Arts blog

To complement our reviewing of scholarly work in literature and science society members share their responses to and participation in the wider engagement with science among the contemporary arts.

The blog is open for all to read and all society members can contribute. We welcome contributions on any aspect of contemporary culture’s engagement with science, whether through poetry, fiction, theatre, cinema, television, music, dance, exhibitions, performance art, public talks, journalism or popular science-writing. As well as announcements and reviews of new publications or events, members are welcome to post interviews, recordings and links to other websites, including to their own original work.

The one area of engagement excluded from the blog is the academic study of literature and science, which has always been the BSLS’s main focus. Scholarly books will still be reviewed on the reviews pages, and academic events and calls for papers announced on the front page as currently. The blog is owned in common by the BSLS membership, and will not be edited, but it will be monitored, and contributions that are defamatory or infringe copyright will be removed.

As part of this year's Oxford Open Doors programme, BSLS Chair 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.

Location: Progress Theatre, the Mount, off Christchurch Road, Reading, Berkshire, RG1 5HL  (

Performance dates: September 8th to 13th, 7.30pm (doors at 7pm)

**Please note there will be a gala reception on the final night, where ticket-holders will enjoy a wine and canapé reception, followed by a Conversation with the playwright Juliet Aykroyd, – start time 5.30pm, doors at 5pm. Tickets £20 (limited numbers).**

Info no: 0118 384 2195

Tickets: £10/£8 conc
Phone booking: 0333 666 3366
(Please note there is a booking fee)


One was the father of evolution; the other the father of meteorology. Both men changed the world - but while one man is revered, the other is forgotten.

Set during the voyage of the Beagle and in later years, Darwin & FitzRoy plots the friendship and tension between Charles Darwin and the Beagle's captain, Robert FitzRoy. Both men of science and men of faith, Juliet Aykroyd's witty and poignant play charts the relationship between two giants of modern science on their celebrated voyage around the world, and catalogues the demons besetting both.

Darwin & FitzRoy is a joint production between Progress Theatre and WAM, the Festival of Weather, Arts and Music.

Commissioned by Lord Hunt, ex-director Director General and Chief Executive of the British Meteorological Office, for a one‐off performance on the 150th anniversary of the publication in 1859 of Darwin's seminal work On the Origin of Species, Progress Theatre is proud to be performing the play as the centrepiece of the week.

Uniquely, every performance of this play will be preceded by an event exploring FitzRoy's life, life scientific under sail, the music inspired by the Sea and the use of old ship's logs in modern climate research. Accompanying the play and the events will be an exhibition of weather-inspired art by two Reading artists, Julia Rogers and Roxana Tohaneanu-Shields.

This production of DARWIN & FITZROY is by special arrangement with Stay Thirsty Media, Inc. (

WAM events Sept 8-13 at Progress Theatre

Monday 8th September: Admiral FitzRoy, Founder of the Met Office
FitzRoy expert Gordon Tripp introduces Robert FitzRoy and examines his role as the Founder of the modern Met Office
Tuesday 9th September: Science at Sea and Under Sail
Prof. Tony Rice brings us as close as we can probably stomach to what it meant to be a scientist aboard a sailing ship
Wednesday 10th September: Sea Fever
Songs of the sea and inspired by the sea, performed by singer Pierrette Thomet and guitarist Gerard Cousins
Thursday 11th September: oldWeather - New Science
Dr Philip Brohan of the Met Office talks about his citizen science project oldWeather, digitising old ships' logs - such as the Beagle log
Friday 12th September: Faith in Science
Join Prof Brian Golding OBE of the Met Office as he considers the thorny issue of faith and its meaning in science
Saturday 13th September: Sea Fever and Gala Reception
A drinks and nibbles reception featuring Juliet Aykroyd, author of Darwin & FitzRoy.
This will be followed by Sea Fever, songs of the sea and inspired by the sea, performed by singer Pierrette Thomet and guitarist Gerard Cousins, and the play.
A limited number of tickets are available which will include drinks and canapes, "meet the playwright", Sea Fever and the play.



Progress Theatre in Reading are staging Juliet Aykroyd's play Darwin and Fitzroy in September. They are auditioning on Sunday 18th May for the lead roles. If you fancy playing the Beagle's captain or his most famous shipmate, click here for more information.



On Thursday evening BSLS Chair John Holmes will be discussing the decorative art of the nineteenth-century Irish stone-carvers James and John O'Shea at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History with the contemporary artist Sean Lynch, whose show A blow by blow account of stonecarving in Oxford inspired by the O'Sheas and their work has recently opened at Modern Art Oxford. After their talk, there will be a launch party for Lynch's book accompanying the show. Here are the details of the event if you would like to join us:

Event: Chipping away at a block of stone carving history

Venue: Modern Art Oxford

Time: 7.00-7.45 (conversation); 7.45-8.15 (book launch)

Charge: Free

All welcome.

Kelley Swain, poet and one-time BSLS secretary, will be holding a public launch for Opera di Cera from 7 p.m. on 8th April 2014 at The Horseshoe, Clerkenwell Close, London. This new verse drama tells the extraordinary story behind the creation of the world-famous ‘anatomical Venus’ waxwork in 18th-century Florence. To read more about this fascinating and brilliantly original new work inspired by medical science, click here.


Guardian Post

My recent Guardian blog post on Mary Wollstonecraft and natural history might be of interest to BSLS members.

