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Dear All,

At the workshop ‘Cultivating Common Ground’ the break-away group on critical theory (close textual analysis) led by Professor Karin Lesnik-Oberstein discussed how a grounding paper for the study of ‘mirror neurons’ in neuroscience could be critiqued through both scientific approaches but also through textual analysis of underpinning assumptions in the language of the theories and experiments. Interestingly, the group found, there turned out to be overlap between the science and the textual analyses in both what they critiqued in the paper and how.

Karin has continued to write critiques of neuroscience based on this close textual analysis (several are awaiting publication) and is now going to give an invited paper on how ideas of childhood and ideas of neuroscience are linked at the following symposium:

Depsychologizing/deneurologizing modern subjectivity?

One-day symposium and book launch Psychologization and the Subject of Late-Modernity (Jan De Vos, Palgrave 2014)

Ghent, Belgium, 8 January 2014

What does it mean to become the (neuro)psychologist of one’s own life? If something is not working in our education, in our marriage, in our work and in society in general we turn to the (neuro)psy-sciences. But is the latter’s paradigm precisely not relying on feeding neuro-psychological theories into the field of research and action? Isn’t therefore, psychology not always already psychologization, and is, concomitantly, neuroscience not always already neurologisation?

This one-day symposium brings together psychologists, psychoanalysts, philosophers and educationalists to reflect on the centrality of the (neuro)psy slope of modern subjectivity and its consequences for critique. The closing event of the day is the book launch of Jan De Vos’s book Psychologization and the Subject of Late Modernity (Palgrave, 2014).

Dear Colleagues,

I am writing to invite you to a public roundtable on Science and Storytelling which we are holding to launch a new University-wide research theme on Interdisciplinary Research into the Humanities and Science (http://www.reading.ac.uk/irhs/). Climate change expert Professor Tim Wheeler and Dickens expert Dr Andrew Mangham from the University of Reading will be joined by the novelist and biographer Rebecca Stott from the University of East Anglia, the doctor and medical journalist Druin Burch, and Sally Shuttleworth, Professor of English Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford, for an interdisciplinary discussion of how science shapes narrative and how narratives shape what people think about science.

The roundtable will be held at the University’s London Road campus (LO22, Lecture Room GO1) on Wednesday 6th November at 6.30 p.m., preceded by a wine reception at 5.30 at the Museum of English Rural Life. The event is free to all, so please do come along, and feel free to invite friends and colleagues.

Best wishes,

John

Dr John Holmes

There is a new AHRC website gathering together all the information on their ‘Science and Culture’ awards and projects, including our project on this blog. See at: http://www.sciculture.ac.uk/projects/exploratory-awards/the-value-of-the-literary-and-historical-study-of-biology-to-biologists/

Karin Lesnik-Oberstein

Since the start of October, I’ve been working on an AHRC Research Fellowship on the Pre-Raphaelites and science. Over the project as a whole I am going to be looking at Pre-Raphaelite poetry, painting and art criticism, but I’m starting off looking at how Pre-Raphaelite artistic ideals and practices shaped the decoration and design of Victorian natural history museums. I’ve been looking at two key buildings in particular.

Dr John Holmes at museum for pre-raphaelite art and science research project

Dr John Holmes scrutinizes woodwork in museum for his pre-raphaelite art and science project

First, I spent a few weeks reading through the archives of the Oxford University Museum, and looking closely at the museum itself. When the leading Oxford scientists finally persuaded the University to build them a science faculty (as we’d now call it) in the 1850s, they held a competition for the building. They ended up making an audacious, eccentric and ultimately brilliant choice, opting for Gothic architecture as the best style for their modern science museum and laboratories. The architects they chose were the Irish firm of Deane and Woodward, who had been inspired by the ideals of John Ruskin. The scientist who gave the project its momentum, Henry Acland, was an old friend of Ruskin’s, and a friend and patron of Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Lizzie Siddal. Ruskin introduced Woodward to Rossetti, and Rossetti put him in touch with the Pre-Raphaelite sculptors Thomas Woolner, John Lucas Tupper, and Alexander Munro, who went on to carve the dynamic statues of scientists who surround the museum’s main court. Meanwhile, Woodward’s stone-masons who had come over from Ireland – the brothers James and John O’Shea, and their nephew Edward Whelan – were carving some of the most beautiful, vibrant and intricate decorative stonework done since the middle ages. Between them, Woodward, the Pre-Raphaelites, the O’Sheas and the Oxford scientists created not only a rich and continually surprising building, but one of the most original and imaginative symbolic representations of the natural world and the scientific project ever created. (I’ll be giving a talk on the Oxford University Museum as a Pre-Raphaelite museum in a couple of weeks – please click on this link for the flier if you would like to come along.

