Friday, December 14, 2007

Popular Science Day

Registration is now open for a one-day event discussing Popular
Science Books to be held at Imperial College's South Kensington
Campus, 22nd February 2008.

Literary critics, historians, writers, illustrators, publishers,
prize-givers, reviewers, readers, booksellers, teachers (and others)
are all invited to take part in what we hope will be a day of lively

Places are limited, so prompt registration is recommended. A
registration form and an overview of the programme can be found here

A full programme with abstracts and speakers' biographies will be
online for download in the next week.

All enquires to

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

CFP: Scientists as Readers of Literature

Abstracts are invited for a proposed panel on Scientists as Readers of Literature for the ‘Evidence of Reading, Reading the Evidence’ conference to be held at the Institute of English Studies, University of London, 21-23 July 2008. Papers may discuss the literary reading of scientists, natural philosophers or natural historians of any period. Please send 400-word abstracts and a brief biography to Alice Jenkins,, by 20 January 2008. Any queries may also be addressed to Alice Jenkins at the above email address.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Lent 2008

This term we will be reading about atomic physics and quantum mechanics. Copies of all the texts will be placed in the Whipple Library box file at the beginning of term.

We meet on Mondays from 7.30 to 9pm in the upstairs seminar room of Darwin College. All are welcome! Organised by Daniel Friesner (Science Museum) and Melanie Keene (HPS).

21 Jan
We will look at the rise and fall of the "solar system" model of atomic structure, as it was presented in the popular journal Scientific American.
  • A. H. Compton, "What Is Matter Made Of?" (May 15, 1915, pp. 451-2).
  • S. Dushman, "Beyond the Microscope" (June 1922, pp. 372-3).
  • A. T. Merrick, "Solar Systems Inside the Atom" (February 1925, pp. 80-1).
  • A. T. Merrick, "The Marvellous Speeds of Atomic Particles" (March 1925, p.301).
  • P. R. Heyl, "What Is An Atom?" (July 1928, pp. 9-12).
  • "Our Point of View: Whose Fault is It?" (November 1931, p. 299).
(N.B. Copies of these readings are already available in the Whipple Library box file: please bring £1 to reimburse Daniel for the cost of photocopying to the first meeting)

4 Feb
Psychological roots of complementarity.
  • William James, The Principles of Psychology (1890), Vol. 1, Chapter IX, "The stream of thought". London: Macmillan and Co, 1891, pp. 224-290 (esp. pp. 229-248).
  • Niels Bohr, "The Quantum of Action and the Description of Nature" (1929). In Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1934, pp. 92-101.

18 Feb
Some literary uses of the new physics.
  • Aldous Huxley, Those Barren Leaves, Part V, Chapter 1. London: Chatto and Windus, 1925, pp. 339-348.
  • Robert Frost, "Version" (1962). We will use the complete text of this poem, as published in The Poetry of Robert Frost, ed. E. C. Lathem. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966, p. 427.
  • Michael Roberts, "On mechanical hallelujahs, or how not to do it". Poetry Review, Vol. XIX, 1928, pp. 433-8 (esp. pp. 437-8).
  • Robert Frost, "Education by Poetry" (1931). In Selected Prose of Robert Frost, ed. H. Cox & E. C. Lathem. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1966, pp. 33-46 (esp. pp. 36-41).

3 March
Two stories about multiple worlds and uncertainty.
  • Jorge Luis Borges, "The garden of forking paths" (1941). Several English translations available, e.g. by Helen Temple and Ruthven Todd in Ficciones, ed. A. Kerrigan. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1962, pp. 89-101.
  • Fred Hoyle, "A jury of five". In Element 79. New York: New American Library, 1967, pp. 114-132.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Next term - atomic physics and quantum mechanics

In Lent 2008 the Science and Literature Reading Group will focus on atomic physics and quantum mechanics.

We'll continue to meet fortnightly on Monday evenings, from 7.30-9pm in the upstairs seminar room of Darwin College. Dates of the sessions are as follows: 21st Jan, 4th and 18th Feb, and 3rd Mar.

Daniel has kindly provided photocopies of the first set of readings, which are all taken from Scientific American and chart the rise and fall of the 'solar system' model of atomic structure. These are available from the box file in the Whipple Library. If you do take one of the reading packs, please bring along £1 to the meeting to reimburse Daniel.

Details of the full reading list will follow shortly.

We hope to see you next year.

SLRG gallery

The "upstairs seminar room" of Darwin College, and some of the SLRG:

Simon's wonderful paper cast of "To the Stars":

Singing the musical arrangement of "When I heard the learn'd astronomer":

Which has also been converted into a children's book:

Mr Darwin himself makes an appearance...:

Monday, November 26, 2007


Last meeting of term tonight, 7.30-9pm, Darwin College. (And yes, that is Star Trek wine - the finest 22nd century Chateau Picard...)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Objectivity vs Wonder? - Victorian Science and Curiosity

London Nineteenth Century Studies Seminar

Saturday 1st December, 3.00-5.30pm
Room NG-15, Senate House

"Objectivity vs. Wonder? - Victorian Science and Curiosity"

This seminar brings together two scholars to think about scientific curiosity and the ways in which it is mediated to produce different kinds of scientific knowledge for different groups in the nineteenth century. This is a seminar with two speakers who will give full-length research papers followed by a chaired discussion.

