Science blog

Exploring 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

07 May 2021

Wiley Digital Archive on history of science now available at the British Library

The words Wiley Digital Archive, with a logo of three books standing as if on a shelf
We are happy to announce that this week we have acquired the Wiley Digital Archives of several major learned societies. The collections currently available are those from the New York Academy of Sciences, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Geographical Society, the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, and the Royal College of Physicians. The database also includes scientific material from major British universities, digitised as part of the BAAS project.

Information in the archives includes field notes on Hausa Islamic law, beginners' lessons in the Mole language spoken in parts of Ghana, research for a government investigation into early-Victorian mine ventilation, reports on an earthquake in Erzerum, Turkey in 1859, a recipe for a "very rare and excellent" seventeenth-century "wound drink", and a huge range of maps. The Royal College of Physicians collections include a number of digitised incunabula and medieval printed books. For those items which might be harder to read, automated transcriptions are available.

Unfortunately the database cannot currently be used from outside the Library, but we are open again and any reader with an interest in the history of science is highly recommended to come in and try it out.

18 March 2021

Donald Michie: Interviewing Trofim Lysenko

A combined photograph shows the faces of two white men.
Left: Trofim Lysenko in 1938. Picture in public domain. Right: Donald Michie c. 1980s. (Add MS 88958/5/4). Reproduced with permission of the estate of Donald Michie.

In August 1957, a 33-year-old Donald Michie travelled across Europe to visit Moscow. The journey was a remarkable one. Driving through Germany and Poland in a 1948 Standard drop head coupé with his friend from Oxford, John Matheson, the pair had lively encounters with enthusiastic locals, a Polish hitchhiker, and even an offer for their car from a film director in Russia.i

Whilst visiting the Institute of Genetics in Moscow, Michie had a chance encounter with Trofim Lysenko, the infamous Soviet geneticist. Seizing the opportunity, a five-hour interview between the two and Lysenko’s colleagues ensued, with a transcript and reports following in British publications over the following 12 months. What had started out as the tour of a young socialist had turned into a golden chance to meet and interrogate the man at the centre of one of the greatest scientific controversies of the twentieth century.

The British scientific community was rocked in the 1940s and ‘50s by the rise of Lysenko to Director of the Institute of Genetics in Moscow. His theories and methods (both scientific and as a political figure) prompted resignations from scientific societies, radio broadcasts and journal articles denigrating him, and no small degree of infighting as people attempted to separate the emerging Cold War political divide from the scientific merits (or demerits) of his work. Michie, as a young geneticist forging his career in this time, found himself at the heart of this.

Lysenko was a neo-Lamarckist, arguing that characteristics acquired in response to the environment an organism lives in could then be passed on to future generations. The traditional view of the 1950s, based on the work of Gregor Mendel, was that the environment’s role was limited to accelerating or slowing down random mutations of genes. Lysenko’s belief in this view was not the only factor in driving controversy. The international scientific community was also concerned by the state endorsement of his science within the Soviet Union, prompting the disappearance, side-lining, or death of prominent critics, such as N. I. Vavilov. Lysenko’s precise liability remains an issue of contention to this day.

A photograph showing a group of white men and women in casual suits.
Michie’s visit to the Institute of Genetics. Left to right: Kosikov, Ružica Glavinic, John Matheson, Trofim Lysenko, Nuzhdin, Anne McLaren and Donald Michie. Reproduced with permission of the estate of Donald Michie.

