Friday, January 29, 2010

Cabinet of Natural History talk

On Monday 1st February, Kelley Swain will present a talk on "Beale, Bennett, Scoresby (and Melville!): a 'natural' history of cetology".

As always, the Cabinet will meet at 1pm in HPS seminar room 1. All are welcome, and free to bring lunch.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Poetry Live for Haiti

A fundraising event for the people of Haiti presented by Carol Ann Duffy and Poetry Live
Carol Ann Duffy Andrew Motion Roger McGough
John Agard Dannie Abse Brian Patten
Gillian Clarke Imtiaz Dharker Grace Nichols
Elaine Feinstein Daljit Nagra Ian Duhig
Lachlan Mackinnon Owen Sheers Glyn Maxwell
Jo Shapcott Robin Robertson Colette Bryce
Maura Dooley Robert Minhinnick
plus musicians John Sampson and Andy Roberts

Saturday 30 January 2010, 2.30pm
Westminster Central Hall
Tickets are £10.

Telephone 01497 822629 or go to
Tickets will be available at the door on the day for cash only.
All proceeds will go to the Disasters Emergency Committee's Haiti Earthquake Appeal.

This event has been made possible thanks to the huge generosity of the Guardian Hay Festival, Westminster Central Hall, Eclipse Sound & Light and Goldring Security.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Coral Thief

Former Reading Group member Rebecca Stott's new novel The Coral Thief is out now! For further details see here.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

1st February

We shall meet, as usual, from 7.30-9pm in room G03 of the Mary Allan Building, Homerton College. We continue our explorations of alchemy and chemistry with Honoré de Balzac's La Recherche de l'absolu (1834). This has been translated into English at least three times: by William Robson as Balthazar; or, Science and Love (1859), by Katharine Prescott Wormeley as The Alkahest: or, The House of Claës (1887), and by Ellen Marriage as The Quest of the Absolute (1895). We will use the Ellen Marriage translation, as this is the cheapest one to buy in paperback reprint.  Various texts are also available online from Google Books, Internet Archive, and Project Gutenberg. Alternatively, I shall put my copy of the book in the Whipple Library box-file from Monday 25th for reading in the library.

All welcome!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Review - Ortolano, 'The Two Cultures Controversy'

Guy Ortolano. The Two Cultures Controversy: Science, Literature, and Cultural Politics in Postwar Britain. Cambridge Cambridge University Press, 2009. xi + 295 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-89204-9.

Reviewed by Peter Mandler
Published on H-Albion (January, 2010)
Commissioned by Thomas Hajkowski

The Two Cultures

The controversy between C. P. Snow and F. R. Leavis over the "two cultures" was not just another round in the eternal ding-dong between the claims of science and the claims of literature. What gave it its resonance--some of which it still just about retains in the early twenty-first century--was, as Guy Ortolano shows in this subtle and illuminating book, its rough congruence with key disagreements within English liberalism at a very crucial moment for liberalism in the late 1950s and early 1960s (that is, just "before the deluge" of the later 1960s and afterward which greatly polarized society and politics). Ortolano starts by pointing out some surprising similarities between Leavis and Snow. Both were upwardly mobile from provincial lower middle-class backgrounds, Leavis the son of a Cambridge shopkeeper, Snow the son of a Leicester clerk. Both were fierce critics of the old British Establishment and equally fierce defenders of meritocracy. Both mistrusted equality and sought to generate an intellectual elite in their own image. But they differed radically on their diagnoses of contemporary civilization, and on what kind of elite was needed. Snow was essentially an optimist, a champion of the forces of modernization--scientific, technical, economic--that he saw transforming and improving not only his own society but also those of others around the world. Leavis was a deep-dyed pessimist, a mordant observer of a moral and cultural decline that he thought had set in as far back as the seventeenth century, and had then been radically aggravated by the Industrial Revolution. To him, "modern civilization" was practically a contradiction in terms, and his intellectual elite could probably never be other than a saving remnant, tending the guttering flame of true civilization that still shone in great books and exemplary lives.

