Monday, December 15, 2014

Play - Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer, by Tom Morton-Smith

Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
15 January - 7 March 2015

1939: fascism spreads across Europe, Franco marches on Barcelona and two German chemists discover the processes of atomic fission. In Berkeley, California, theoretical physicists recognise the horrendous potential of this new science: a weapon that draws its power from the very building blocks of the universe. The ambitious and charismatic J Robert Oppenheimer finds himself uniquely placed to spearhead the largest scientific undertaking in all of human history.

Struggling to cast off his radical past and thrust into a position of power and authority, Oppenheimer races to win the 'battle of the laboratories' and create a weapon so devastating that, with the detonation of a single device, it would bring about an end not just to the Second World War but to all war.

As the political situation darkens, Tom Morton-Smith's new play takes us into the heart of the Manhattan Project and explores the tension between the scientific advances that will shape our understanding of the fabric of the universe, and the justification of their use during wartime, revealing the personal cost of making history.

Directed by Angus Jackson whose recent credits include King Lear at Chichester Festival Theatre and Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Full details here.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Recap - Beyond the Brain

Our final, festive, meeting for Michaelmas 2014 attracted a select group of participants who, fuelled by port and stollen, grappled with tricky questions of consciousness, artificial intelligence, neurology, logic, and ethics. Given Stephen Hawking's comments earlier that day, the singularity was a fitting topic with which to close our series of conversations on the brain. Adrian introduced us to Greg Egan and to the more general current scientific and philosophical arguments about the possibilities for artificial entities of increasingly superior intelligence. This is, he revealed, a serious and relevant academic debate, but one in which fiction and philosophy can play a particularly important role. Simon then contributed a typically imaginative presentation of Chalmers' ideas, augmented with charming illustrations (see above). The following discussion took in everything from economic modelling to brain upgrades ('Ambition 2.0'), new forms of evolution, the independent life of mathematical equations, and the molecular mechanism of Star Trek transportation systems.

Overall, it has been a fantastic term of meetings - my thanks to everyone who had participated, and particularly to those who prepared introductions to the readings. We have covered an enormous range of time, genre, and topics, as we have tried to get inside the heads of peoples past, present, and future.

CRASSH conference - The Total Archive

'The Total Archive: Dreams of Universal Knowledge from the Encyclopaedia to Big Data'

CRASSH, Cambridge, 19 March 2015 - 20 March 2015 

The complete system of knowledge is a standard trope of science fiction, a techno-utopian dream and an aesthetic ideal. It is Solomon’s House, the Encyclopaedia and the Museum. It is also an ideology – of Enlightenment, High Modernism and absolute governance.

Far from ending the dream of a total archive, twentieth-century positivist rationality brought it ever closer. From Paul Otlet’s Mundaneum to Mass-Observation, from the Unity of Science movement to Isaac Asimov’s Encyclopedia Galactica, from the Whole Earth Catalog to Wikipedia, the dream of universal knowledge dies hard. These projects triumphantly burst their own bounds, generating more archival material, more information, than can ever be processed. When it encounters well defined areas – the sportsfield or the model organism – the total archive tracks every movement of every player, of recording every gene and mutation. Increasingly this approach is inverted: databases are linked; quantities are demanded where only qualities existed before. The Human Genome Project is the most famous, but now there are countless databases demanding ever more varied input. Here the question of what is excluded becomes central.

The total archive is a political tool. It encompasses population statistics, GDP, indices of the Standard of Living and the international ideology of UNESCO, the WHO, the free market and, most recently, Big Data. The information-gathering practices of statecraft are the total archive par excellence, carrying the potential to transfer power into the open fields of economics and law – or divest it into the hands of criminals, researchers and activists.

Questions of the total archive they engage key issues in the philosophy of classification, the poetics of the universal, the ideology of surveillance and the technologies of information retrieval. What are the social structures and political dynamics required to sustain total archives, and what are the temporalities implied by  such projects?

