The limits of science

Dr Berry Billingsley from the department of education will be leading the next work-in-progress session of the IRHS on perceived boundaries defining the extent or limits of science. The session will be at 1 p.m. on Monday 3rd of November in HumSS 127. This will be followed at 2 by a wider discussion of the projects being undertaken through the IRHS and projected plans for this coming year. Both parts of the meeting are open to anyone interested in cross-disciplinary work on the humanities and science at Reading.

Talk at the Linnean Society

This Wednesday lunchtime (1st October) I will be giving a talk at the Linnean Society on how poets have responded to changing conceptions of the natural world, from when the eighteenth-century naturalist Carolus Linnaeus first devised an ordered system for classifying plants and animals, to Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace’s discovery of evolution by natural selection, and beyond. I’ll be looking at a wide range of poets, starting with Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin, who wrote a speculative account of organic evolution in verse at the beginning of the nineteenth century, moving on to Victorian poets, including Tennyson’s famous account of ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ in his elegy In Memoriam, and ending up with the modern American poet and editor of Darwin Philip Appleman, who is one of the most outspoken atheists writing in America today.

I am excited to be speaking at the Linnaean Society, as I’ll be in the very room where Darwin and Wallace’s theory was first announced in 1858. The audience, now as then, will be made up mainly of biologists, so I am looking forward very much too to this opportunity to show working scientists how poetry can help to explore the world that they are uncovering through their scientific research.

John Holmes

A Pre-Raphaelite Museum

As part of this year’s Oxford Open Doors programme, John Holmes will be giving a talk explaining how the Pre-Raphaelites became involved in the design of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History in the 1850s, and how the Museum itself encapsulates in stone, iron, and glass its own scientific conception of the truth of the natural world. The talk will be at 3 p.m. on Saturday 13th September at the Museum. The event is free, but you can reserve a seat by through this website.

New Commission on Science and Literature

Earlier this month I went to the conference of the new Commission on Science and Literature at the National Hellenic Research Foundation in Athens. The Commission – or CoSciLit – is part of the Division of the History of Science and Technology (DHST) of the International Union for History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IUHPST). As Chair of the British Society for Literature and Science (BSLS), I had been asked to support the foundation of CoSciLit. Its aim is to provide an international forum for research into literature and science, and to demonstrate to scientists and historians of science how important literature is to thinking about what science means, now and over time. Literature is a key source for the history of science. At the same time, it is and has always been the perfect device for refracting the apparently clear light of science into a multitude of different colours, shades and wavelengths.

I was looking forward to the conference very much. It lived up to my expectations. The range of papers was tremendous. I listened to talks by literary scholars from Britain, America and France, scientists and historians of science from Greece, Germany and Austria, and the poet and physicist Iggy McGovern from Ireland. Topics included dinosaurs in American frontier fiction, eighteenth-century satires on the Royal Society, Emily Dickinson’s response to Charles Darwin, mesmerism in nineteenth-century Greece, sexology in civil war Spain, and contradictions in the physics of Jules Verne’s Around the Moon. My own talk was on evolution in modernist epic poems by Ezra Pound, David Jones and Ronald Duncan. It was fascinating to hear so many different examples of literature engaging with science, and of literary analysis shedding light on the science itself. I was especially glad to have the chance to see this from the perspectives of scientists themselves, and from so many different countries. Perhaps the biggest lesson I learnt from the conference as a whole was that science maybe international, but it is conducted in different national contexts, which shape what science is done, what discoveries are made, and how they are seen.

On the last day of the conference I was appointed along with the organizers, George Vlahakis and Kostas Tampakis, to a small committee charged with putting in place a constitution for the Commission and holding the first elections to its official executive committee next year. We’ve also been asked to start planning CoSciLit’s future, including another conference in a couple of years, and its involvement in the next of the DHST’s huge fourth-yearly congresses in Rio de Janeiro in 2017. (The last one was last year in – less excitingly, but very appropriately – Manchester.) I am looking forward very much to working with George and Kostas to help build on the foundations they have laid, and to get more literary scholars, scientists and historians from around the world involved in the rich discussions they have begun with their excellent conference.