Ortolano sketches these two worldviews--perhaps a little too ingeniously, by focusing on Snow's novels and Leavis's attitudes to science--and then shows in the four core chapters of the book how their conflict highlights changing sensibilities at the dawn of the 1960s. In the years while the university world was "waiting for Robbins"--that is, just before the explicit governmental embrace of a rapid expansion of higher education--both Snow and Leavis cultivated nurseries at Cambridge (Snow at the new foundation, Churchill College, Leavis from his personal base at Downing College), not only to breed the new elites they thought necessary either to advance or to stymie modernization but also to help them to enunciate the very meaning of a university. Both the Churchill and the Downing English experiments were drowned or at least diluted by the Robbins deluge that followed. Intellectually, both Snow and Leavis adumbrated a particular interpretation of English social history: Snow's a "scientific" variety, exemplified by Peter Laslett and the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, though he valued this work instrumentally to the extent that it supported his own triumphalist account of social progress; Leavis's a romantic-critical variety, which to his disappointment would in the 1960s be taken up principally by Marxists who otherwise proved unpleasant bedfellows. Most importantly, both Snow and Leavis addressed directly one of the most heated arguments of the late 1950s and early 1960s, over the nature and sources of English economic "decline." Unsurprisingly, Snow was one of the principal promoters in Britain of the modernization program of Kennedy liberals like W. W. Rostow, whose influential "non-Communist manifesto," _The Stages of Economic Growth_ (1960), took Britain's Industrial Revolution as a model and proposed to broadcast it throughout the world. Snow had no difficulty fitting this up for domestic consumption, attempting to reignite the engines of British industrialization with doses of state action--investment in new technologies and, again, new scientific elites--in the brief heyday of Harold Wilson's "white heat," though also following Rostow in recommending industrialization to the developing world, in his view a "modern" alternative to the agrarianism and paternalism of the old imperial ethos. Leavis, of course, was not much bothered by economic decline--he thought "modernization" the problem rather than the solution--and intriguingly contributed something of the New Left's cultural relativism (and perhaps even some of its environmentalism) by scorning the idea that the lives of Congolese or Indonesians would be in any way ameliorated by "increasing supplies of jam" (p. 211).

The payoff comes in the final chapter when Ortolano shows how in their different ways both Leavis and Snow were devastated by the rise of egalitarianism and relativism in the 1960s. Their educational experiments were both out of step with the Robbins generation, though both left their marks. Snow's political career capsized when he failed to be able to explain why he had to send his own son to Eton. Both of these rugged individualists were soured by what they took to be the indiscipline and frivolity of youth. Their trajectories
towards the end of their lives are highly revealing. Though Ortolano does not make much of this, the rapid polarization of the socialist and the liberal elements in the Labour coalition during the 1970s highlights how tenuous had been their coexistence pact. Had he lived long enough, Snow would surely have left with the SDP split and probably ended up amongst the American neoconservatives to whom, as Ortolano neatly reveals, he had long been close. Snow, at least, had a liberal mainstream to return to; Leavis was left high and dry. The odd parallelisms that organize Ortolano's book break down here because Leavis's thought was simply too idiosyncratic to flow neatly into one of the main currents of social and political thought. As
Ortolano can and does argue, many of Leavis's romantic-critical motifs fed into the New Left--his influence on Richard Hoggart, E. P. Thompson, Stuart Hall, and especially Raymond Williams is given due attention here--but not in ways that Leavis would have recognized as Leavisite. It would perhaps have been better to uncomplicate the argument and admit that Leavis was most himself not when social or political but when literary. That is to say, the "two cultures controversy" was not only about "science and literature," but also about science and about literature, and Ortolano's argument would have been less neat but more complete had he allotted more space to Leavis's specifically literary self-positioning.

Yet even this cul-de-sac indicates one of the signal virtues of this book, which is that it captures a pregnant moment in the history of ideas--around 1960--in all its momentariness. In some respects that moment accelerates trends, in others it mashes and recombines them, in still others it confronts them with unhappy endings. History is messy like that. Ortolano's book conveys that moment of agonized contingency beautifully, making sense enough out of it that the non-specialist can connect his particular material to some of the big
stories of postwar British history--democratization, modernization, decolonization, and "decline"--while generally resisting the temptation to make more sense than the material will bear. This is an exceptionally thoughtful, and thought-provoking, work from which (truly) every modern British historian will learn something fresh and useful.