Michie was carving out his career in genetics in the 1950s. By 1953, he had finished his DPhil in mammalian genetics under the supervision of E. B. Ford at Oxford. He then moved to work as a researcher at UCL alongside notable figures such as J. B. S. Haldane, Michie’s second wife and celebrated biologist Anne McLaren, and future Nobel Prize winner Peter Medawar. Michie had already dipped his toe in the waters of the Lysenko debate in a remarkable exchange of letters to an obscure rabbit breeders’ magazine, Fur and Feather, showing himself unafraid to side with controversy as he argued in favour of testing Lysenko’s theories.ii

The cover of a journal with masthead, the first page of text of the first article, and contents of the rest of the magazine.
First page of Donald Michie, ‘Interview with Lysenko’, Soviet Science Bulletin, V (1 & 2, 1958), 1-10. Add MS 89202/11/6

The interview with Lysenko revolved around a major theme from Michie: would Lysenko be prepared to share his methods, publish work in English and permit exchanges of personnel with Western institutions? Michie’s belief was that differences between the West and Soviet Union could be overcome through collaboration and openness, fostering a spirit of sharing knowledge. Lysenko agreed with the sentiment, responding:

I do not agree with this division into Western genetics and Soviet genetics. Science is unitary. I believe, and my colleagues believe, that science knows no frontiers.iii

Both Michie and Lysenko argued for letting scientific results win the debate, however they understood the obstacles in the way of that outcome rather differently. Lysenko saw bad faith and entrenched attitudes from Western scientists, believing them unwilling to entertain the possibility of Soviet scientists producing good research. Michie saw barriers to accessibility, such as the poor understanding of the Russian language in the West. He criticised the stubbornness of Lysenko and his colleagues to share their techniques and offer work for publication in English journals, whilst also castigating Western scientists for not engaging with the science and testing it rigorously and with an open mind.

Ultimately, Michie concluded from his meeting with Lysenko:

The only certain remedy that I can see is to reunite the genetical profession in a single scientific brotherhood irrespective of politics, nationality or genetical creed. … In more definite terms, Soviet and East European biologists must be willing to publish in Western journals and vice versa.iv

The question which follows is: Did Michie’s interview impact Lysenko’s reputation in Britain?

The short answer is probably not. For instance, Michie drew upon Lysenkoist scientists in a remarkable 1958 essay reflecting on 100 years since Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.v The references to Lysenkoists were not well-received by reviewers, with them finding Michie’s piece out of step with the tone of the other essays in the collection. Lysenko’s reputation was, at least in the late 1950s, still entrenched negatively in the Western scientific world.

Shortly after these interventions, Michie drifted away from the world of genetics to pursue his long-standing interest in computers and artificial intelligence following his move to the University of Edinburgh in 1958. As such, his contributions on Lysenko petered out. He would go on to become one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence research in the United Kingdom. Never one to shy away from controversial topics, he found himself at the centre of the heated Lighthill debate in the 1970s concerning the funding of AI projects.

Lysenko’s reputation has largely remained contentious in the UK. Whilst there have been attempts to rehabilitate his science and separate it from his political reputation, such as by Chinese scientist Yongsheng Liu in the early 2000s, there is still a great deal of baggage associated with Lysenko.

Reflecting on the Lysenko controversy nearly 50 years later, Michie remarked:

Perhaps history is not after all a documented story of what probably happened. Rather, perhaps history is whatever tale of mystery and imagination becomes in the end too embedded to set straight.vi

Whilst this may have been one tale which Michie could not set straight, his open-mindedness and commitment to scientific exchange as an early-career researcher are admirable and fascinating to see in the face of such a controversial and fraught debate.

Matt Wright

Sources and Further Reading
Michie, D., ‘The Moscow Institute of Genetics’, Discovery, October 1957, pp. 432-434, p. 434. Available in Add MS 89202/11/6.
Michie, D., ‘Interview with Lysenko’, Soviet Science Bulletin, V (1 & 2, 1958), 1-10, p. 4. Available in Add MS 89202/11/6.
Michie, D., ‘The Third Stage in Genetics’, in A Century of Darwin, ed. By S. A. Barnett, (London: Heinemann, 1958), pp. 56-84.
Donald Michie to Judith Field, 14 July 2005, in London, British Library, uncatalogued digital collection.

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.