In order to confront the ideology and increasing reality of interconnected data-sets and communication technologies we need a robust conceptual framework – one that does not sacrifice historical nuance for the ability to speculate. This conference brings together scholars from a wide range of fields to discuss the aesthetics and political reality of the total archive.
Full details here.

Conversations on Nature - report

A report by Matthew Wale on the recent 'Conversations on Nature' event in Leicester.

The Oxonian Review - Literature and Science

The special issue of The Oxonian Review on Literature and Science has been published - see the articles here. The issue includes a discussion by Reading Group attendee Alice Bamford on 'Proofs and Catastrophes'.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Science & Literature...

New ways of conceptualising the relationship between science and literature, thanks to The Toast.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

1st December - Beyond the Brain

Our final meeting of term will be held on Monday 1st December in the Newnham Terrace Upstairs Seminar Room at Darwin College. We will be reading the following texts, to conclude our series of sessions on the brain, as well as holding our usual end-of-term party:
I hope to see you then!

Recap - Memory

Another very successful meeting of the Reading Group, where the warmth and wit of the conversation hopefully offset the rather chilly conditions of the room!

Liz and Robin gave thought-provoking introductions to our two set readings. First, Liz detailed further biographical background to the 'Dickens of the ghetto', Israel Zangwill, whom most of the Group were encountering for the first time. Thoroughly enjoying his short story, I'm sure it won't be the last we read of his writings, however. In particular, Liz drew attention to Zangwill's self-aware commentary on the position of writers, on the dangers of genius, and on the references to and mimicry of both realist and sensation fiction of the late nineteenth century. Through his description of one particular invention, its subsequent commercial and social applications, further development, and effects (potentially fatal) on purchasers, Zangwill was able to provoke consideration of the very nature of memory itself, not to mention identity. Liz also drew on a fascinating analogy with the recently-widespread publishing technology of electrotyping, and wondered whether this was one influence on the story's rather elusive memory-removing mechanism.

Robin followed with his introduction to the extract by Wells, usefully reminding us of key connections and experiences in his life, as well as pointing out his many non-fictional pieces that are not as well remembered as his science fiction writings. He discussed in particular how Wells' technological determinism provided one influence on these proposals for a universal encyclopaedia; a repository of human knowledge fit for the global age of the automobile and aeroplane. Once again, Robin drew on a helpful analogy to a contemporary publishing project, this time the development of card indexing systems in libraries, and the Dewey Decimal System, another attempt to itemise and organise pieces of knowledge, under curatorial care. Whilst he warned us against easy identifications between such proposals and the current state of the internet and its wiki-projects, he also showed us the trailer to a recent film, 'Google and the World Brain', which drew such comparisons.

The following discussion was rather inexpertly captured in my sketchy notes, but dealt both with close readings of the texts in question, as well as pondering wider considerations of personhood and morality, knowledge and information. We talked, for instance, about the history of attempts to determine the precise physical location of memories within the brain, connecting back to the discussions of phrenology in our first meeting, as well as to neurology, biochemistry, and medical scanning technologies. We thought about the metaphor of the clearing house, present in both texts, and the need to filter or suppress memories: when to retain and when to discard memories, and can this be a conscious process? What happens if you were to acquire someone else's memory? Does this become your experience and identity - would you think you are another person, or be another person? What about non-human entities given memories - how are they to be viewed, ethically? All of these being debates, of course, that will continue in our discussions next fortnight, when we will be accompanied by mince pies and mulled wine as we go beyond the brain...

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Call for reviews - Oxonian Review special on Literature and Science

The Oxonian Review is looking for short reviews (1000-2,000 words) of recently published work or essays (also 1000-2,000 words) on new developments in the field for our special issue on Literature and Science, which will be published on 8 December 2014. If you are interested in writing a review, please e-mail the Editor-in-Chief, Laura Ludtke ( The Oxonian Review can easily request a review copy of the book for you.