Dr Paul White (University of Cambridge, History of Science and The Darwin Project)
Dr Ralph O'Connor (University of Aberdeen, History)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

CFP: Science and the Senses (1789-1914)

Special Issue of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net
Science and the Senses (1789-1914)

According to John Locke, the senses are man’s only connection to the
outside world. It is through sensual experience that man acquires
knowledge about that world. Marjorie Hope Nicolson in Newton Demands
the Muse (1949) first established how many philosophers and poets
used the camera obscura as a model for explaining the processes of
human understanding; and, she stressed that even if the body was
considered the centre of all human experience, the mind within it was
perceived as at one remove from any original phenomena. This visual
model for understanding the relationship between sensory perception
and the mind has been extended by Jonathan Crary in the highly
influential Techniques of the Observer (1990).

Romanticists and Victorianists have responded extensively to Crary's
arguments about the various technological models of vision with the
result that visual culture and the gaze (whether masculine,
scientific or otherwise) are quite well studied in these periods.
However, one of the crucial arguments in Crary's work that is less
well-responded to is the newly scientific centring of the origin of
vision—as well as the other senses—within the human body. As the
developing study of physiology came to this conclusion in the early
nineteenth century, it was not only the visual sense, but also
hearing, touch, taste and smell that became newly subjective,
unstable and temporal. This process had crucial implications for the
formation of subjectivity as well as the conceptualisation of the
body itself.

This special issue of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net will
explore two primary questions. First, how does this scientific and
industrial mechanisation of the senses influence conceptions of
subjectivity? For example, if models of perception draw on optical
technologies to explain vision and sight, does the conception of what
it means to be human change accordingly? Secondly, if sensory
perception, when science locates it in the human body, becomes
unstable, unpredictable and temporary, how might this formulation
provide a base for resistance to this mechanisation? If sensory
perception were as unstable as physiology suggested, then the
codification of the senses could only predict and control humans and
societies to a limited degree.

We hope to put the ‘other’ senses on par with the visual and are
interested in the interplay between the senses. Articles of 5,000 to
8,000 words should be sent to Sibylle Erle
( and Laurie Garrison
( by 15 January 2008.

Possible topics might include:

  • The senses, their representation and the aesthetic effects thereof in
  • the discourses on scientific, medical, cultural and literary thought
  • Advances and new developments in the mechanisation of the senses
  • On the cusp of Romanticism: the senses and their place in the
  • Enlightenment project
  • The senses and racial science and/or primitivism
  • Chemically altering the senses or sensual perception
  • Optics, the training and altering of vision in astronomy
  • The senses and the study of physiology
  • Artificial stimulation of the senses
  • Literary interpretations of any of these issues
  • Technologies of sound
  • Photography
  • Taste
  • Smell
  • Hysteria or neurasthenia and the senses
  • Miasma

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Searchlight

The mansion of the eighteenth century Earl had been changed in the twentieth century into a Club. And it was pleasant, after dining in the great room with the pillars and the chandeliers under a glare of light to go out on to the balcony overlooking the Park. The trees were in full leaf, and had there been a moon, one could have seen the pink and cream coloured cockades on the chestnut trees. But it was a moonless night; very warm, after a fine summer’s day.

Mr. and Mrs. Ivimey’s party were drinking coffee and smoking on the balcony. As if to relieve them from the need of talking, to entertain them without any effort on their part, rods of light wheeled across the sky. It was peace then; the air force was practising; searching for enemy aircraft in the sky. After pausing to prod some suspected spot, the light wheeled, like the wings of a windmill, or again like the antennae of some prodigious insect and revealed here a cadaverous stone front; here a chestnut tree with all its blossoms riding; and then suddenly the light struck straight at the balcony, and for a second a bright disc shoneperhaps it was a mirror in a ladies’ hand–bag.

“Look!” Mrs. Ivimey exclaimed.

The light passed. They were in darkness again

“You’ll never guess what THAT made me see! she added. Naturally, they guessed.

“No, no, no,” she protested. Nobody could guess; only she knew; only she could know, because she was the great–grand–daughter of the man himself. He had told her the story. What story? If they liked, she would try to tell it. There was still time before the play.

“But where do I begin?” she pondered. “In the year 1820? . . . It must have been about then that my greatgrandfather was a boy. I’m not young myself “—no, but she was very well set up and handsome—“and he was a very old man when I was a child—when he told me the story. A very handsome old man, with a shock of white hair, and blue eyes. He must have been a beautiful boy. But queer. . .. That was only natural,” she explained, “seeing how they lived. The name was Comber. They’d come down in the world. They’d been gentlefolk; they’d owned land up in Yorkshire. But when he was a boy only the tower was left. The house was nothing but a little farmhouse, standing in the middle of fields. We saw it ten years ago and went over it. We had to leave the car and walk across the fields. There isn’t any road to the house. It stands all alone, the grass grows right up to the gate . . . there were chickens pecking about, running in and out of the rooms. All gone to rack and ruin. I remember a stone fell from the tower suddenly.” She paused. “There they lived,” she went on, “the old man, the woman and the boy. She wasn’t his wife, or the boy’s mother. She was just a farm hand, a girl the old man had taken to live with him when his wife died. Another reason perhaps why nobody visited them—why the whole place was gone to rack and ruin. But I remember a coat of arms over the door; and books, old books, gone mouldy. He taught himself all he knew from books. He read and read, he told me, old books, books with maps hanging out from the pages. He dragged them up to the top of the tower—the rope’s still there and the broken steps. There’s a chair still in the window with the bottom fallen out; and the window swinging open, and the panes broken, and a view for miles and miles across the moors.”

She paused as if she were up in the tower looking from the window that swung open.

“But we couldn’t,” she said, “find the telescope.” In the dining–room behind them the clatter of plates grew louder. But Mrs. Ivimey, on the balcony, seemed puzzled, because she could not find the telescope.

