First Post-Workshop Comments

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


Sharing the moment’s discourse

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

Are the Middle Ages relevant to contemporary scientific culture?

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