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.

i Details of Michie’s trip driving across Europe in a 1948 Standard drop head coupé are available in Add MS 88958/3/21.
ii These letters are available in the Donald Michie archive: Add MS 88958/3/20.
iii Donald Michie, ‘Interview with Lysenko’, Soviet Science Bulletin, V (1 & 2, 1958), 1-10, p. 4. Available in Add MS 89202/11/6.
iv Donald Michie, ‘The Moscow Institute of Genetics’, Discovery, October 1957, pp. 432-434, p. 434.
v For more details, see Donald Michie, ‘The Third Stage in Genetics’, in A Century of Darwin, ed. By S. A. Barnett, (London: Heinemann, 1958), pp. 56-84.
vi Donald Michie to Judith Field, 14 July 2005, in London, British Library, uncatalogued digital collection.

16 March 2021

Three men, a tobacco plant disease, and a virus.

The past year has seen many a new word popping up in our languages: Furlough (from the Dutch ‘verlof’ or paid leave), social distancing, lockdown, you name it. Most of these have ‘gone viral’, just like the virus itself. And just like the virus itself the word ‘virus’ mutated over time.

The word ‘virus’ was long known in science, but it was not used to describe the pathogen we know it to be. That was the work of Dutch biologist Martinus Willem Beijerinck.

An elderly, balding man with spectacles sits at a lab bench with a microscope mounted on it.
Portrait of Martin Willem Beijerinck, Wikipedia Commons

 

Beijerinck was the third of three scientists who had worked on the tobacco mosaic disease, an infection that could devastate whole crops. He continued the work done on the disease by Adolf Mayer, former Director of the Agricultural Experiment Station at the Agricultural School in Wageningen where he himself was based. Meyer found that if a bacterium was the cause, there was something strange going on but he could not figure out what it was.

A photograph signed "Dr. Adolf Mayer" shows a youngish man with a moustache in nineteenth-century business attire.
Portrait of Adolf Meyer in 1875. Wikipedia Commons


The next step in the right direction was made by Russian botanist Dmitrii Ivanovsky He concluded that the tobacco mosaic disease is caused by something much smaller than a bacterium, because it had slipped through the finest filters of the time, that no bacterium could cross.

He published his findings in several publications, amongst which was an article entitled ‘Die Pockenkrankheit der Tabakspflantze’, published in Mémoires de l'Académie Impériale des Sciences de Saint-Pétersbourg in 1890.

A stamp with cyrillic lettering shows a man with a beard and a widow's peak, wearing a bow tie and overcoat.
Dmity Ivanovski, from a USSR postage stamp celebrating the centenary of his birth

 

Apparently this was not picked up by our third man, Beijerinck. He conducted similar research on the tobacco mosaic disease as Ivanovsky had done, but concluded there had to be a new form of infectious agent. Because it was soluble in water Beijerinck called it Contagium vivum fluidum and he called the pathogen ‘virus’ to distinguish it from bacteria.

He also suggested the new idea that viruses were only capable of reproducing in cells of other organisms. His hypothesis was confirmed a few years later, when electron microscopes became available. I am not sure whether Beijerinck lived to see this new type of kit, because he died in 1931, the year it was invented.

Text-only title page of a book, stamped for Groeningen University Library..
Title page of 'Verzamelde geschriften van M. W. Beijerinck ter gelegenheid van zijn 70sten verjaardag…' The Hague, 1940. 10761.i.33

 

Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections.

References and further reading:

Beijerinck, Martinus Willem, Verzamelde geschriften van M. W. Beijerinck ter gelegenheid van zijn 70sten verjaardag ... uitgegeven door zijne vrienden en vereerders. (Delft, 1921-1940.) 6 vols. Shelfmark 12260.l.13.

