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The incredible adventures of Professor Branestawm

This is an edited version of a paper just published in Knowledges in Publics, edited by Lorraine and Simone Locke.

cartoon of Branestawm

Professor Branestawm meets his childhood self, W Heath Robinson, 1933

The incredible adventures of Professor Branestawm: the maturing image of science in 20th century juvenile literature

This essay examines some ways in which images of children or the childlike are used in the construction of the scientist, and does so through the study of a series of books of the mid-20th century; Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawm stories (1931-1983). The character of Branstawm, I argue, was clearly constructed as childlike from the start – perhaps as an attempt to appeal to young readers – and yet as the decades move on the character shifts slightly to a presentation which, if not overtly “adult” looses the more childish aspects and is juxtaposed in opposition to children. The maturation of Branestawm is not offered to suggest science “came of age” in the latter half of the 20th century. Although this is tempting, it is also highly simplistic. Rather, it is an opportunity to explore some of the ways images of the childlike can act on cultural constructions of the scientist. I start with a brief discussion to images of children and science before introducing the case study. I then outline the ways I see Branestawm as a childish (and not-childish) character, before making some more analytical points about how this helps endow the scientist end of the character with some particularly powerful aspects of imagery surrounding the child.

Imagining children and scientists

There are several ways in which aspects of the childlike may intersect with the various qualities generally associated with the scientist. It may appear controversial to call a scientist ‘childlike’: as if it was a criticism, or a form of dismissal. Yet such a link may also endow the image of the scientist with a rather special social status. A child-like science might be seen as trivial, silly and under-developed, but it can also be innocent and innately knowledgeable of nature. I have discussed this in more detail elsewhere (Bell, 2008a) but it is worth sketching a few upfront here. We might endow our ideas of the child and scientists in ways which make them appear very separate social identities. For example, we might imagine children as stupid, or at least naïve, in comparison to the wisdom of science. Such a figuring may then have an impact on the way we imagine the relationship between the two groups, seeing young people as necessarily recipients of scientific knowledge, in need of education to interact with science to be ‘full’ members of society or, for the select few, specific technical training in order to become, after time, scientists themselves. In contrast, however, we might equally see children as inherently good and connected to nature and juxtapose such imagery to depict science as corrupt and corrupting. This trope is arguably dominant in late 20th C children’s science fiction and fantasy, as discussed by Jacqueline Rose (1994), Noga Applebuam (2005, 2006), Perry Nodleman (1985). There are also ways in which imaginings of the child and scientists might be seen as similar; such as the idea that children are “little scientists” or, conversely, that scientists take a positively childish approach to interaction with nature, mixing scientific charactersitics of disinterestedness or curiosity with a sense of childish wonder and naivety (which will largely be the focus on this essay).

It’s important to stress that at am I not trying to suggest children are one thing or another. Rather, I accept that our ideas of the child are generally multiple, and often ambiguously applied (not unlike our ideas of science). In many respects, this essay is less concerned with real children, and more interested in the ways our imaginings of children get replicated and reconfigured elsewhere. To assist us in reflecting on the multiple nature of the child in culture, it is worth quoting a rather long passage from sociologist of childhood, Chris Jenks:

pure, bestial, innocent, corrupt, charged with potential, tabula rasa, or even as we view our adult selves […] whether their forms of language, games and conventions are alternative to our own, imitations or crude precursors of our own now outgrown, or simply transitory impenetrable trivia which are amusing to witness and recollect; weather they are constrained and we have achieved freedom, or we have assumed constraint and they are truly free – all these considerations, and more, continue to exercise our theorising about the child in social life’ (Jenks, 2005: 2).

We can see this in Rousseau and other Romantics, as well as in 19th and 20th century developments of developmental psychology, but we should not imagine such theorising of the child is merely a matter of work in ivory towers. It is important to note that when Jenks refers to ‘theorising’, he not only means academic work, but the quite prosaic theorising which we all do as part of everyday social life. We all theorise the child as part of social interaction. We draw on others’ ideas and/ or construct our own based on practical experience and personal moral/ political beliefs. Children, unlike other social groups such as those based around professions (i.e. the scientist) or issues of race, class, gender or sexuality has a rather odd status, because we were all one. The child is, in its own way, extremely familiar. Yet it is also quite strange; ‘he or she inhabits our world and yet seems to answer to another; he or she is essentially of ourselves and yet appears to display a systematically different order of being’ (Jenks, 2005: 2-3, See also Hunt, 1994, for introduction to politics of child/ adult relationships in children’s literature).

