Sound and vision blog

23 July 2020

Oral History of British Science and transnational history

Dr Sally Horrocks writes about her recent talk at the Global Digital History of Science Festival.

Earlier this month the British Society for the History of Science hosted a successful online ‘Global Digital History of Science Festival’ in place of is usual annual conference. This event prompted me to reflect on how the interviews collected for An Oral History of British Science might be used to explore transnational histories of science and to think about what happens when we view our interviewees as nodes in transnational networks rather than as ‘British scientists’. I was also interested to see what oral history, particularly the extended life story approach used in An Oral History of British Science, might contribute to the project of writing transnational histories of science.

Interviews reveal the ways in which individuals moved across borders at all stages of their lives and for many reasons, sometimes several times- as child refugees, as students, as postdocs, to take up new employment opportunities, as a consequence of the regulatory state.

As a collection these interviews show how individual, family and state decisions, accrete to create a transnational scientific community that is constantly in flux. They also reveal the individual costs of these moves and the barriers that had to be navigated during such transitions that are often not discussed elsewhere.

Oral histories also reveal how individuals who make these moves create their own sense of individual identity. Lithuanian born, South Africa raised Aaron Klug, 1982 Nobel Prize winner for chemistry, reflected on his multiple identities: ‘All these things co-existed. But I didn’t feel any contradiction between feeling Jewish and being South African and also a British subject.’

The ways in which personal relationships were developed and sustained across national borders, and how these relationships acted as facilitators of knowledge exchange also emerge strongly. The cartoon below, presented to physicist Mike Forrest by his Soviet colleague Boris Kadomtsev, a Lenin Prize winner, suggests a sense of fun and camaraderie which also emerges from the interview and shows us a different side of prominent figures:

A black and white cartoon of scientists on a train

Mike Forrest on his first day in the USSR (C1379/48)

So we had this very formal invitation from the Russians, and that was my first trip to Russia. We were met at the airport by Volodiya Sannikov the young Russian who was going to work with us. I think it was December the ninth, so it was a type of deepest Russian winter, a cold one as well, quite a blast when you got off the plane, and even more so when we got out the car to go into the hotel. The first day, I think the first day we went out to see the Park of Achievements, and the second day we went to the lab. Peter Wilcock has a different [laughs] he has a complete reverse, so this is one of these memory things where we remember totally different things. My version, this chap Dennis Ivanov who was the engineer physicist who designed T3, he picked up us up at the hotel and took us to the Park of Achievements in Moscow. This is where they show off all the latest – exhibitions of all the latest stuff. And of course then it was all space. So we actually saw Gagarin’s space capsule, which is fairly horrific. It was like a cannonball with leather straps inside, you just couldn’t imagine, you know, going inside that. I think – it’s a huge, it must have been about a 100 acre site, and it’s the middle of winter, and I think we were about the only tourists there. Anyway, Dennis said “lets go and eat and we'll start talking about the project.” So he took us to this restaurant and plied us with vodka. By the time the food had come [laughs] we were getting a bit sloshed, I think is the right word. Anyway, and then we started chatting, you know, technicalities and we ended up drawing – we didn’t have any drawings of the machine there, so we ended up drawing things on the paper tablecloth. In fact I can recollect carrying bits of this back so we’d have a record, because we honestly wouldn’t have remembered the conversation [laughs].

Oral histories also reveal the significance and involvement of scientists families in these relationships. Dennis Higton, who spent time as technical liaison to the British Embassy in Washington recalled the significance of his wife to his career, describing her as ‘the heroine of the whole trip’:

Dennis Higton on dinner parties in the USA (C1379/41)

I was posted to America in a hurry, but the reason for the hurry was the chap I was replacing had been thrown back home. I was told when I got there – well, I was told by the Foreign Office before I left. They said, ‘Look, we’re bringing you over, the last chap in the world we want to see really, but the real reason for getting you there, what they called the social side, was crashing fast and your task is to put that straight. It doesn’t matter what you do on the technical side.’ But they worried about my wife, but they shouldn’t have done. They thought she was – unable to cope with dinner parties every other night and go out nicely dressed, but she was – she was the heroine of the whole trip, I’m pleased to say. In fact the Americans, they all said, ‘We don’t want to see you, Dennis,’ they said, ‘We want old Joy Bells back, you see.’ And these parties, you see, they not only enable you to talk to people in your discipline, but you’ll meet all sorts of people in all the other disciplines, you see. They’d always be... In your house you’ll always have a meal. Sometimes there are little parties. Sometimes the house would be full of people drinking and eating.