Iterson Jr. , G. van, Dooren de Jong, L.E. den, Kluyver, A.J., Maritinus Willem Beijerinck. His life and his work. The Hague, 1940. Shelfmark 10761.i.33 Separate publication in English translation of part 2 of vol. 6 of 'Verzamelde geschriften'. Another edition was published in 1983 by Science Tech in Madison, Wisconsin. Shelfmark 85/11941

Iwanowski, D. (1892). "Über die Mosaikkrankheit der Tabakspflanze". Bulletin Scientifique Publié Par l'Académie Impériale des Sciences de Saint-Pétersbourg / Nouvelle Serie III (in German and Russian). 35: pp. 67–70. Translated into English in Johnson, J., Ed. (1942) Phytopathological classics No. 7, pp. 27–-30 Neither item held by the BL.

Zaitlin, Milton. The Discovery of the Causal Agent of the Tobacco Mosaic Disease. In: Discoveries in plant biology / S.D. Kung and S.F. Yang (Eds.). Hong Kong, 1998, Chapter 7, pp 105-110. Available at https://www.apsnet.org/edcenter/apsnetfeatures/Documents/1998/ZaitlinDiscoveryCausalAgentTobaccoMosaicVirus.pdf.

15 January 2021

zbMATH Open - mathematical database now free online

zbMATH Open - the first resource for mathematics. The logo is a white square containing a small grey square in the upper left corner and a larger red square in the lower right corner

We are very happy to hear that zbMATH, one of the most important bibliographic databases in the field of mathematics, is now freely available to all online. The database is run by FIZ Karlsruhe, the European Mathematical Society and the Heidelberg Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the funding to make it free to all was provided by the Joint Science Conference, the German national government organisation for science research funding and policy.

The database covers mathematics books and scholarly articles comprehensively since 1868, with some items from considerably earlier. It includes material from the paper abstracts journals Jahrbuch über die Fortschritte der Mathematik (1868-1945) and Zentralblatt für Mathematik (1931-2013). It can be searched by author and subject as normal, but also includes searching by mathematical formula and the subject-specific Mathematics Subject Classification. It includes not just abstracts, but independent reviews of the significance of important articles, although some of these are in German rather than English. It also has both forward and backward citation data. Where possible links to the online full-text item are provided.

The administrators are currently working on developing an API to allow content from zbMATH to be used in other digital information systems on an open access basis.

Anybody with an interest in mathematics is heartily recommended to try it out.

08 December 2020

Data Debates: What does data really tell us about the generational divide?

Generations pic

Many of our recent COVID-19 discussions and experiences have had a generational element and impact, from the devastating impact of pandemic on the older generation, especially in care homes, to university students self-isolating in their halls of residence and undergoing a mass testing before returning to their families for Christmas.  The pandemic seems to have highlighted pre-existing narratives about intergenerational differences – on one side, baby boomers who, we are told, benefited from the post-war economic boom, in the process getting richer and more conservative politically, and, on the other side, millennials, often described as technology savvy and individualistic, political ‘snowflakes’, experiencing an adulthood of precarious employment and housing.

While the media caricatures of different generations are often extreme, researchers and scientists have a lot to say about intergenerational dynamic in all areas of life, from the attitudes to climate change, to the changes in social mobility, and the changing employment and economic prospects.

The British Library and Alan Turing Institute latest Data Debate will explore different aspects of intergenerational differences and what data and research tell us about these differences and their implications for our future.

On this occasion, our panel will include:

Dr Jennie Bristow is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Canterbury Christ Church University, an Associate of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, and a writer and commentator on the ‘generation wars’. Her recent books include: The Corona Generation: Coming of age in a crisis (with Emma Gilland, Zero Books 2020); Generational Encounters with Higher Education: The Academic–Student Relationship and the University Experience (with Sarah Cant and Anwesa Chatterjee, Bristol University Press 2020); Stop Mugging Grandma: The ‘generation wars’ and why Boomer blaming won’t solve anything (Yale University Press 2019); and The Sociology of Generations: New directions and challenges (Palgrave Macmillan 2016).