Citation: Peter Mandler. Review of Ortolano, Guy, _The Two Cultures Controversy: Science, Literature, and Cultural Politics in Postwar Britain_. H-Albion, H-Net Reviews. January, 2010.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commonsq Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

This term's Evolution Reading Group

Science and Literature Reading Group members might be interested in attending some of the HPS department's Evolution Reading Group meetings this term - especially the following seminars on a novel Charles Darwin read whilst an Edinburgh student, and on poetry from Ruth Padel and our very own Kelley Swain:

21st January
Horace Smith, Brambletye House:or, Cavaliers and Roundheads, 3 vols, 3rd ed. (London: Colburn, 1826), chapters XI-XIII, pp. 97-128. Available on Google Books.

4th February
Kelley Swain, Darwin's Microscope (Flambard Press, 2009), poems 'Fossil Memories', 'Towards Perfection', 'Tectonic Motion', 'Spherical Motion'; Ruth Padel, Darwin: A Life in Poems (Chatto & Windus, 2009), chapter 2, 'Journey'.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Herschel Trio - Astronomy, Biography and Music

Whipple Museum of the History of Science, Free School Lane, Cambridge

Featuring a talk from Michael Hoskin, a reading from Kelley Swain, and performances of William Herschel's oboe concerto in Eb and a trio sonata.

Wednesday February 3rd 2010, 6-9pm

Tickets are free but must be reserved via HPS reception on 01223 330906.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Oxford Literature and Science Seminar - Hilary Term 2010

Friday, 12 February at 2 pm
Dr. Carina Bartleet (Dept of English, Oxford Brookes University)
"Faustian Anatomies: Punchdrunk's Natural Philosophy of Dis-Memberment"

Friday, 26 February at 2 pm
Professor Peter Middleton (Dept of English, University of Southampton)
"The Poetics of Inquiry: American Poetry and Science in the Cold War"

All seminars will take place in St Catherine's College, the Arumugam Building (go to the top floor above the Lodge)

Event 2 - Theories and Methods: Literature, Science and Medicine

After a hugely successful first event (see the student blogs in the social space for reports and diaries from this event), application forms are now online for the second event in our AHRC doctoral training programme ‘Theories and Methods: Literature, Science and Medicine’.

This event will take place from 25-27th March at the Wellcome Library, King’s College, London, and the Royal College of Surgeons. More details and the programme are available on our website. There will be 20 places awarded, with bursaries for accommodation and travel.

If you have not done so, please do register for the LitSciMed social space by emailing Cristina da Costa ( Here you will see discussion topics accompanying the training programme, plus blog postings, films of lectures, audio recordings and other learning resources for students working on topics that combine literature, science and medicine.  

Applications for event 2 must be submitted by Monday 1st February.

18th January

Join us from 7.30-9pm in a slightly different venue - room G03 in the Mary Allan Building, Homerton College - for the first Science and Literature Reading Group meeting of term.

We begin our exploration of alchemy and chemistry with: selections from Elias Ashmole (ed.), Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum (London: 1652). Reprinted as No. 39 of The Sources of Science by Johnson Reprint Corporation, New York & London, 1967.  This is available online at (Note that pp. 281-288 are misnumbered in the printed text.)  We will look at  "Pearce the Black Monke upon the Elixir" (pp. 269-274) "The Breviary of Naturall Philosophy.  Compiled by the unlettered Scholar Thomas Charnock" (pp. 291-303 in the printed text; 287-303 online) "The Vision of Sr George Ripley" (pp. 374)

All welcome!