Reports from 'Teaching Literature and Science' - BSLS Symposium, 8 November 2014

Fantastic reports from the recent BSLS Symposium from Michael Whitworth here, here, and here; and from Greg Tate here. More on twitter on the #teachlitsci hashtag. Sorry to have missed it!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Cambridge Literary Festival - November 30th

The Cambridge Literary Festival - Winter is approaching on 30th November. Book tickets here now for events including (HPS's own) Helen Macdonald and Dave Goulson on 'Of Hawks and Meadows'.

Review - Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction

Discussion of the history and definitions of science fiction in a review here by Paul Kincaid of the Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction, which may be of interest to members of the group.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Variable Stars - Talk on Caroline Herschel at Institute of Astronomy

Christina Koning, author of the novel Variable Stars about the life and work of astronomer Caroline Herschel, will give a public talk at 7.15pm on 12th November at the Institute of Astronomy, Madingley Road. This is part of the usual programme of Public Open Evenings, and if weather permits will be followed by an opportunity for star-gazing.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

17th November - Memory

Our third meeting of term will be held on Monday 17th November from 7.30-9pm in Newnham Terrace First Floor Seminar Room at Darwin College (please note change of venue from previous sessions). All welcome!

We will read and compare two discussions of memory and the brain: let me know if you have trouble accessing either of these links:

If anyone would like to volunteer to introduce the reading then do get in touch! I hope to see many of you at the meeting.

Recap - Cerebral Forms

Last night witnessed the second meeting of the Michaelmas 2014 Science and Literature Reading Group, as we gathered for a thorough dissection of Thomas Willis and his writings on the brain.

Lizzie Swann gave a marvellous introduction to Willis himself and his posthumous reputation, the selected passages (English translations of his renowned earlier Latin writings), as well as wider cultures of seventeenth-century religion, philosophy and medicine. In particular, she analysed the rhetoric and language deployed by Willis as he struggled to translate his experimental practice into verbal descriptions. Willis claimed at the outset that he would base his writing on 'Nature and ocular demonstrations', yet suffused his prose with classical and Biblical allusion, and with myriad metaphors, from honeycomb to helmet. Just as different bodily theories could be discerned in Willis's writing, including Aristotelian sensory 'species', Paracelsian iatrochemistry and Galenic humours, so too were both the practices and objects of dissection likened to a series of more familiar analogues. Both wit and knives could be sharp. Lizzie characterised these as falling into two broad categories, the more pastoral, fluvial, agricultural or arboreal 'exterior' metaphors, and the more architectural 'interior' metaphors. She asked us to consider how rigorously, then, Willis upheld his commitment to first-hand observation; whether his religious beliefs were apparent and represented in the text; and the relationship between practices of dissection and visual and artistic skills.

The discussion took up these themes, to discuss in particular the marked use of metaphor throughout the text, and its varied figuring as model or metanoia, to point up similarity or difference, or as part of a more general debate over the metaphorical language of 'handling' subjects. Was this something that was part of a contemporary commitment to empiricism and virtual witnessing, we wondered, or a common way to think with and about books, or even inherited from older, classical sources? The multisensory world and practices of the dissecting room was another strand of the discussion; as was the relationship between soul and 'animal spirits', where they were located, which creatures owned them, and how they moved around: was it via Willis's favoured hydraulic imagery? Other early modern attempts to poetise the body, as well as comparisons between the microcosm and macrocosm, body and body politic, were also commented upon in the varied discussion, and I for one certainly left with much food for thought.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Arab Science Fiction: From Imagination to Innovation

Radio documentary - 'The Poetry of Science'


Gregory Tate explores why so many scientists have been inspired to write poetry and the relationship between their artistic work and their science.

The Cornishman Humphry Davy was a pioneer of modern science, whose lectures drew huge crowds. But, inspired by his friendship with the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, throughout his life he wrote poems - including one about breathing nitrous oxide.