Sharon Ruston (Lancaster University)

P R I M E R by Katy PriceChain Reaction is an attempt to combine science and art in a way that embodies approaches taken by historians of science.

On a simple level, it celebrates a simple piece of experimental procedure, the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), which is 30 years old in 2013.  This process is carried out in the lab by automated machines, thermocyclers (or PCR machines).  By rapidly multiplying fragments of DNA into the kind of quantities necessary for experiment, the PCR machine has made possible all of the genetic science of the past generation.

And yet the PCR machine is an incredibly humble and simple piece of kit, essentially a water bath – a boiler – with a cycling thermostat.  As such, PCR challenges many common assumptions about science.  Science is not all about fancy ideas or extraordinary outcomes; simple and basic graft is a vital part – the biggest part – of it.  This, then, is a show not about the products, but about the processes of science.

One way in which historians of science think about the processes of science is to open up its ‘black boxes’.  Popularised by the sociologist of science Bruno Latour, a black box is any piece of technology where everyone agrees that the input reliably leads to output, and no-one questions this process even when things go wrong.  For example, imagine if I’ve received a letter from my boss saying that my contract will not be renewed; I won’t wonder whether perhaps his printer has inserted the word ‘not’ into that sentence.  I assume (alas) that the printer reliably outputs whatever was sent to it.

One can productively broaden the notion of the black box beyond material technologies.  We could think, for example, of the journal Nature as a kind of black box; we assume that any paper published in it has been put through a reliable system of checking by qualified peer reviewers.  Only in extreme circumstances do black boxes get reopened.  Historians of science, on the other hand, like to open black boxes all the time, to discover how they were put together.  They like to see how and why a piece of science has come to be trusted, which is to say how and why certain human/mechanical processes come to be relied upon.

Chain Reaction aims to open at least three black boxes.

First, of course, there is the box that is the PCR machine itself.  OK, it’s beige or cream, not black, but in other respects it’s a classic black box.  No one questions that what goes in comes out of the PCR machine – except in extreme cases like in court, where DNA evidence may be challenged on the grounds that the scientists sneezed into the test tube.  Annie Halliday’s work opens it up for us, showing us the components of the machine and visualising the process of exponential replication that occurs within it.  And yet despite the machine’s apparent reliability, there is still room for doubt and superstition, as in the case of the lucky rabbit, explored by Stig Evans in his work on ritual.

Secondly, the laboratory is a box: a room full of people who know what they are supposed to do and how they are supposed to behave.  They move around and do things, and out of the room comes scientific knowledge.  But for the general public, its workings are as mysterious as the inside of a computer.  What goes into the box, and how does it work, to output things like the ancestry of humankind, or the identity of a father?  Three of our artists engage with such themes.  Andy Birtwistle’s film both reveals and re-enchants the generally unseen spaces of the laboratory, showing them to the public for the first time yet in such a way that they are defamiliarised for their usual occupants.  Sarah Craske’s extensive lab practice over the project has immersed her in the culture and workings of a lab, and, curiously, her product has come out as self-contained and apparently sui generis as a piece of science – rendering the processes of its production almost invisible.  Meanwhile, Katy Price’s cut-up art problematises the many steps between lab and public, over the course of which data becomes ‘science’.

Finally, the human mind is also a black box: we learn things, have experiences (including experiments), and out come ideas and conclusions.  But what goes on inside?  Does it work the same for artists and scientists?  These days we tend to assume that scientists’ minds are tidier and more rational places than artists’, but that’s a historically local assumption.  At other times, creativity and romanticism have been highly rated in scientists.  Tony Stallard’s piece interrogates these thought processes, provoking us to wonder what will be the future relations between creativity and science.

Charlotte Sleigh, Centre for the History of the Sciences, University of Kent

Sidney Cooper Gallery

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“Dear Hilda R., I`m sorry but I just can`t stand biographical novels. For the historian, they are a pollution, plain and simple. So I do not see I can be of any help to you. Sincerely, ----”  

I received the above email from a Freud expert when I approached him for help with my research for Guises of Desire, a biographical novel about Bertha Pappenheim (‘Anna O’ of Studies on Hysteria, Breuer and Freud, 1895). The response highlights an area in which science and literature can lock horns. But how valid is the objection? Can we ever get to the truth of any matter? Surely all reporting is filtered through the world view of the reporter? The narrative of the biographical novelist is that person’s interpretation of events just as much as the historian’s is his. And if the novelist’s interpretation is based on a knowledge of medical advances made long after after the original events, is it not just as deserving of consideration as a case study written at the time from a state of medical ignorance? Added to this is the fact that the process of narrative research can focus attention on areas not otherwise examined, raising fresh questions to be addressed.

I discuss these issues at greater length on my blog at Guises of Desire is available on Amazon.

Nature’s Verse

John Holmes will be launching the paperback of his book Darwin's Bards with a reading and discussion of poems on evolution from across the last two centuries at the Natural History Museum in London on Monday 11th November at 2.30. For more details, click here.

A group of poets will be reading at the Science Museum in London on Wednesday 30th October from 7.30 in the evening. Join Simon Barraclough, Lorraine Mariner, Mick Delap, Sarah Westcott, Richard Barnett, Dominic McLoughlin, Malene Engelund, and Kelley Swain to explore space and science through verse. For more details, click here.

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