Thursday, January 07, 2010

CFP – Language as a Scientific Tool

Language as a Scientific Tool. Managing Language as a Variable of Practice and Presentation

Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna, 29th-30th November 2010


Institute for Culture Studies and History of Theatre, Austrian Academy of Sciences

Working Group “History of Science”, History Department, University of Vienna

Department of Political Science and Sociology, European University at St. Petersburg

English and German Departments, University of Granada


Language has played an important and extended role in the history and philosophy of sciences, with language itself also becoming the subject of scholarship. Linguistic environments of scientists have unavoidably affected scientific research at various levels by, for instance, imposing cultural constraints and preconceptions, and by affecting the bounds of communication that structure science as social engagement. Despite the relevance of this phenomenon, insufficient historiographical and philosophical consideration has been paid to scientists' own thoughts on language as the essential medium of their practice, and as a malleable element that can be shaped to suit their goals.

The aim of this conference is, thus, to consider the history of language as an object of scientific concern, whether for epistemological or semantic reasons, stemming from scientists' understanding of language as a tool for conceptualising the world, from concerns on successfully communicating within the scientific community among specialists or merely between scientists and the general public. In either case the examination of the historical circumstances that have motivated such reflection appear paramount.

Language can also be considered as a consciously modelled tool for achieving definite scientific and political goals. Indeed, Bacon began his natural philosophy explicitly criticising scholastic ideas on language, which for him obscured nature instead of clarifying it. Therefore, it seemed to him that language had to be reformed and properly redefined to serve in the natural philosophic endeavour. Locke gave specific attention to language as a prior question to setting an epistemological basis to natural philosophy, in turn enforcing a separation between word and meaning that put natural philosophers in direct control over their language. This revolution in language was also one of the key points of the new science hailed by members of Royal Society such as John Wilkins, who was appointed a treatise on a new philosophical and universal language. Other voices argued that gaining explicit control over language was the only way to free it from past misconceptions. The claim that science needed to formulate a theory of language able to underwrite scientists' epistemic activity recurs right up until logical positivism.

At the same time, the Renaissance witnessed the struggle between Latin and the vernacular languages as means for the written codification of knowledge. From a dominant and hegemonic position, Latin gradually ceased being the only appropriate means for learned discourse, the vernaculars taking its place. Then, language critics displayed diverse arguments intertwining language with politics. In Germany, for instance, the main argument in linguistic change at the universities was the need of the introduction of a “new science” requiring a language distinct from scholastic Latin (Christian Wolff, Christian Thomasius), and thus not pervaded with scholastic ideas.

This conference focuses on the question of how the process of linguistic change was effected, perceived, and conducted by scientists. From the field of philosophical discussions, to the field of “language in use”, it is possible to pose crucial questions such as the following:

  • • How has science sought to manage language through philosophical conceptions or rhetorical techniques to obtain particular goals, epistemic or otherwise? To what extent have scientists engaged in linguistic argumentation to criticize competing paradigms?
  • • Has language been considered to be perfectly manageable? How have influences from e.g. other languages been coped with? Can it be said that linguistic purism relates only to alien words, or also to changing reality such as technology or geographical discoveries?
  • • How has the communication of science been discussed in relation to both the existing world” and the learned community? Has science been seen as corresponding more accurately with the “reality” (following Herder) if written in the national language of a community? How has the communication of discoveries with other scientists been perceived if this was the case? Which were the points of conflict between perfect translatability and innate and unique features of natural languages in thisrespect?
  • • In what contexts have issues of language been raised and to what ends? Is it a purely philosophically-driven debate for the purpose of articulating science, or are political and social factors (co)responsible for the crises of languages commonly used in the past?
  • • Who were the actors of linguistic change? Did scientists/natural philosophers play only a minor role, or did the impulses and crises of used languages come from other sources?
  • • Did scientists try to develop their own definitions of language as competing with philosophical ones? How did the endeavors for perfection of language differ among different groups?

Postgraduates are particularly encouraged to submit proposals for twenty-minute papers.

The language of the conference is English. The organizers plan to publish a selection of papers from this conference.

Please e-mail 300-word abstracts or proposals with a brief CV to Rocío Sumillera: by Monday, March 1st 2010.