Physician Eramus Darwin; mathematician William Rowan Hamilton; astronomer William Herschel; - all wrote poetry. More recently, the 'father' of the atom bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Erwin Schrodinger, and Miroslav Holub interrogated their scientific work in verse.
Gregory Tate visits the Royal Institution in London which, as well as a laboratory, houses a large archive of poetry by scientists, and the lab in Trinity College, Dublin, where Physics professor, Iggy McGovern, develops ideas for synchrotron radiation techniques, and poems. McGovern has written a sonnet sequence on mathematician Hamilton. 

Using scientific investigative techniques Gregory enquires how has poetry offer scientists a fresh perspective on their research, talking to Sharon Ruston, co-editor of Humphry Davy's letters, Daniel Brown, author of 'The Poetry of Victorian Scientists', and the poets Mario Petrucci, who has a PhD in Optoelectronics, and Ruth Padel, a descendant of Erasmus Darwin. We hear their poetry, and verse by Humphry Davy, John Tyndall, John Herschel and Rowan William Hamilton.

Read Greg's blog about researching this documentary here.

Monday, October 27, 2014

UCL Science and Literature Seminar Series

Details of a new seminar series on Science and Literature at UCL can be found here. The first meeting is next Tuesday, 4th November, with Sally Shuttleworth speaking on 'Animal instinct and whispering machines: Science in the Victorian periodical'.

Monday, October 20, 2014

CFP - Special Issue of journal on 'Science and Science Fiction'

The Bulletin of Science, Technology, & Society seeks contributions to a special issue on 'Science and Science Fiction'. Further details here.

Symposium - Teaching Literature and Science

The programme and website for the 'Teaching Literature and Science' symposium, which is to be held at the University of Westminster on 8th November, is now available here.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

3rd November - Cerebral Forms

Our second meeting of term will be held on Monday 3rd November from 7.30-9pm in the Newnham Grange Seminar Room at Darwin College. All welcome!

We continue our readings on the brain by exploring one piece of early modern writing on cerebral dissection, structure and function:
 If anyone would like to volunteer to introduce the reading then do get in touch!

Recap - Phrenological Genres

Our first meeting of the academic year brought together Sci-Lit stalwarts with first-time attendees (with a particularly strong showing from the HPS MPhil cohort!), to discuss all things phrenological.

As ever, the conversation ranged widely, from discussions of the impact of urbanisation to the characters of software engineers, Walt Whitman's phrenological reading to the psychic effects of Fantastic Voyage-style adventures inside one's own head. Amongst other topics, we explored the role of physical analogies in these texts, from the cartographic nature of phrenology as mapping the mind and brain, or constructing a chambered house inhabited by different faculties; as well as the roles of analogy and allegory more generally. We thought about how these texts could reveal the consequences of a society based solely (from dress and jewellery to doctors and jurisprudence) on phrenological principles, or of the role for free will if character were truly fixed by crania. We discussed the perennial appeal of phrenology as a test-case for policing the boundaries of scientific disciplines and practitioners, right from its first development: was this really an 'outré science', as Tennyson had it, and if so what did that mean? As highlighted from the outset, generic form was also analysed as one way of accessing an early 19thC world of interdisciplinary (or predisciplinary?) writing and reading of texts.

Finally, as promised, a performance of the 'Phrenology' song from Broadway Musical Florodora (1899) can be found here.

CFP - Alice through the Ages


Alice through the Ages: The 150th Anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

The Cambridge-Homerton Research and Teaching Centre for Children’s Literature (University of Cambridge) in collaboration with The Lewis Carroll Society

15th – 17th September 2015

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2015. Lewis Carroll famously opens his Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with his protagonist “burning with curiosity”, which leads Alice to follow the White Rabbit into an alternative reality. That same sense of curiosity has circulated about Wonderland since the book was first published. This conference aims to offer new understandings of the work by re-evaluating long held truisms, subjecting the text to new theoretical approaches and considering the history of adaptation and its uses in popular culture.