Mr Angus Hanton is a Co-founder of the Intergenerational Foundation, a vehemently independent and non-party-political think tank that focuses on intergenerational fairness in the UK. A self-confessed baby boomer and economist, Hanton believes that successive governments have unwittingly overseen the transfer of assets, benefits and resources to older generations, whilst passing increasingly unsustainable liabilities to younger and future people.

Dr Florian Hertel studies the causes and effects of social inequality in post-industrial societies. Specifically, he is interested in understanding what drives social mobility trends and international variation in intergenerational mobility. He currently works with the Department of Socioeconomics at the University of Hamburg and was visiting Professor of Sociology at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). Florian published his work in the American Sociological Review, Social Forces and Research in Stratification and Social Mobility. Last summer, his recent work on social mobility and inequality was awarded the RC28’s Significant Scholarship Award.

Professor Ganna Pogrebna is a decision theorist, behavioural scientist and a Turing Fellow. Before joining The Alan Turing Institute, she worked at the University of Innsbruck (Austria), the University of Bonn (Germany), Humboldt- Universität zu Berlin (Germany), University of Sheffield (UK), and Columbia University in New York (USA). She is currently a Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Birmingham and a Research Fellow at Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) at the University of Warwick.

Dr Tracey Skillington is Director of the BA (Sociology) in the Department of Sociology & Criminology, University College Cork. She is the author of two monographs on global climate change, Climate Justice and Human Rights (2017, Palgrave) and Climate Change and Intergenerational Justice (2019, Routledge), exploring the justice dimensions of largescale ecological destruction. She is currently a partner in an EU Horizon funded project on Arctic justice and sustainable development (JUSTNORTH, 2020-23). On the issue of data, her research points to the invaluable contribution of data to understanding the nature and extent of the ecological risks we face.

Mr David Sturrock is a Senior Research Economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies. His recent work has looked at the savings and wealth holdings of different generations and the impact of inheritances on inequality. David is currently undertaking a multi-year project investigating the impact of rising house prices on inequalities across and within generations and the role of wealth transfers in social mobility. Previously, David was a policy advisor and economist at HM Treasury, working on fiscal policy, spending strategy and the economics of Scottish independence.

The Rt Hon Lord David Willetts FRS is the President of the Resolution Foundation and chaired their Intergenerational Commission. He served as the Member of Parliament for Havant (1992-2015), as Minister for Universities and Science (2010-2014) and previously worked at HM Treasury and the No.10 Policy Unit. Last year he published a second edition of his book The Pinch How the Baby Boomers took their children’\s future - and why they should give it back. He is a member of the Board of UKRI.

The event will be chaired by writer and broadcaster Timandra Harkness. Timandra presents BBC Radio 4 series, FutureProofing and has presented the documentaries, Data, Data Everywhere, Personality Politics & The Singularity.

The online event takes place on 10 December 2020 at 5.30pm. Bookings for this event are now open.

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!

18 June 2020

Citizen Science and COVID-19

Your experience of the COVID-19 pandemic could be an important contribution to science. Researchers from diverse disciplinary backgrounds are keen to learn about your stories, insights, routines, thoughts and feelings. While some projects would be eager to receive diaries in the narrative style of Samuel Pepys or John Evelyn, others want more specific information in survey format.

Hand-drawn and painted cartoon illustrating various ways people have entertained themselves during lockdown
Illustration: Graham Newby, The British Library: Lockdown Rooms (3rd June 2020)

Citizen science engages self-selected members of the public in academic research that generates new knowledge and provides all participants with benefits. The engagement can vary from data gathering or participatory interpretation to shared research design. Different forms of citizen science can be referred to as public science, public participation in scientific research, community science, crowd-sourced science, distributed engagement with research and knowledge production, or trans-disciplinary research that integrates local, indigenous and academic knowledge.

