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!