The second building where Pre-Raphaelite ideals came into play in representing science and nature was the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. Another triumph of Victorian Gothic (or more precisely Romanesque) architecture, the Natural History Museum was the brainchild of the great comparative anatomist Richard Owen and the architect Alfred Waterhouse. In the 1850s, when the Pre-Raphaelites had been arguing for an art modelled on science in its close observational accuracy and commitment to truth, Owen had become keen on Holman Hunt’s paintings in particular. While Owen went on to become friends with Hunt and his fellow Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais, Waterhouse employed Woolner and the O’Sheas to carve the sculptures and decorations for the Manchester Assize Courts and Ford Madox Brown to paint the murals for the Manchester Town Hall. When they came to design and build the Natural History Museum, Owen and Waterhouse had the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of an art grounded in science and giving a true image of nature in their minds. The result is another building that is at once fantastic in its richness and decorative exuberance, and meticulous in the accuracy with which it depicts the animals and plants that adorn its walls, windows, roofs and arches.

Both museums look to represent nature, both are masterpieces, and both were born from a combination of Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics and Natural Theology (the view of science as revealing God’s work in Nature). Even so, they offer very different aesthetic experiences and even intellectual experiences. What I am moving on to think about now is why this should be, and how, in particular, the different materials, plans, styles and techniques of the two buildings give us subtly but very significantly different interpretations of the natural world.

Dr John Holmes, Department of English Literature, University of Reading.

‘What, if anything, can science learn from the humanities?

That is the question that a team of biologists, literary critics and historians at the University of Reading set out to answer in

an AHRC-funded project that has generated new insights into the hoary old question of the ‘two cultures’.

A workshop, entitled ‘Cultivating Common Ground: Biology and the Humanities’, was held in July, which introduced practicing biologists to humanities research into biology, and provoked some unexpected responses.

In the scoping study, ‘The Value of the Literary and Historical Study of Biology to Biologists’, the team draw upon the workshop experience and their respective specialisms to argue that the humanities can play an important role in transforming future biological research. To realize this ambition the team is now working together with colleagues from other universities on a pioneering co-disciplinary training programme for young academics as the next step towards bringing biology and the humanities together.’

To view the report please follow this link:

The value of the literary and historical study of biology to biologists a scoping study

CloudCameraPosterA3 One of the AHRC project participants, Dr John Holmes, will be holding a poetry and science event with poet Lesley Saunders next week at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford. The event is entitled ‘From Microscopes to Cloud Cameras: The Poetry of Science’ and it will be taking place at 7 p.m. on Thursday October 25th. John will be talking about and reading some modern and contemporary poetry about biology, and Lesley will be reading from her new book of poems ‘Cloud Camera’. There’ll be wine too. Free admission and all welcome!

 

One of the things we discovered while working on the Cultivating Common Ground project is that even many people who have an interest in considering Biology (or Science) and Humanities from inter- or transdisciplinary perspectives are often unaware of the wide and long-standing range of organisations who engage in this kind of thinking, so I thought it might be helpful to post here the links that we gathered (participants of the workshop already have these links). The links here are all as far as possible specific to Biology and the Humanities:

The British Society for Literature and Science

The British Society for the History of Science

The British Society for the Philosophy of Science

The International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology

The London Interdisciplinary Discussion Group

The Public Communication of Science and Technology Network

The Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts

Professor Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, University of Reading

The workshop for ‘Cultivating Common Ground’ took place on Wednesday July 18th 2012 in the Henley Business School on Whiteknights campus of the University of Reading. The organisers of the project (project lead Professor Nick Battey, RA Dr Rachel Crossland, co-investigators Dr David Stack, Professor Francoise Le Saux, Dr John Holmes and Professor Karin Lesnik-Oberstein and presenter Dr Paul Hatcher) were joined by thirty-two participants, most of whom are practising academic biologists, but also several teachers of biology, museum and research institute staff and interdisciplinary humanities and social sciences researchers.