Contributing to citizen science projects sustains a sense of control, sense of belonging (empowering feelings in and after isolation) and sense of being useful which are particularly important in uncertain times. According to the UK Environment Observation Framework, self-measured evidence is more trusted by people, and organisations that draw on data generated through citizen science are more trusted. Trust is linked to transparency. Better understanding of how scientific knowledge is produced, and having a role and responsibility in shaping the knowledge production process, are likely to enable citizen scientists to re-frame the often-uneasy relationship between society and science.

Scale is a distinctive feature of citizen science. The more people are engaged, the more comprehensive an understanding can be reached about the researched topic. The featured COVID-19 Symptom Study has become the largest public science project in the world in a matter of weeks:  3,881,488 citizen scientists are involved as of 18th June 2020. Big data allowed medics to develop an artificial intelligence diagnostic that can predict the likelihood of having COVID-19 based on the symptoms only: a vital tool indeed when testing is limited.

The citizen science initiatives highlighted here, COVID-19 Symptom Study, COVID-19 and You, and COVID Chronicles, may inspire you to contribute to them or find other projects where you can take an active role in developing better understanding of current and future epidemics.

COVID-19 Symptom Study
https://COVID.joinzoe.com/data
Epidemiology
Institutions: King's College London, ZOE
Launched: 25th March 2020
Your contribution helps you and researchers understand COVID-19 and the dynamics of the pandemic (UK, USA).
How: Submit your physical health status regularly.

COVID-19 and You
https://nquire.org.uk/mission/COVID-19-and-you/contribute
Social sciences
Institutions: The Open University, The Young Foundation
Launched: 7th April 2020
Your contribution helps you and researchers understand how COVID-19 is affecting households and communities across the world.
How: Fill in an online survey with choices and narratives.

In addition to supporting current research, your contribution could add to future inquiries as well. Collecting and archiving short personal stories ensures authentic data will be available when researchers in the future look back to us now with their research questions. Reliable data should be collected now, while we are still living in unprecedented times. It is especially important to record the experiences of people from less privileged backgrounds, in contrast to earlier pandemics where the voices of all but the upper and middle classes, and the political, legal and scholarly elite, have often been lost to history. COVID Chronicles, an archival initiative, is doing just that. COVID Chronicles is a joint project: BBC 4 PM collects and features some of the stories and The British Library archives them all for future academic inquiries.

COVID Chronicles
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-52487414
History, social sciences
Institutions: BBC Radio 4, The British Library
Launched: 30th April 2020
Your contribution helps you and future researchers understand how people experience the COVID-19 pandemic in their daily life, at a personal level.
How: Submit a mini-essay (about 400 words) to BBC Radio 4 PM via e-mail: pm at bbc dot co dot uk. Your essay will be archived by The British Library and made available for future research.

The gradually easing lockdown and the anticipated long journey of national and global recovery generate a growing appetite to record, reflect on and analyse the COVID-19 epidemic's influence on our life. Not all "citizen science" projects observe high standards of privacy and ethical responsibility, however. Before joining in any research with public participation, consider the principles of citizen science suggested by the European Citizen Science Association and the questions below:

Five questions before joining a citizen science initiative

  1. Can you contact the researchers and the institution(s) they belong to with your questions and concerns?
  2. Is the research approach clear to you? In order words, is it clear to you what happens to your contribution, how it shapes the investigation and what new knowledge is expected?
  3. Is your privacy protected? In other words, is the privacy policy clear to you, including how you can opt out any time and be sure that your data are deleted?
  4. Are you contacted regularly about the progress of the research you are contributing to?
  5. Are you gaining new transferable skills, new knowledge, insights and other benefits by participating in the research?


Further reading:

Bicker, A., Sillitoe, P., Pottier, J. (eds) 2004. Investigating Local Knowledge: New Directions, New Approaches. Aldershot : Ashgate.
BL Shelfmark YC.2009.a.7651, Document Supply m04/38392

Citizen Science Resources related to COVID-19 pandemic (annotated list) https://www.citizenscience.org/COVID-19/
[Accessed 18th June 2020]

Curtis, V. 2018. Online citizen science and the widening of academia: distributed engagement with research and knowledge production. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Available as an ebook in British Library reading rooms.