What reasons do you have for throwing a party?

Well, to get to know people. There’s no point in shaking hands at the airport, you’ve got to know them so that they talk to you and you can talk to them. It’s all about talking to people and people that you trust and they trust you. And you’ve got the energy to do it. That’s the – that’s the requirement of a Washington chap.

These personal relationships helped when it became necessary to circumvent the regulatory state. Interviews with John Scott-Scott and John Nye capture details that out of necessity would never have been committed to paper; of clandestine meetings on benches between British and US scientists, or with Soviet dissidents:

John Scott-Scott on a trip to California (C1379/32)

But they were jolly good, and that’s where you can meet these informal people in the corridor over a cup of tea, where we’d pretend to forget all about security. Yeah, well you’d check that the fellow’s not Russian for a start, but generally speaking you can have a better meeting than you have in a formal sense. Now on one of these things I fixed up with someone to go and see them another day, after the conference, and in the meanwhile some wretch, I don’t know whether it was the British Embassy who used to play us up a lot, had decided, they’d found out about me, and they were going to ban my visit. So I had to turn up at the gate of this place, and they said, ‘You can’t come in, John, sorry, we’re not allowed to do this, that and the other.’ I said, ‘Well that’s a bit daft, I’ve come 6,000 miles,’ because it was on the far side, ‘to have a chat with you.’ ‘Ah, don’t worry about it,’ he said, ‘you just can’t come on site.’ I said, ‘What am I going to do then?’ He says, ‘Drive back half a mile,’ he says, ‘and you’ll find there’s a sort of park area with one or two benches. Just go and park down there.’ I said, ‘All right,’ try anything once. Well you won’t believe it, by the time I got down there half the bushes had got blokes in them. And these blokes all walk out, and they come and sit on these benches round in a circle, and we have a wonderful meeting out there, where someone brought a cold box so we got something cold to drink, and we had our meeting outside in the sun of California. So it just shows, if you know a few people, you know, and they were always very good to me that way.

John Nye on handing over offprints on a bench (C1379/22)

I also discovered that there was a Geophysics Seminar on similar lands in Moscow, and I was invited to, er, address them. I went out there, and we sat round a table and talked about geophysics. And one of the chaps there said please could he have reprints. And I said, ‘Of course, certainly I can, but I’ve left them, I’ve got them all in the hotel.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I’ll pick them up tomorrow morning.’ I was staying in the big hotel where all the foreigners stayed at that time, near the Kremlin. And I said, 'well, I’ll give them to you at my hotel'. ‘No, I can’t come into your hotel,’ he said, ‘we’ll meet outside.’ So we met outside. And he had this carrier bag that all Russians carry around with them in case there’s a bargain going in the shops, so something just come in. And he said, ‘We will walk,’ and we walked, and we walked, and we walked to a park. And traditionally we sat down [laughs] on the park bench. And I took the reprints out of my briefcase and he put them into his carrier bag, just like [laughs] they do in the movies. [Laughs] And I’m sure we were not being observed, but that was his concern. And I went back to my hotel and he went back to his lab.

