these issues with an expert panel, come along to our next TalkScience event on 27th October.



[1] Brian Aldiss and Sam J. Lundwall (eds), The Penguin World Omnibus of Science Fiction: an anthology (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986) p.133 Shelfmark: YC.1987.a.3902

[2] A senior pupil who acted as a teacher to younger children

[3] Supplement to Nature, September 3, 1966