Open University. 2019. Citizen Science and Global Biodiversity  (free online course) https://www.open.edu/openlearn/science-maths-technology/citizen-science-and-global-biodiversity/content-section-overview?active-tab=description-tab
[Accessed 18th June 2020]

Sillitoe, P. (ed). 2007. Local science vs global science: approaches to indigenous knowledge in international development. New York : Berghahn Books.
BL Shelfmark YC.2011.a.631, also available as an ebook in British Library reading rooms.

Written by Andrea Deri, Science Reference Team

Contributions from Polly Russell, Curator, COVID Chronicles, and Phil Hatfield, Head of the Eccles Centre for American Studies, are much appreciated.

 

14 May 2020

New report on postgraduate education in the UK

The British Library’s postgraduate students are currently greatly missed while the Reading Rooms are closed. Meanwhile, the Library continues to support all researchers as our online collections continue to grow, and we strive to provide the latest information and essential publications for researchers working on the Covid-19 related research.

As we are continuing to think how postgraduate research might change in the weeks and months to come and how we can continue to support it, it has been encouraging and thought-provoking to read a new, extensive report Postgraduate Education in the UK by Dr Ginevra House. The report continues the Library’s collaboration with the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and a previous report from 2010 that the Library has also been involved with, thus supporting a long-term evidence of the evolving changes in postgraduate education.

The new report uses previously unpublished data to reveal the state of UK postgraduate education in the years before the Covid-19 crisis struck. Dr Ginevra House, the author of the report, explained that despite a tumultuous decade, including the 2008 financial crash, restrictive changes to visas and Brexit, the UK’s postgraduate sector has emerged bigger and more diverse than ever before. 

Compared to the past, the new report reveals that a higher proportion of postgraduates are female, studying full-time and young. However, other challenges to fair access remain, with under-participation by males, by White British students, and by those from less advantaged backgrounds.

The analysis considered how postgraduate education was affected by the recession of 2008, when many people sought to gain more education in the face of economic challenges. The report found that those who already had postgraduate qualifications fared better than others in the labour market.

The top 20 key findings in the 150-page report are listed below.