“Why a telescope?” someone asked her.

“Why? Because if there hadn’t been a telescope,” she laughed, “I shouldn’t be sitting here now.”

And certainly she was sitting there now, a well set–up, middle–aged woman, with something blue over her shoulders.

“It must have been there,” she resumed, “because, he told me, every night when the old people had gone to bed he sat at the window, looking through the telescope at the stars. Jupiter, Aldebaran, Cassiopeia.” She waved her hand at the stars that were beginning to show over the trees. It was growing draker. And the searchlight seemed brighter, sweeping across the sky, pausing here and there to stare at the stars.

“There they were,” she went on, “the stars. And he asked himself, my great–grandfather—that boy: ‘What are they? Why are they? And who am I?’ as one does, sitting alone, with no one to talk to, looking at the stars.”

She was silent. They all looked at the stars that were coming out in the darkness over the trees. The stars seemed very permanent, very unchanging. The roar of London sank away. A hundred years seemed nothing. They felt that the boy was looking at the stars with them. They seemed to be with him, in the tower, looking out over the moors at the stars.

Then a voice behind them said:

“Right you are. Friday.”

They all turned, shifted, felt dropped down on to the balcony again.

“Ah, but there was nobody to say that to him,” she murmured. The couple rose and walked away.

“HE was alone,” she resumed. “It was a fine summer’s day. A June day. One of those perfect summer days when everything seems to stand still in the heat. There were the chickens pecking in the farm–yard; the old horse stamping in the stable; the old man dozing over his glass. The woman scouring pails in the scullery. Perhaps a stone fell from the tower. It seemed as if the day would never end. And he had no one to talk tonothing whatever to do. The whole world stretched before him. The moor rising and falling; the sky meeting the moor; green and blue, green and blue, for ever and ever.”

In the half light, they could see that Mrs. Ivimey was leaning over the balcony, with her chin propped on her hands, as if she were looking out over the moors from the top of a tower.

“Nothing but moor and sky, moor and sky, for ever and ever,” she murmured.

Then she made a movement, as if she swung something into position.

“But what did the earth look like through the telescope?” she asked.

She made another quick little movement with her fingers as if she were twirling something.

“He focussed it,” she said. “He focussed it upon the earth. He focussed it upon a dark mass of wood upon the horizon. He focussed it so that he could see . . . each tree . . . each tree separate . . . and the birds . . . rising and falling . . . and a stem of smoke . . . there . . . in the midst of the trees. . .. And then . . . lower . . . lower . . . (she lowered her eyes) . . . there was a house . . . a house among the trees . . . a farm–house . . . every brick showed . . . and the tubs on either side of the door . . . with flowers in them blue, pink, hydrangeas, perhaps. . . .” She paused . . . “And then a girl came out of the house . . . wearing something blue upon her head . . . and stood there . . . feeding birds . . . pigeons . . . they came fluttering round her. . .. And then . . . look. . . A man. . .. A man! He came round the corner. He seized her in his arms! They kissed . . . they kissed.”

Mrs. Ivimey opened her arms and closed them as if she were kissing someone.

“It was the first time he had seen a man kiss a woman—in his telescope—miles and miles away across the moors!”

She thrust something from her—the telescope presumably. She sat upright.

“So he ran down the stairs. He ran through the fields. He ran down lanes, out upon the high road, through woods. He ran for miles and miles, and just when the stars were showing above the trees he reached the house . . . covered with dust, streaming with sweat . . .. .”

She stopped, as if she saw him.

“And then, and then . . . what did he do then? What did he say? And the girl . . .” they pressed her.

A shaft of light fell upon Mrs. Ivimey as if someone had focussed the lens of a telescope upon her. (It was the air force, looking for enemy air craft.) She had risen. She had something blue on her head. She had raised her hand, as if she stood in a doorway, amazed.

“Oh the girl. . . . She was my—” she hesitated, as if she were about to say “myself.” But she remembered; and corrected herself. “She was my great–grand–mother,” she said.

She turned to look for her cloak. It was on a chair behind her.

“But tell us—what about the other man, the man who came round the corner?” they asked.

“That man? Oh, that man,” Mrs. Ivimey murmured, stooping to fumble with her cloak (the searchlight had left the balcony), “he I suppose, vanished.”

“The light,” she added, gathering her things about her, “only falls here and there.”

The searchlight had passed on. It was now focussed on the plain expanse of Buckingham Palace. And it was time they went on to the play.

Virginia Woolf


What crowd is this? what have we here! we must not pass it by;
A Telescope upon its frame, and pointed to the sky:
Long is it as a barber's pole, or mast of little boat,
Some little pleasure-skiff, that doth on Thames's waters float.

The Showman chooses well his place, 'tis Leicester's busy Square;
And is as happy in his night, for the heavens are blue and fair;
Calm, though impatient, is the crowd; each stands ready with the fee,
And envies him that's looking; - what an insight must it be!

Yet, Showman, where can lie the cause? Shall thy Implement have blame,
A boaster, that when he is tried, fails, and is put to shame?
Or is it good as others are, and be their eyes in fault?
Their eyes, or minds? or, finally, is yon resplendent vault?

Is nothing of that radiant pomp so good as we have here?
Or gives a thing but small delight that never can be dear?
The silver moon with all her vales, and hills of mightiest fame,
Doth she betray us when they're seen? or are they but a name?

Or is it rather that Conceit rapacious is and strong,
And bounty never yields so much but it seems to do her wrong?
Or is it, that when human Souls a journey long have had
And are returned into themselves, they cannot but be sad?