Further contacts:

Johannes Feichtinger (Institute for Culture Studies and History of Theatre, Austrian Academy of Sciences):

Miles MacLeod (Konrad Lorenz Institut, Vienna):

Ekaterina Smirnova (Department of Political Science and Sociology, European University at St. Petersburg):

Jan Surman (History Department, University of Vienna / Center for Austrian Studies, University of Minnesota):

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Lent Term 2010

This term we will focus on alchemy and chemistry, reading an array of texts from different genres and time periods. We meet fortnightly on Monday evenings, from 7.30-9pm, in a new venue: room MAB G03 at Homerton College. Readings are detailed below, and photocopied packs will be made available from the Group boxfile in the Whipple Library from the beginning of term. Organised by Daniel Friesner (Science Museum) and Melanie Keene (Homerton College). For updates, further information and relevant news listings please see this blog; email Melanie to join our dedicated mailing list. All welcome!

18th January

Selections from Elias Ashmole (ed.), Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum (London: 1652).
Reprinted as No. 39 of The Sources of Science by Johnson Reprint Corporation, New York & London, 1967.  Available online at (Note that pp. 281-288 are misnumbered in the printed text.)  We will look at  "Pearce the Black Monke upon the Elixir" (pp. 269-274) "The Breviary of Naturall Philosophy.  Compiled by the unlettered Scholar Thomas Charnock" (pp. 291-303 in the printed text; 287-303 online) "The Vision of Sr George Ripley" (pp. 374)

1st February

Honoré de Balzac, La Recherche de l'absolu (1834).
This has been translated into English at least three times: by William Robson as Balthazar; or, Science and Love (1859), by Katharine Prescott Wormeley as The Alkahest: or, The House of Claës (1887), by Ellen Marriage as The Quest of the Absolute (1895). We will use the Ellen Marriage translation, as this is the cheapest one to buy in paperback reprint.  Various texts are also available online from google books, Internet Archive, and Project Gutenberg.

15th February

Primo Levi, L'altrui mestiere (1985).  Translated by Raymond Rosenthal as Other People's Trades.  Michael Joseph Ltd, London, 1989. This is a collection of short essays, which originally appeared in
the Turin newspaper La Stampa.  We will look at "The Mark of the Chemist" (pp. 86-90), "The Language of Chemists (I)" (pp. 100-105), "The Language of Chemists (II)" (pp. 106-110), "Ex-Chemist" (pp. 174-176)

in conjunction with two chapters from Oliver Sacks' memoir, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001). Reprinted by Picador, London, 2002. Chapter 7, "Chemical Recreations" (pp. 67-76) Chapter 8, "Stinks and Bangs" (pp. 77-90)

1st March

Tony Harrison, Square Rounds.  Faber and Faber, London, 1992.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Anthology - Climate Change Poetry

Feeling the Pressure - Poetry and science of climate change 
This anthology of poems and scientific texts concerned with climate change was edited by Paul Munden and published by the British Council Switzerland in February 2008. It is available to download as a pdf here.

Bibliography of Physics and Literature

Katy Price, erstwhile organiser of the Science and Literature Reading Group, has compiled an extremely helpful bibliography of works relating to (mainly) twentieth-century physics and literature. It's available on her blog here.

Opera - Three Tales

Music by Steve Reich; Film by Beryl Korot

11pm, Wed 17th - Sat 20th Feb 2010, The ADC Theatre, Cambridge

Rubbish Productions with Ensemble BPM
“The human body is extremely limited. I would love to upgrade myself.” (Kevin Warwick)

Three Tales is a documentary digital video opera that recalls three events of significant social and scientific importance from the early, middle and late 20th century: the crash of the Hindenburg Zeppelin, the nuclear bomb testings at Bikini atoll, and the cloning of Dolly the Sheep. Through a rich tapestry of live opera and moving image, each of these reflects on the growth and implications of technology during the 20th century from early air transport to the current ethical debate on artificial intelligence and the future of our species.
Set to music by one of the greatest living composers, the Three Tales are told from various perspectives, with speech culled from interviews with eyewitnesses, audiovisual documentary material of both the Hindenburg and Bikini tragedies, and experts in computer science (Marvin Minsky), artificial intelligence (Rodney Brooks), Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and genetic engineering (Richard Dawkins).