  1. There were 566,555 postgraduate students in 2017/18, of which 356,996 (63%) were in their first year – up by 16% since 2008/09 (p.22 and Table 2.1).
  2. Two-thirds (65%) of new postgraduates are studying for Master’s degrees, 10% are taking doctorates or other research degrees, 7% are doing teacher training and the rest (18%) a range of diplomas, certificates, professional qualifications and modules (Figure 2.1).
  3. The most popular discipline is Business & Administrative Studies (20%), followed by Education (14%) and Subjects Allied to Medicine (12%). Research postgraduates (64%) are more likely to study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) but most taught postgraduates (68%) take non-STEM subjects (Table 2.2 and pp.26-27).
  4. Just over half of new UK-domiciled postgraduates (53%) study full-time, reversing past trends favouring part-time study – back in 2008/09, most postgraduates (59%) were part-time students (Table 2.4 and pp.32-33).
  5. More than half (60%) of new postgraduate students at UK institutions come from the UK, while one-third (32%) come from outside the EU and 8% come from EU countries. The majority of Master’s students (53%) come from outside the UK (Table 2.5 and Table 2.6).
  6. Between 2008/09 and 2017/18, UK-domiciled postgraduate entrants increased by 10% but students from overseas grew faster: EU-domiciled student numbers increased by 11% and non-EU international students grew by 33% (Table 3.2).
  7. Since the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, the number of new postgraduate students from EU countries has fallen (by 2% in 2017/18 and another 2% in 2018/19), but the reduction in the value of the pound contributed to a 10% increase in non-EU postgraduate starters in 2017/18 (Figure 3.14, p.81 and Figure 3.10).
  8. Chinese students formed 38% of the non-EU postgraduate cohort by 2017/18. Such heavy reliance on a single country exposes universities to greater risk from geo-political events (p.84 and Table 3.3).
  9. The introduction of £10,000 Master’s loans for home / EU students in 2016 had a big positive impact: UK-domiciled student numbers grew by 29% in one year and by 59% among those from the most disadvantaged areas. The loans have also encouraged above-inflation fee increases (Figure 2.22, Figure 3.11, p.80 and Table 5.3).
  10. The number of people taking Taught Master’s courses grew by 30% from 2008/09 to 2017/18, but the total has been volatile, particularly among UK students. Among all new postgraduates, just over half (51%) were full-time Taught Master’s students in 2017/18 (Table 3.1 and p.23).
  11. The great recession following the 2007/08 financial crash witnessed a marked rise in Master’s take-up, as employment opportunities were restricted and people brought forward their plans to study (Figure 3.12).
  12. The female:male ratio among new postgraduates is 60:40, or 62:38 among UK-domiciled students alone. This reflects greater female participation over time – in 2008/09, the overall female:male ratio was 55:45 (p.40 and Figure 2.12).
  13. The gender ratio varies considerably by discipline: women are in a big majority in Subjects Allied to Medicine (77%), Veterinary Sciences (72%) and Education (70%) and men are in a big majority in Engineering & Technology (78%), Computer Science (76%) and Mathematics (71%). Males outnumber females among PhD researchers (51%) (Table 2.7 and Figure 2.13).
  14. The proportion of postgraduate students aged under 30 has grown from 52% to 57% since 2008/09, reflecting a broader decline in people accessing lifelong learning opportunities (Figure 2.18 and p.48).
  15. White men, particularly disadvantaged White men, are less likely to undertake postgraduate study than others. Among UK-domiciled postgraduate entrants from the poorest areas, 64% are women and 36% are men (Table 2.9 and Figure 2.24).
  16. Women have a bigger boost to their earnings from postgraduate study, earning 28% more than women with only undergraduate degrees – the comparable figure for men is 12%. But women with postgraduate qualifications still earn 14% less on average than men with the same level of qualifications (Table 5.4 and p.120).
  17. In the last crash, employment among those with postgraduate qualifications was slower to fall and faster to recover than for those with only a first degree, which may signal how the labour market will respond to the current Covid-19 crisis (Figure 5.11).
  18. The abolition of post-study work visas (announced in 2011 and implemented in 2012) had a negative impact on demand for postgraduate study, most notably within India. The announcement that this policy is to be reversed is welcome but needs communicating quickly and clearly (Figure 3.15).
  19. Transnational education, where people take UK qualifications abroad, has seen substantial growth, more than doubling since 2007/08 to 127,825 postgraduates in 2017/18 and overtaking the number of overseas postgraduate students in the UK (p.58 and Table 2.11).
  20. Demand for postgraduate education is likely to grow over the long term: there could be an additional 22,750 undergraduates moving directly to postgraduate study by 2030 in England alone. While Brexit could mean a drop of around 11,500 EU postgraduates, successful implementation of the UK Government’s International Education Strategy could see an increase of 53,000 in other overseas postgraduates by 2030, although this partly depends on how the world recovers from the current Covid-19 crisis (pp.131-133).

Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, commented that the report findings show that ‘in some respects, postgraduate education now more closely resembles undergraduate study, with today’s postgraduate students more likely to be women, full-time and young. A higher proportion of postgraduate students are also from overseas. He stressed that the story in this report is a positive one, showing the power of higher education to do good, extending people’s options, delivering the skills employers need and pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge.

It is hoped that the report will provide an essential benchmark for postgraduate education prior to the Covid-19 crisis and help us measure the impact of any changes ahead, as well as provide the evidence of the value of highly skilled workforce at the times of uncertainty.

Gropu of around 15 students talking to each other and drinking coffee in the foyer of the British Library's conference centre
Students networking during a postgraduate open day at the British Library