Or must we be constrained to think that these Spectators rude,
Poor in estate, of manners base, men of the multitude,
Have souls which never yet have risen, and therefore prostrate lie?
No, no, this cannot be;--men thirst for power and majesty!

Does, then, a deep and earnest thought the blissful mind employ
Of him who gazes, or has gazed? a grave and steady joy,
That doth reject all show of pride, admits no outward sign,
Because not of this noisy world, but silent and divine!

Whatever be the cause, 'tis sure that they who pry and pore
Seem to meet with little gain, seem less happy than before:
One after One they take their turn, nor have I one espied
That doth not slackly go away, as if dissatisfied.

William Wordsworth

When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer

When I heard the learn'd astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars

Walt Whitman

26th November

The final meeting of term will take place on Monday 26th November, from 7.30-9pm in the upstairs seminar room of Darwin College. We'll spend the first part of the session discussing our final astronomical texts:

And then we'll move to the dining hall to hear a musical arrangement of the Whitman poem (and other astronomical songs), have a glass of wine, and perhaps a mince pie or two...

All welcome!


Wednesday, November 07, 2007

12th November

On Monday 12th November we'll be reading To the Stars,by Leonid Andrieff (1905), especially act IV, as we continue our discussions about astronomy.

The most easily available English translation is by A. Goudiss, in Poet Lore, Winter 1907. You can find it by logging on to Periodicals Archive Online, and then searching under author "Andreieff". Copies are also in the Whipple Library boxfile for photocopying or reading. I have a pdf version if people would prefer - please contact me directly about this.

We meet as usual from 7.30-9pm in the upstairs seminar room at Darwin College.

See you then!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

29th October

Our next meeting will take place on Monday 29th October, from 7.30-9pm in the upstairs seminar room at Darwin College. Hopefully everyone can find the way there by now!

We'll leapfrog a few more centuries, and tackle two Victorian texts: Lee will introduce chapter 4 from Thomas Hardy's Two on a Tower (1882) and Kelley will introduce George Meredith's "Meditation under stars" (1888).

I hope the discussion goes well...

'Stranger than Fiction' podcast

Elizabeth Green Musselman, Associate Professor of History at Southwestern University, has recently launched the Missing Link podcast. The first topic she deals with is 'Stranger than Fiction': the ways that science fiction has drawn inspiration from planetary science. A slightly different take on our astronomical theme!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Her Husband: Hughes and Plath

Cambridge University Centre for Gender Studies presents:

Prof. DIANE MIDDLEBROOK in Conversation with Prof. Juliet Mitchell on her
award winning biography 'Her Husband: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, a

1-2.30pm, Wednesday 24th October
Jesus College, Upper Hall
Attendance is free and all are welcome!

Diane Middlebrook is Emeritus Professor of Literature at Stanford
University. Her latest book 'Her Husband', is a highly acclaimed account of
the marriage between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.

For more details on this, and all our events, visit:

Brecht and Wittgenstein workshop

Workshop, Saturday 13 October

"Brecht and Wittgenstein"

Location: Richard Eden Suite, West Court, Herschel Road, Cambridge

11am: Screening of "Galileo", based on Charles Laughton's 1947 adaptation
of Brecht's play, directed by Joseph Losey, starring John Gilgud, Tom Conti
and Chaim Topol.

Break and snacks

1:30pm: Discussion and Presentations by
Michael Nedo
Richard Raatzsch
Martin Kusch

Everyone welcome.

For more information contact Dr Richard Raatzsch (

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

15th October

We'll begin our discussions of Astronomers and Astronomy on Monday 15th October, with two literary classics:

  • Dante Alighieri, Purgatory (c. 1321), Canto 4 (Please select Edition Mandelbaum, Volume Purgatorio, Canto IV)

Due to the ongoing refurbishment works at Darwin College, I shall meet Reading Group attendees at 7.25pm outside the main entrance, to help negotiate the building site! The seminar runs from 7.30-9pm, after which we'll probably go for a drink in the College bar.

We hope to see you then!

Friday, September 28, 2007

Romanes Lecture

Professor Dame Gillian Beer will deliver the Romanes Lecture at 5.45 p.m. on Thursday, 8 November 2007 in the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford. Her lecture is entitled ‘Darwin and the Consciousness of Others’. The lecture is free to attend and open to all.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Workshop on Popular Science Books

Call For Contributors - Workshop on Popular Science Books

We are looking for contributors for a one-day event on popular science books to be held at Imperial College, London on 22nd Feb 2008. Literary critics, historians, writers, illustrators, publishers, prize-givers, reviewers, readers, booksellers, teachers (and others) are all invited to take part.

Contributors will be asked introduce a book, collection, theme, or popular science author, perhaps with a small extract, and use it to raise a topic for discussion in or about popular science.

Texts considered can be contemporary or historical, but should be something all participants can get an idea of quickly from the introduction; all important text must be in English. Participants will come from different backgrounds, so be prepared to share examples and speak to people from other fields.

Topics may include (but are not limited to):
* Criteria for a 'good' popular science book.
* The use of imagery and metaphor.
* History of Science.
* Illustrations, diagrams, graphics and design.
* Issues of culture and social class.
* Writing for children.
* Epistemology.
* Celebrity and popular science authorship.
* Marketing and publishing.
* Religion.
* Relationships between scientists and 'the public'.

We will conduct participatory workshops rather than following the traditional "papers and questions" model. You would have 30-45 minutes to lead a session, which means speaking about your example for approx. 15 minutes, then leading an open discussion on your topic.

If you are interested in contributing, please send us an outline of your presentation (500 words maximum) and a short bio (approx 200 words). The outline should list the source(s) you want to discuss, and preview the discussion topic your session would raise. Email this to by the 23rd November 2007.