We invite innovative papers on Lewis Carroll from established scholars as well as new voices in the field, and those whose research focuses on cognate fields. We are especially interested in papers focused on the book’s initial production context, including Carroll’s biography and sources and influences; papers that interrogate and problematise some of the longstanding truisms associated with the text, such as its place at the start of the fantasy tradition for children and the relationship between author and illustrator; papers that examine how text and author have been read in terms of cultural studies, the history of science, the medical humanities, and the politics of literature; and papers considering adaptation and the powerful influence Wonderland has had on design and style.

Confirmed keynote speakers are Professor Dame Gillian Beer, Professor Jan Susina and Dr Kiera Vaclavik.

300 word proposals for 20-minute papers or 60-90 minute panel sessions should be submitted by 31st January 2015. We also invite poster presentations, exhibits, performances and any activities inspired by the Alice novels. For more information, or to submit a proposal, please contact Professor Maria Nikolajeva or Dr Zoe Jaques,

Monday, October 13, 2014

13th October - Phrenological Genres

The Michaelmas Term meetings of the Science and Literature Reading Group begin this evening from 7.30-9pm in the Newnham Grange seminar room at Darwin College. I will be at the Porter's Lodge at 7.25pm to meet those unfamiliar with the college.

We commence our explorations of all things cerebral with that perennially popular topic, phrenology. All readings can be found online (click titles for links):
 Optional additional reading:
I hope to see old friends and new faces this evening - please feel free to come along and join in the discussions even if you don't manage to complete all of the readings.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Cambridge Festival of Ideas - Science and Literature events

This year's Cambridge Festival of Ideas will be held from 20th October to 2nd November, and includes many events of interest to members of the Science and Literature Reading Group.

In particular:

The Science of Fiction

Wednesday 22 October: 7:00pm - 9:00pm
Cambridge Science Centre, 18 Jesus Lane, CB5 8BQ

In 1735 Jonathan Swift described for the first time that Mars had two moons, 142 years before they were discovered. In 1914 HG Wells predicted the atomic bomb, 31 years before it shook the world. Hosts Andrew Holding (BBC/Guardian) and Will Thompson return with a stellar panel of scientists, authors and researchers to ask what can our stories tell us about the future? Alastair Reynolds (award-winning author and former research astronomer with the European Space Agency) will join us to describe where he finds his inspiration when writing about the future, and how the process builds on his past experiences as a scientist. Design Scientist and Futurist Melissa Sterry will explain how she believes that science and technology can make the world a better place, while astrobiologist and author Lewis Dartnell will share with us what he learnt writing his latest book 'The Knowledge: How to Rebuild our World from Scratch', just in case it all goes wrong. Finally we'll turn back the clock with Melanie Keene (Cambridge University) whose research for her upcoming book 'Science in Wonderland' will let us see what Victorian Britain had expected life to be like today. For other sites: Join us for 'The Science of Fiction: Future' Doors: 7pm for 7:30pm on 22nd October at the Cambridge Science Centre. The event is supported by a recommended donation of £3, collected on the night. For further details, and to book a place, see here.

Reading the Anthropocene
Thursday 30 October: 5:30pm - 7:00pm
GR06/07, Faculty of English, Faculty of English, 9 West Road, CB3 9DP

In the 2000s, scientists suggested that with the escalation of mankind’s influence on the planet, we have we now entered a new geological era, that of the Anthropocene. Whilst scientists are continuing to debate when this era began, if it has done at all, literary critics, theorists and environmental philosophers have already adopted the term in order to think about the challenges ahead of us, and the changes needed to meet them. BBC New Generation Thinker and Cambridge Lecturer in Literature and Film, Dr Sarah Dillon, joins Quaternary geologist Professor Phil Gibbard and writer and environmentalist Tony Juniper, to discuss the significance of the idea of the Anthropocene across disciplines and culture. For further details, and to book a place, see here.