If you’d like to find out more about the plans for CoSciLit as they develop, and more widely about work being done and conferences being held on literature and science, take a look at the websites for CoSciLit and the BSLS.

Diachronic change in Bantu noun classes

We are holding our last work-in-progress session of term next week at 1 o’clock on Wednesday 2nd July in HumSS 175. Annemarie Verkerk from the School of Biological Sciences will be speaking on ‘Diachronic change in Bantu noun classes: an investigation using phylogenetic comparative methods’. She will present a case study of the use of phylogenetic comparative methods in linguistics by looking at Bantu noun classes. In this talk, Annemarie will be contributing to work describing diachronic change in Bantu noun classes (e.g. Katamba 2003, Maho 1999) by looking at ancestral state reconstructions and rates of change. Please do join us if you can.


Science in Modernist Poetry

The IRHS has been invited to give a panel at the British Association of Modernist Studies conference this week at Senate House in London. We will be giving three talks on science in modernist poetry at 1.30 on Saturday 28th June. Stephen Thomson will be talking on ‘Fables of Science and Subjectivity: Paul Valéry’s Descartes’, John Holmes on ‘Teleological Evolutionism in Modernist Epic Poetry’, and Fathi Nasaif on ‘Science and Technology in Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead”’. We hope that the panel will open up new avenues for approaching the complex relationships between a range of modernist poets and poetics and different scientific theories and conceptions of science itself.

Medieval Meteorology symposium

The Graduate Centre for Medieval Studies at Reading is holding its Summer Symposium this year on Medieval Meteorology, Science and Divination. The Symposium is on Wed 2nd July, 10.30-4.00,  in Palmer Building, Room 109. Speakers include:

  • Dr Marilina Cesario (Queen’s University, Belfast), ‘Wind Prognostics in Anglo-Saxon England’
  • Dr Stephen Johnston (Museum of History of Science, University of Oxford), ‘Whatever the Weather: Sun, Seasons and the Astrolabe’
  • Dr Anne Lawrence (University of Reading), ‘The Weather, the Stars and the New Technology’
  • Dr Alexandra Harris (Liverpool University), ‘Talking about the Weather’

Registration costs £10, including lunch. For more details email Anne Lawrence ( To book your place for the Summer Symposium click here.

Evolution and Victorian poetry

John Holmes’s essay ‘The challenge of evolution in Victorian poetry’ has just been published in Evolution and Victorian Culture, edited by Bernard Lightman and Bennett Zon. This is the first book to take a look at the  significance of evolutionary thinking across the arts in the Victorian period, from fiction to dance, cinema to architecture. To take a look inside, and get a flavour of the book and its coverage, visit the CUP page for the book by clicking here.

Science in modernist poetry

Our next work-in-progress meeting will be on science in modernist poetry. The IRHS was invited to submit a panel to the conference of the British Association of Modernist Studies, so Stephen Thomson and John Holmes will be sharing their work in progress towards this panel on Wednesday 4th June at 1 p.m. in URS 2n10. Stephen will be talking about the place of Descartes within the thought and poetics of the French poet Paul Valéry, and John will be looking at the significance of evolutionary ideas within modernist epic poems by Ezra Pound, David Jones and Ronald Duncan. Members of the IRHS and non-members are both welcome.


Two upcoming talks

Here are the details of two upcoming talks by members of the IRHS on aspects of their interdisciplinary work:

  • John Holmes will be speaking on ‘“A Just Debt of Gratitude”: John Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Oxford Museum’ on Thursday 22nd May at 4 p.m. at the Ruskin Research Seminar at the Ruskin Library and Research Centre, Lancaster University
  • Alison Martin will be speaking on ‘Creative Forces in Nature: British Women and the Internationalisation of Romantic Science’ on Friday 23rd May at 3.45 p.m. at a conference on Revealing Lives: Women in Science 1830-2000 at the Royal Society in London