Registration will not open until the programme is finalised in early December, but we can confirm that the cost will be £10 (includes lunch and refreshments) and it'll be held at Imperial College, South Kensington Campus, on Friday 22nd February 2008.

Further enquires to

Friday, August 10, 2007

Next term - astronomers and astronomy

Next term we will be reading about astronomers and astronomy. All the texts are available online; copies will also be placed in the Whipple Library box file. We meet on Mondays from 7.30-9pm in the upstairs seminar room of Darwin College.

All are welcome!

Organised by Daniel Friesner (Science Museum) and Melanie Keene (HPS).

15th October
  • Dante Alighieri, Purgatory (c. 1321), Canto 4 (Please select Edition Mandelbaum, Volume Purgatorio, Canto IV)
  • John Milton, Paradise Lost (1674), Book 8, lines 1-197

29th October

12th November
  • Leonid Andreieff, To the Stars (1905), especially Act IV. The most easily available English translation is by A. Goudiss, in Poet Lore, Winter 1907. You can find it by logging on to Periodicals Archive Online, and then searching under author "Andreieff".

26th November

We hope to see you in October!

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Mailing list

A reminder that we have a dedicated email list for the reading group: just let me know if you'd like to sign up!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Michaelmas 2007

Dates for next term's SLRG can now be confirmed as Mondays 15th and 29th October, and 12th and 26th November. We'll be meeting as usual from 7.30-9pm in the upstairs seminar room of Darwin College, and we'll be discussing astronomers and astronomy. More details soon...

Thursday, August 02, 2007

BSLS 2008

The Third Conference of the British Society for Literature and Science

Proposals for 20-minute papers are invited for the third annual conference of the British Society for Literature and Science. The conference will be held at Keele University, from 27–29 March 2008. Plenary speakers include Frank Close, OBE (Professor of Physics, Exeter College, Oxford), Steven Connor (Professor of Modern Literature and Theory, Birkbeck College, London), and Helen Small (Fellow in English, Pembroke College, Oxford).

Papers may address topics in the interactions of literature and science in any period and any languages. Presenters need not be based in UK institutions.

We also invite panel proposals for three papers of 20 minutes or four papers of 15 minutes; members of the panel should be drawn from more than one institution.

Please send an abstract of no more than 400 words and a 100-word biographical note (or in the case of a panel, abstracts and notes for each speaker) to, by 30 November 2007. Please send abstracts in the body of messages; do not use attachments. Alternatively, abstracts and proposals may be posted to Dr Sharon Ruston, School of Humanities, Keele University, Keele, Staffordshire, ST5 5BG, UK.

Please address any queries to Dr Sharon Ruston at the email or postal address above.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

4th June

Join us on Monday 4th June for a glass of wine, and for our final meeting of the academic year!

We'll be concluding our discussion of Pynchon's work with two extracts from Mason & Dixon (1997), pages 116-24 and 190-8, introduced by Nicky Reeves. As ever, photocopies of the set readings are available in the Whipple Library boxfile.

I hope to see you then!

Next year

Yes, it's that time again, when thoughts start to turn to future plans for the group. At our meeting on 4th June we'll be discussing ideas for themed readings (one current suggestion is the metaphysical poets). If you have any suggestions, would like to volunteer to help out with seminar organisation, or have a preference as to when and where we should hold the meetings then please do come along, or get in touch.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

21st May

Many thanks to everyone who came along last week for a great discussion of Against the Day. We might be beginning to get the measure of Pynchon...

Our seminars continue on Monday, 21st May, when Josh will be introducing one of Pynchon's short stories, 'Entropy', which is published in Slow Learner (1984) Boston: Little, Brown, pp. 79-98.

As usual, we meet in the upstairs seminar room of Darwin College from 7.30-9pm. See you then!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

A few comments for the discussion of "Against the Day"

If you have time before tomorrow night, you might like to take a look at Wikipedia's very well written entry on the Luminiferous Ether. Among other things, it contains a link to an article by Dirac, written in the 1950s, suggesting a version of electromagnetism in which something rather like an ether plays a role.

I'm interested in thinking about other examples in the same sort of category, theoretical constructs that were or are inferred toexist in order to solve some problem or explain some phenomenon,but which turned out, or may turn out, in fact not to exist.

An interesting modern example is the notion of "beables" or"elements of reality" that some theoretical physicists thinkare missing from quantum theory as currently formulated andrequired to make proper sense of the theory. (A "beable" is John Bell's term for something that can really be out there,as opposed to a quantum observable, which seems, at least in some interpretations of the theory, to require an observer to bring it into existence.)

Another modern example, perhaps, are superstrings (aka branes aka various other names). Yet another, arguably, is the idea of "qualia" or elementary sensations that some suppose might be fundamental objects in a theory of the conscious mind.

In all of these cases there's a great deal of popular interest, and many people who aren't professional physicists or philosophers or psychologists hold strong views one way or the
other. It'd be interesting to try to characterise what types of scientific question evoke
such passionate popular interest. (Though perhaps one should first query whether all
these questions can properly be characterised as purely scientific: is perhaps part of the key, in many cases, that they go beyond the scope of science, at least as presently understood?)

Pynchon's playful exploration of popular fascination with scientific ideas -- the
lightarians and their fricasse recipes, and so on -- reminded me a little of a
riff about fractals by Michael Kelly, which you can find at

Enough for now.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

14th May

Our next meeting will take place on Monday, 14th May, from 7.30-9pm in the upstairs seminar room of Darwin College. Adrian will be introducing the set reading, taken from Pynchon's latest book, Against the Day. The selected passage (pages 57-80) is available for photocopying in the Whipple Library box file, as usual. I hope to see you then!