Other events of interest include (click titles for links):

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Kelley Swain - Double the Stars

The latest work by former Reading Group member Kelley Swain, Double the Stars, has recently been published. Photos from the Royal Observatory launch of this novel about Caroline Herschel can be found at Kelley's blog here.

Victorian Studies - articles on 'Victorian(ist) Epistemographies'

Lots of articles of potential interest to Science and Literature folk in the Spring 2014 issue of Victorian Studies (access via University of Cambridge), including:

Monday, September 29, 2014

Gillian Beer talk - Queen Mary, 16th October

Michaelmas Term 2014 - The Brain

This term features four sets of readings on cerebral themes from the past, present, and future. For full reading lists please see the links available from the beginning of October here or on the HPS seminars website; hard copies will also be made available in the Reading Group’s boxfile in the Whipple Library.

We return to Darwin College, the original home of the Reading Group, for meetings on Monday evenings from 7.30-9pm. All are very welcome to join us!

13th October – Phrenological Genres

3rd November – Cerebral Forms

17th November – Memory

1st December – Beyond the Brain

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

AHRC Science in Culture - new Innovation Awards announced

The AHRC has announced seven new Innovation Awards as part of their Science in Culture theme - lots of fascinating projects, and several of interest to Science and Literature scholars, including 'Metamorphoses: Gaming Art and Science with Ovid', and 'Poetry by Numbers, Then and Now: Metre, Mathematics, Machines and Manufacture'. Details here.

Monday, September 15, 2014

CFP - Biological Discourses

A two-day conference at the University of Cambridge, 10-11 April 2015

The decades around 1900 are a crucial period for the impact of biological thought on the intellectual cultures of the western world. The impulses of Darwinism were taken up by intellectuals, writers and artists from the 1860s onwards, and both Darwinian and anti-Darwinian currents of thinking exercised a powerful influence on the intellectual climate of the early decades of the twentieth century. It was a period that saw major developments in cell biology and the establishment of genetics as we know it, the movement of medical science and psychiatry beyond mechanistic conceptions of illness, and the emergence of psychoanalysis and sexology as new disciplines. "Biological Discourses", a student-led conference to be held in Cambridge on 10-11 April 2015, is part of a collaborative venture between the Cambridge Department of German & Dutch and the Institute for Modern Languages Research, London, investigating the interplay and the forms of mediation between literary and biological discourses in that period.

The conference builds on the substantial body of research literature that has evolved in the last few decades both in English and other languages on the 'hermeneutic potential' of Darwin's thought (Gillian Beer) and the interrelationship between biological thought and literature and the visual arts more broadly. Recent work has also brought out the senses in which the historical emergence of such biological terminology as 'heredity' and 'genealogy' should be seen as part of European cultural history (e.g. Sigrid Weigel, Genea-Logik (2006); Staffan Müller-Wille and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, A Cultural History of Heredity (2012)). Key issues relating to these and other strands of inquiry were reviewed at an initial workshop hosted by the collaboration partners in London in March 2014 (see here).

The conference in April 2015 is intended to provide an opportunity to explore certain of those issues more closely, homing in particularly on the processes and potentials of mediation between biological science and literature, and to extend the inquiry to countries beyond the German-speaking world. The themes on which the organisers particularly wish to invite contributions are these:

  • What kinds of relationship do we see between the discourses of  biological science and literature in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? Are there senses in which we find them sharing models, metaphors, and elements of each other's discourse?
  • How are developments in biological and medical thinking reflected in the print media of the time, both verbally and visually?
  • How are the emerging discourses of sexology and psychopathology reflected in the literary writing of this period, and what insights arise from comparisons between writings of the early 20th century and the critical perspectives of the present day (e.g. gender theory)?
  • How do the developments in biological thinking inform the world-views and ethical values of western societies in the period, and what evidence of this do we find in literary and other writings?
  • To what extent do we find the discourse of German writings on biological issues taken up and developed in other European languages, and with what implications?

Proposals (no more than 500 words please) should be sent to by 30 November 2014.