Literature and Science, Oxford

A news and information hub for studies in literature and science at Oxford


Oxford is home to many researchers and research groups working at the frontiers of literature and science.


Digital Calendar and Scholarly Edition of John Aubrey (1626-97)

Dr Rhodri Lewis, Dr William Poole and Dr Kate Bennet are working on a collaborative project to produce a four-volume edition of the letters of the seventeenth-century polymath John Aubrey. Aubrey was a member of the fledgling Royal Society and one of the most important disseminators of the latest knowledge in natural philosophy of the time. His correspondence, held by the Bodleian Library, includes exchanges with pioneers of modern science from John Locke and Isaac Newton to Robert Hooke and Edmond Halley. The letters, most of which have never before been published, discuss diverse fields of inquiry, ranging from alchemy and mathematics to natural history, archaeology and astronomy. The scholarly edition of the letters will be accompanied by a digital catalogue. The project has also led to numerous secondary published outputs on Aubrey’s life and influence.

Two major current projects, funded by research grants totalling £4m, are ‘Diseases of Modern Life: Nineteenth-Century Perspectives’ and ‘Constructing Scientific Communities: Citizen Science in the 19th and 21st Centuries’, both led by Professor Sally Shuttleworth.

Diseases of Modern Life: Nineteenth-Century Perspectives

Funded by an Advanced Investigator grant from the European Research Council, this project will explore the medical, literary and cultural responses in the Victorian age to the perceived problems of stress and overwork, anticipating many of the preoccupations of our own era. In our current ‘Information Age’ we suffer as never before, it is claimed, from the stresses of an overload of information, and the speed of global networks. The Victorians diagnosed similar problems in the nineteenth century. The medic James Crichton Browne spoke in 1860 of the ‘velocity of thought and action’ now required, and of the stresses imposed on the brain forced to process in a month more information ‘than was required of our grandfathers in the course of a lifetime’. This project explores the phenomena of stress and overload, and other disorders associated in the nineteenth century with the problems of modernity, as expressed in the literature, science and medicine of the period, tracking the circulation of ideas across these diverse areas.  It will examine ‘diseases from worry and mental strain’, as experienced in the professions, ‘lifestyle’ diseases such as the abuse of alcohol and narcotics, and also diseases from environmental pollution. The study will return to the holistic, integrative vision of the Victorians, as expressed in the science and in the great novels of the period, exploring the connections drawn between physiological, psychological and social health, or disease. Particular areas of focus will be: diseases of finance and speculation; diseases associated with particular professions; alcohol and drug addiction amidst the  middle classes; travel for health; education and over-pressure in the classroom; the development of phobias and nervous disorders; and the imaginative construction of utopias and dystopias, in relation to health and disease.  The project aims to  break through the compartmentalization of psychiatric, environmental or literary history, and to offer new ways of contextualising the problems of modernity facing us in the twenty-first century.

Constructing Scientific Communities: Citizen Science in the 19th and 21st Centuries

This a large collaborative grant from the AHRC, with co-investigators Dr Gowan Dawson of the University of Leicester, and Dr Chris Lintott in Oxford’s Astrophysics Department (and founder of the large internet based citizen science project, Zooniverse) . The project brings together historical and literary research in the nineteenth century with contemporary scientific practice, looking at the ways in which patterns of popular communication and engagement in nineteenth-century science can offer models for current practice.  Three major scientific institutions are partners in the project: the Natural History Museum, London; the Royal Society; and the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons.

When Darwin was developing his theories of evolution he read avidly in popular natural history magazines and sought out information from an army of almost 2000 correspondents. Such engagement with a wide public in the construction of science became increasingly difficult with the development of professional, and highly specialised science, but the emergence of ‘citizen science’ projects has suggested a new way forward. With the creation of vast data sets in contemporary science, there is a need for a new army of volunteers to help classify and analyse the information. The Zooniverse platform, started in 2007 with ‘Galaxy Zoo’, now has over 800,000 participants who contribute to projects from astrophysics to climate science. Significant discoveries have already been made by these volunteers in the field of astronomy. Yet, the structures by which these volunteers might engage with professional science, and through which scientists themselves might draw upon their findings, are not clear, and researchers on the project have been turning to nineteenth-century models of communication to find ways of harnessing this huge popular interest in order to increase the rate of scientific progress.

The information revolution in our own age has parallels in the nineteenth century which saw an explosion of print, and journal publishing; in 1800 there were only around 100 science periodicals, but by 1900 this had jumped to 10,000 worldwide. The project brings together historical and literary research in the nineteenth century with contemporary scientific practice, looking at the ways in which patterns of popular communication and engagement in nineteenth-century science can offer models for current practice. The research is timely since the digital revolution, and open-access publishing, are about to change forever the processes and forms of scientific communication and exchange. The project is based at the Universities of Oxford and Leicester, in partnership with three of our most significant scientific institutions: the Natural History Museum; the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, and the Royal Society. Researchers will draw on their historic collections, uncovering the extraordinary range of largely forgotten science journals of the nineteenth century, from the Magazine of Natural History (one of Darwin’s favourites), to Recreative Science, or Hardwicke’s Science Gossip: an Illustrated Medium of Interchange and Gossip for Students and Lovers of Nature. They will also work with these institutions’ science communities, addressing questions about the creation and circulation of knowledge in the digital age, and looking at innovative ways of breaking through the public/professional divide. Drawing on the historical research, the project will also develop new tools to enable better systems of exchange between professional science, and this growing army of volunteers. As part of the project there will be numerous conferences and public engagement events, including public symposia in the Natural History Museum, the Royal Society and the Royal College of Surgeons, as well as an exhibition in the Hunterian Museum.

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