Some of you may be interested to read the following reviews, available online, to get a sense of reactions to the book as a whole: London Review of Books, New Yorker, TLS, New York Times (many others are linked to here).

There is also further information available on Random House's Pynchon pages, including an Against the Day wiki, currently under construction, and a commentary on the extract we shall be reading.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Easter 2007

This term we will be reading the writings of Thomas Pynchon. Our discussions will focus on selected passages, detailed below, but if you have time then feel free to read more! Photocopied reading packs are available in the Whipple Library box file, and the books themselves are also held in many college and university libraries.

We meet on Mondays from 7.30-9pm in the upstairs seminar room of Darwin College: please note the slightly irregular scheduling this term to avoid bank holidays.

All are welcome!

30th April
Gravity's Rainbow (1973) London: Vintage, 2002, pp. 397-433

14th May
Against the Day (2006) London: Jonathan Cape, pp. 57-80

21st May
'Entropy', in Slow Learner (1984) Boston: Little, Brown, pp. 79-98

4th June
Mason & Dixon (1997) London: Jonathan Cape, pp. 116-24; 190-8

Reports of our meetings as well as links to further resources for each session will be posted on this blog - so remember to keep checking for updates!

'Wells, Science and Philosophy' conference

The H. G. Wells Society Annual Conference, Imperial College/Conway Hall,
London, 28-29 September 2007

Proposals for 20-minute papers, or for panels of 2-3 papers, are invited
for this year’s H. G. Wells Society Annual conference. The conference
will be hosted by both Imperial College, London (on the 28 September)
and by Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London (on the 29 September). The
first day of the event will include a plenary lecture by the science
fiction writer, Stephen Baxter.

The conference will focus on ‘Wells, Science and Philosophy’. Proposals
may centre on either Wells and science or Wells and philosophy
exclusively, or might examine the intersection of both science and
philosophy in the author’s work. Proposals might focus on, but are not
limited to: Wells and evolutionary biology; Wells and Physics; Wells and
Darwin/Huxley; Wells and Astronomy; Wells and Plato; Wells and

Proposals of 300 words should be submitted via email
attachment, no late than June 11 2007. Please include a brief
biographical note, and send proposals with ‘Wells, Science and
Philosophy’ as the subject, to Dr Steven McLean.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Re:Design - Darwin letters on stage

The Darwin Correspondence Project is delighted to announce the
premiere of Re:Design, a dramatisation of letters exchanged by
Charles Darwin and Asa Gray.

This is Darwin as a human being, rather than an icon, and is
powerful stuff. The drama uses entirely Darwin's own words and
those of his correspondents taken from the letters and from
reminiscences. It includes Darwin and Asa Gray's private
discussion of design in nature and the relationship of science and
religion, and has been commissioned as part of a project on Darwin
and religion to include a web resource, the first stage of which will
go live later this month on the Darwin Correspondence site. There
will be a podcast about the drama on the Apple i-Tunes site, our
own site, and the Cambridge Science Festival site.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Carlos Williams Recap

The last session of term witnessed a great discussion of two short stories (or were they prose poems?) by William Carlos Williams.

Robin introduced our texts by giving some fascinating backgound on Williams, from his polylingual New Jersey upbringing, to his medical training, his travels in Europe, and his friendship with figures such as Ezra Pound. As an MD, Williams practiced during the Depression in East Rutherford, particularly treating inhabitants of poor immigrant communities. Apparently he loved the opportunity medical encounters gave to hear people's stories (as do we!).

Daniel kicked off the discussion by reflecting on the uncomfortable sense of the doctor character's own feelings and responses to his patients conveyed in the two texts: his lack of control, in particular, appeared to be a new feature of the stories we have been discussing this term, and a reason why Daniel had chosen them to conclude our series of readings. We thought about this unease in relation to the ideas of empathy which have recurred throughout our meetings this term: are we to empathise with the emotions and psychological state of the doctor, just as he is asked to empathise with his patients?

Simon commented on the elision of the doctor's and writer's role(s) in these texts, and asked if these sit comfortably together? We thought back to previous considerations of the appropriate nature of the short story genre for writing about medicine, this time in relation to the taking, and writing up, of case histories. We also noted that Williams' choice of not including speech marks meant the narrative slipped between his words and thoughts, as they often merged together. One extraordinary passage towards the end of 'The Use of Force' complicated rage and reason, changing from 'I' to 'one'; from the enfuried exclamation 'damned little brat' to the rationalising 'It is social necessity'.

We thought about the how the tales were structured around moments of insight, most concretely in the violent revelation of the girl's diphtheria-ridden throat.

As in the Hemingway piece, we noted the choices of language made by Williams, particularly how he draws our attention to eyes and mouths in the texts. We discussed how his paediatrician's gaze seemed to inform the descriptions of the children in the stories: his narrator is very aware of the bodies of the often overtly animal creatures he is treating. Did this make for uneasy reading? I particularly loved the description of the pimply-faced girl's father as a 'cube'!

We concluded that the literary quality of this term's readings has been very high - and thanked Daniel again for his help with their selection. Hopefully next term's focus on Pynchon can deliver just as good a prognosis of the relationships between science and literature!

Monday, March 12, 2007

Wednesday, February 28, 2007


I'm thinking of organising a Group visit to see the ADC production of Copenhagen on Thursday 8th March - send me an email if you're interested in coming along!