The workshop proved to be a very lively and positive event: there was throughout a sense of enthusiastic engagement and thought. The workshop was divided into several sections: first there was a morning introduction from Professor Battey, followed by presentations from each of the four co-investigators on their specific areas of expertise. The presentations were then responded to through group-discussions based on five pre-set questions. After a break for lunch Dr Paul Hatcher introduced and presented two short natural history films on parasitoids, one from 1931 and one more contemporary one, to see what responses these might elicit in the light of the humanities. After this everyone departed to join one of four break-out groups that had been signed-up for earlier on the day: either a group thinking about interdisciplinary research-proposals, led by Professor Battey and Professor Le Saux, or a group on how humanities might be used in natural history museum curating, led by Dr John Holmes and joined by the Director of the University of Reading’s Cole Museum of Zoology (where that break-out group also took place), Dr Amanda Callaghan, or a group on teaching an interdisciplinary science and humanities module, led by Dr David Stack and based on a module designed and forthcoming at the University of Reading, or a group considering analytic ways of reading led by Professor Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, focussing on a critical reading of an article by Vittorio Gallese and Alvin Goldman on ‘Mirror Neurons and the Simulation Theory of Mind-Reading’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences2:12, December 1998, 493-501. The workshop then ended with a summarising of the day’s events by Professor Battey.

All in all, it was a most enjoyable and productive day with the exchange of many interesting and important ideas and questions, on which we will be reporting further here in the near future.

Professor Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, University of Reading

 

If you have signed up for the workshop in July, or expressed an interest in the Cultivating Common Ground project more broadly, then the chances are that you will have heard from me by now. My role has the intriguing title of Research Fellow in Biology and the Humanities, and sees me being both employed by and housed within the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Reading – all of which is quite exciting for someone with a background in literature and no higher qualification in science than a GCSE!

I have been working in the field of literature and science for the last seven years or so, looking primarily at the relationship between physics and literature in the early twentieth century. My doctoral thesis considered the writings of Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence alongside the ideas discussed by Albert Einstein in his 1905 papers, exploring moments of direct influence as well as links which could be ascribed to a more generalised zeitgeist model. One of the key ideas at the centre of my thesis, and one which continues to inform all of my work in the area of literature and science, is Gillian Beer’s suggestion that ‘ways of viewing the world are not constructed separately by scientists and poets; they share the moment’s discourse’ (Open Fields: Science in Cultural Encounter, Oxford University Press, 1996). I am fascinated by the ways in which similar ideas can emerge across different disciplines at the same time, even when there is no obvious direct link or trace of influence in either direction. I am also interested in the ways in which scientific ideas are presented to non-scientists, and am at the early stages of a project which will consider the presence of popular science articles and scientific ideas in a number of early twentieth-century generalist periodicals.

For me, Cultivating Common Ground is of particular interest for a number of reasons: firstly, because it involves thinking about the ways in which the humanities could influence/inform/impact upon science, an aspect of the relationship between the sciences and the humanities which is often overlooked and underestimated. Secondly, because it will bring scientists and humanities scholars together, something which happens less frequently than it should: I am often surprised by the apparent reluctance of humanities scholars, including those who work in interdisciplinary areas, to engage with potential colleagues in other fields, and scientists are usually in a significant minority in interdisciplinary groups like the British Society for Literature and Science. Finally, I think that Cultivating Common Ground is exciting because nobody quite knows what the project and the workshop will reveal: I am really looking forward to listening to the discussions on 18th July, and to seeing the sharing of discourse on biology, literature, history and the current moment in action.

Rachel Crossland

One aspect of medieval culture that has always interested me is the absence of the strict compartmentalisation of knowledge we now live with.  Medieval manuscripts frequently gather side by side homilies, theological treatises, obscene tales, courtly romances, medical and veterinary tracts and pharmaceutical recipes; science and culture were part of a seamless whole, informing each other, and both core to the educational experience of the medieval scholar. From the twelfth to the sixteenth century, science was no less ‘scientific’ in its approaches than nowadays; it was equally based on theories formulated to make sense of facts established by observation, and explaining the ability to reproduce certain outcomes in the laboratory or the workshop.  In the absence of sophisticated technological aids (such as effective microscopes), these observations were flawed, and many of the scientific theories of the period are now dismissed. However, the Middle Ages present us with a useful model of integration of science within a wider cultural horizon, and I look forward to exploring in our workshop the tortuous road that led to the divorce between science and culture in the Modern period.

Francoise Le Saux

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