Written records tell us much about how transnational communities and institutional structures have been constructed and maintained, interviews reveal the practical everyday tasks required to sustain longstanding collaborations such as the International Geophysical Year (1957-58) or World Ocean Circulation Experiment. They also show the many individual contributions that enabled some institutions to develop a reputation as important nodes in international networks

David Davies, editor of Nature from 1973 to 1980, noted of the Department of Geodesy and Geophysics in Cambridge during the early 1970s, ‘they need somebody in a department who will make things happen. You know, who will organise the symposia, who will meet the visitors, who will organise the expeditions’:

David Davies on doing departmental donkey work (C1379/60)

My – I think my job at the department was [laughs] – I sort of knew I wasn’t going to be a brilliant scientist, I sort of knew, I knew I wasn’t, I’d be – and I knew that there were good, really good people coming through all the time like – like Dan for instance who – but all departments in every scientific discipline, every discipline, they need somebody in a department who will make things happen. You know, who will organise the symposia, who will meet the visitors, who will organise the expeditions, this that and the other. And I think – I sort of knew at that stage that that was my role, read the stuff in the library and tell other people about. Being the – being the sort of gatekeeper in a way, friendly gatekeeper, not an unfriendly gatekeeper, and I sort of fitted into that role. I mean Teddy, Teddy sort of was brilliant in all sorts of directions but somebody needed to sort of take onto his bright ideas and move them somewhere else or say, no it wouldn’t work, or let’s try it out. And everybody else really, all the research students, said you needed some – somebody in the department who just knew broadly what was going on and could organise things. And I suppose I slipped into that role ‘cause nobody else did it but, you know, inviting speakers to colloquium and driving people from the station [laughs] and all that kind of stuff. So – and departments do need that as well as brilliant minds, they do need people who will do the donkey work.

Interviews also capture how these practices have changed over time. Physicist Ann Wintle reflected on how email and Skype had enabled her to remain active in her field after retirement, remarking ‘you can discuss things with anybody anywhere’ - allowing her to participate in a transnational research community without leaving her own home in the same way that I was able to do as an attendee at the Festival.

Ann Wintle on laboratory work via Skype (C1379/57)

I guess when I turned sixty in 2008, I was by then thinking, I’ve got to do something with my life, I can’t actually sit in Aberystwyth forever. You know, there are two perfectly competent people running a lab here but, you know, I will feel like the - you know, the sort of – the ghost that creeps in from time to time and this isn’t right, they need to be – not have me anywhere in sight. So yeah, I decided coming to Cambridge would be a good idea and just made the move, so … still have the same interests but no sort of – nobody to go talk to every day, but when you can do it on Skype or on the phone or send emails, it’s not – not a problem. I can still think and work and write, so that’s good. You know, I can download from libraries. That means that, you know, all the information is still at your fingertips. It’s only when you’re wanting to have a detailed discussion with somebody, equivalent to having a discussion with them in the room, that the Skype comes in and then you’re – you can do instant texting. You can almost write – you can almost type as fast as you can talk. So you can just, you know, talk like we are now but you’re just doing it on a keyboard. And that person is instantly there engaging with you, whereas if it’s emails it might take a little bit and they may have wandered off somewhere. But I mean, in this case it’s – it’s absolutely instant. And then we send – we’re still sending emails with files on them if we want to know, you know, 'what does that dataset look like?' and, ooh, 'go check your email box, I’ve just sent it to you'. So you can get that and then you can look at it and then you can both talk about it. That – that’s how it works. It’s really – it’s great. I mean, it’s, you know, you’d – I can see why in the past some people might have either gone very solitary when they retired or they disengaged totally from their academic field, because they didn’t have any interactions that – in this way, because you didn’t have the communication. Now you’ve got the communication, you know, you can discuss things with anybody anywhere. So you’ve I think probably got more chance of staying involved with your – with your research ideas. Though you don’t have the equipment to do it yourself, you’ve still got the ideas and if you hit it right you can persuade somebody to do the experiment you would do if you were there. They think it’s their experiment but, you know, you know you’ve just pushed them in that little direction, saying, ‘Ooh, I think I’d look at that, yeah.’ So that’s – that’s great fun. It also means they have to go off and spend physical time doing the experiments where you can go off and read a book [laughs].

Dr Sally Horrocks is the Senior Academic Advisor for the National Life Stories project An Oral History of British Science. All the clips featured in this blog can he found on the Voices of Science website.