Melanie (mjk32)

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A preview for Easter term

An advance announcement that next term we will be reading a selection of writings by the elusive Thomas Pynchon:

Gravity’s Rainbow (London: Vintage, 2000 (1973)), especially pp. 397–433.

Against the Day (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006), especially pp. 57–80.

‘Entropy’, in Slow Learner (Boston: Little Brown, 1984), pp. 79–98.

Mason & Dixon (London: Jonathan Cape, 1997), especially pp. 116–24, 190–8.

Meetings are provisionally scheduled for Mondays 30th April, 14th and 21st May, and 4th June: I will confirm this soon.

Science on Stage

Former member of the Science and Literature Reading Group, Kirsten Shepherd-Barr had just published a book on Science on Stage: From Doctor Faustus to Copenhagen. Details of the book are available on the Princeton University Press website, as well as the first chapter.

12th March

Our final meeting of Lent term will conclude our whistle-stop tour of medical short stories with two tales by William Carlos Williams. Robin will introduce ‘The Girl with a Pimply Face’ and ‘The Use of Force’, which can be found at the end of the photocopied packs in the Group’s boxfile (in the Whipple Library). See you at Darwin College at 7.30pm!

Literature and Science under the Microscope

Blog readers might be interested in the discussion which has been taking place on the BSLS website analysing the 'state of the union', as Martin Willis terms it, of literature and the sciences.

Hemingway recap

Thanks to the many new faces who made it along to the group this week! We hope to see you again soon.

Simon Crowhurst brought along some wonderful pictures of a bearded, bull-fighting, and lion-slaying ‘Papa’ Hemingway.

He also introduced the session with a detailed biography of Hemingway, and demonstrated how many elements from his life could be traced in his writings - I particularly liked the extract from the Kansas City Star ‘style guide’ for reporters’ writings!

In our discussion we reflected on this craft of Hemingway's story-telling: his spare, lean style, a lightness of touch giving just enough information to evoke a certain sense of place. As in the last meeting, we reflected on whether these stories represented 'real' encounters between doctors and patients: a particular miscommunication over the units of temperature; a visit to a Native American encampment with his doctor father. And doctors and patients were just one of the many dualities we saw employed in the stories' prose: the hot and fevered boy and the cold, bright, icy day; the male group of visitors to the female in labour; the father and child; knowledge and misunderstanding or fear; childbirth and suicide.

When discussing 'A Day's Wait' we returned to questions of authority, mapping shiftings in the text between the empirical authority of the narrator, and the medico-scientific authority of the doctor. We thought about ideas of heroism and machismo in relation to the child's stoic response to his 'fatal' temperature, and his implicit comparison to characters in Pirates book from which his father reads, and also in the light of Hemingway's own activities, ideas, and identity.

We explored Hemingway's use of the bodies of his characters, particularly of pairs of hands and eyes in 'Indian Camp' (itself written through Nick's eyes), noting what is seen and unseen, touched and not touched, and discussing ideas about contact, exclusion and knowledge. We also thought about particularly Native American themes – from the Mayflower imagery of the opening journey to the significance of blankets and initiation rites.

As ever, our conversation ranged widely, from the imagery of surgical warfare (the 'strike')
to Stygian crossings, but, I have to say, my personal highlight was learning how best to tackle a hungry crocodile (offer it an arm)...

We hope you can join us next time for another stimulating meeting!

Saturday, February 24, 2007

26th February

At our next meeting Simon will introduce a discussion of two of Hemingway's short stories:

An Indian Camp


A Day's Wait

All are welcome!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Kafka recap

John Hart introduced our discussion of the surreal 'A Country Doctor' by reflecting on Kafka’s relationship with his body, and with the recurring themes and metaphors of illness, doctors, and death in his writings. We thought about sickness as writing on and through the body; and as a form of artistic expression itself. As story-telling as a way of saying something about what medicine or illness is.

Other connections that might be of interest to blog readers include the following review of a theatrical version of the story, as reported in the New York Times of April 16, 1986, as well as R. Crumb's Kafka (of which John brought along a copy), a graphic novelisation of Kafka's life and works - well worth a look!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

12th February

Next Monday we continue our theme of medical short stories with Kafka's 'A Country Doctor'.

This can be found in the photocopied reading packs in the Whipple Library, or online.

John will be introducing the works, and has suggested that those with some extra time read the following Kafka texts for comparisons/insights/fun (!):

'The Hunger Artist'

'In the Penal Colony'


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Reading Natural Sciences

Students at Cambridge read for a degree in Natural Sciences, yet many scientists often feel they don’t really get to or know how to read at all. Conversely, budding literary scholars may have become convinced that they don’t understand, or can’t do science. But does this have to be the case? Can reading bring science and literature together? Melanie Keene introduces the Cambridge Science and Literature Reading Group.

The Science and Literature Reading Group, jointly organised by the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, and the Department of English, Communication, Film and Media at Anglia Ruskin University, hopes to challenge some of the preconceived boundaries, barriers, and differences between academic disciplines by providing a forum in which diverse specialists can come together over a common interest in texts and the sciences. During informal discussions over themed readings, post-meeting drinks in Darwin College bar, and occasional trips to appropriate theatricals, we explore connected ways of investigating these subjects, stressing and assessing the importance of interdisciplinary interactions.

In recent years, termly themes tackled by the Group have ranged over genres and time periods, from analysing the written conventions of up-to-the-minute internet journalism to the ‘nature of’ poetic Lucretian philosophy. Alongside Lawrence Durrell we have interpreted the ‘Space and Time marriage’ as ‘the greatest Boy meets Girl story of the age’; worked out how to fit all the animals inside Noah’s ark via John Wilkins’ literary technologies; travelled to the Blazing World with Margaret Cavendish, and to two-dimensional Flatland with Edwin Abbott Abbott; shared Edgar Allan Poe’s whirligig Eureka moment; entered the amazing Mind of a Mnemonist; learnt geological history from the talking trilobites of a fakir’s remembered reincarnations; spied strange creatures inhabiting the moon through a South African telescope; and used the shipping forecast as a seduction technique, After Darwin. Along the way we have encountered writings by canonical literary figures (Robert Browning), renowned characters from the history of science (Humphry Davy), and classic works of ‘science and literature’ (Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia), as well as uncovering the more obscure outposts of this inter-discipline (namely the immensely silly play Fermat’s Last Tango).

Despite the relationship perhaps implied by the ordering of the Group’s title, we try not to look for a simple one way traffic from scientific practice to its ‘diffusion’ in contemporary literature. Rather, one aim of the Group is to help rethink these categories of ‘science’ and ‘literature’ themselves, especially in relation to past times and cultures, when such alignments often make little sense. Not just choosing to read poetry and fiction that includes scientific ideas, therefore, we also take the language of the sciences, their theories, terminologies, models and metaphors seriously as forms of literature; analysing, for example, the manner in which a scientific journal article is and was written. We have an ongoing fascination with the series of metaphors used when discussing how these disciplines interact, whether they be via ‘open fields’, membranes, tentacles, parasites, sympathies, encounters, mappings, interweavings, or, perhaps most appropriately for the format of the Group, conversations.

Such broader motivations underpin our fortnightly meetings, which usually begin with a brief introduction, before we attack the set readings from a number of angles. Whilst no-one in the room is usually an authority on a particular text, we can draw on a stellar array of expertise and insights; only last week, representatives of quantum theory, literature, psychology, the earth sciences, pathology, and the history of science contributed to an enhanced understanding of Chekhov’s short stories about doctors. In these ways, anyone who attends the group will leave with at least one nugget of novel information, or a shifted perspective, to take back to the library or the lab, be it on topics as diverse as the clinical symptoms of TB, conceptions of the narrative structure of disease, techniques of analysing formal prose structures, or the mythic story of Cupid and Psyche.

As someone who once wrote a poem about beryllium, and an essay on the chemical properties of water from the perspective of a penguin named Penelope, for me the Group provides a wonderful way of encouraging creative relationships and quite literal dialogue between members of a range of academic departments, whom I have long suspected can learn a lot from each other. A few years ago I was one of those students reading Natural Sciences, and now I can appreciate how, in the words of Muriel Rukeyser, “the universe is made up of stories, not of atoms.” Maybe you can too.

(This will appear in the Cambridge BlueSci magazine later this year.)

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Chekhov recap

"Medicine is my lawful wife and literature my mistress; when I get tired of one, I spend the night with the other"

So said Anton Chekhov. Many thanks to all who came along and participated in last night’s fascinating discussion of ‘Anyuta’ and ‘A Doctor’s Visit’ – a wonderful way to start the term! A warm welcome to the new faces, too – we hope you’ll be able to join us again next time.

Daniel Friesner gave a fabulous introduction to Chekhov’s life and the two short stories, and by summarising a series of critical responses to the texts provided a great basis for the following wide-ranging discussion.

Particular points of interest that were raised, and possible themes to thread throughout the term's reading, included:

-the suitability of the short story genre for writings about medicine: stories are ranged in volumes of prose like patients in a waiting room; they also share the necessity of coming to understand character, history and ailments in a very limited time-span, and of achieving some sort of resolution.

-ideas of empathy and sympathy in the doctor-patient relationship - the detachment of the medical gaze contrasted with the necessity of sharing the patient's perspective. We also discussed how literature such as these stories are used in medical education in part to impart these qualities to students.

-the use of mythic structures and allusion in the stories: Psyche in ‘Anuyta’; ‘A Doctor’s Visit’ as a journey to the underworld; Liza’s conception of herself as a figure in a well-known contemporary poem.

-the narrative structure of illness itself.

See you next time for Kafka!

Friday, January 26, 2007

BSLS Birmingham

The programme for the BSLS conference in March is now up on the website: both myself and Katy as well as former SLRG member Liliane Campos will be speaking - we'd love to see you there!

Monday, January 22, 2007

Literary Genres of Science and Medicine

Dear All,

The 12th International Enlightenment Congress will be held in Montpelier this year from 8 to 15 July (

The deadline for panel proposals (in the form of a workshop or roundtable) is rapidly approaching. I am presently organising an English language panel on ‘Literary Genres of Science and Medicine’ and I am looking for one or two more papers. The session will address the literary form, content and/or circulation of printed or manuscript texts associated with the Enlightenment natural history (including chemistry) and/or medicine. Papers that address (1) note-taking skills, (2) the numeric or descriptive arrangement of data (including tablature or illustrations), (3) narrative structures relevant to patient histories or scientifically-related journeys, (4) editorial processes and/or (5) publication strategies are especially welcome. Inquiries and proposals (no more than 500 words) may be sent to me at Proposals will need to arrive no later than 1 February 2007.

Yours Sincerely,

Dr Matthew D Eddy
Department of Philosophy, University of Durham, 50 Old Elvet, DH1 3HN, United

Monday, January 15, 2007

29th January

We will start the new year and the new term on Monday 29th January with our first short stories about doctors:

Anton Chekhov, "Anyuta" (1886) and "A Doctor's Visit" (1898)

Follow the links for online versions, or go to the Whipple Library and the Science and Literature Reading Group boxfile for paper copies.

I hope to see you at Darwin College at 7.30pm!