Similarly, the scientists we are talking about here are very much the ‘imaginary’ ones of fictional depiction. As many sociologists of science have argued, what counts as ‘science’ is a confused, often contradictory notion which is strategically applied depending on context, rather than the consequence of an inherent ‘demarcation criterion’ (See Gieryn, 1995, for critique of this). In terms of the literary representations of the scientist, we might argue there are right and wrong ways to depict the scientist, and complain about incorrect and/ or overly negative portrayals (e.g. Lambourne, 1999). We could, however, acknowledge that there are a range of identities a scientist in culture might have, and a range of reasons why authors would wish to accentuate one or another of these. Taking this latter approach, tracking fictional scientists can become a way of working through the diversity of ways different people at different times have chosen to think about science in society. Rosalind Haynes (1994) seminal study of the scientist in Western literature suggests literary scientists can be sorted into six ‘stereotypes’. Although somewhat reductive, her typology is useful at least as a heuristic and reflects the ways in which scientist characters have in places become cultural tropes, repeated through culture as sketches and allusions. Haynes’ types range from alchemists driven to pursue an arcane intellectual goal that carries suggestions of ideological evil to more romantic depictions of an ‘unfeeling scientist’ where characters renege on human relationships only in the cause of science. Most important for this study is her sketch of the ‘Stupid Virtuoso’, a character out of touch with the society and so preoccupied with the trivialities of his private world of science, he ignores social responsibilities. This has similarities to romantic images of the unfeeling scientist, albeit slightly less heroically presented, and often comical.

None of this is to argue that images of children and scientists remain purely as ‘make-believe’. The fictional, even the fantastical, not only reflects reality (Hunt & Lenz, 2001, Hume, 1984), but may have a constructive impact on the doing, making and selling of science. Although scientists may find fiction worrying, seeking to correct its mistakes (Kirby, 2003a) or put their own work at distance (Mellor, 2003) they may also find it a useful resource either in the construction of ideas (Kirby, 2003b) or rhetorical positioning (Mellor, 2003, 2007). As Megan Prelinger (2010) has shown in terms of discourses of the space race, allusions to science fiction also feature in advertisements for the recruitment of scientists, thereby playing a possible role in the construction at least some areas of science and engineering. Most interesting for this paper’s purposes, literary researcher Elizabeth Leane (2007) applies Haynes’ typology to those images of scientists constructed auto-biographically in non-fiction ‘popular science’ books by scientists, a loose application of Jurdant’s (1993) idea of popular science writing as the ‘autobiography’ of science.

My argument, however, will be that all incarnations of Branestawm are, at once, both childlike and anti-childlike. If we wish to put this in a theoretical framework, I suggest Thomas Gieryn’s ‘cartographic metaphor’ for the boundaries of science (1995, 1999). This considers the cultural entity we call ‘science’ as analogous to a country on a map, its boarders defined through processes of boundary disputes and diplomatic treaties. The particular advantage of such ‘cultural cartography’ (compared to other frameworks for boundary analysis, see Lamont & Virag, 2002, for some examples) is that maps not only show us where two bounded groups are separated, they also declare shared space; demonstrating simultaneously similarity and distinction. It also reflects, although in a very different context, Ian Mitroff’s (1974) description of scientists’ dynamic alternation between ‘norms’ and ‘counter-norms’ of science, as well as what Simon Locke (2005) calls the ‘ambivalences’ of many cultural images of science. As we shall see, Branestawm, and I believe many more ‘real world’ scientists, negotiate the child/science boundary to take advantage of both positive qualities of childishness as well as the advantages of appearing distinctly ‘mature’.

Introducing Branestawm

The first of Hunter’s Branestawm books, The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm, was published in 1933. It comprised of a collection of stories based on those initially read on the BBC Home Service’s Children’s Hour. They were written by Norman Hunter, who had previously worked in advertising and as a stage magician, as well as serving in World War One in his late teens and is sometimes known as ‘Hunter, teller of tales’. Indeed, he is sometimes referred to as such in bibliographic databases, and the British Library copy of the 1933 edition has ‘teller of tales’ sketched in on pencil in the frontispiece (not by me). The book was illustrated by W. Heath Robinson, who by this time was already famous for his images of fantastic and humorous inventions. The Incredible Adventures were followed in 1937 with Professor Branestawm’s Treasure Hunt. After a break of several decades, during which the writer lived in South Africa, Hunter returned to writing for children, and published fourteen more Branestawm books from 1970 to 1983 (he died in 1995). Although all the Branestawm stories were written by Hunter, a new illustrator was brought in for the 1937 collection, and many different artists have worked with the character over the years. Heath Robinson is possibly the most well known, with his images re-used in several subsequent editions (1939, 1946, 1993) and arguably a strong influence on the later artists.

Prof Branestawm and Colonel Dedshott swap clothesProfessor Branestawm swaps clothes with Colonel Dedshott, W Heath Robinson, 1933

Hunter’s stories centre on the character of ‘Professor Branestawm’, a scientist (or engineer, his specialism is ambiguous) who lives in a small English village. Typically the books contain a series of short stories, each of which describe Branestawm inventing something or trying to go about some form of social life, such as attending a party or returning a library book. Either he gets terribly confused himself or he will confuse other people (often both). In most cases, the invention goes wrong and causes some form of havoc and/ or even structural damage. The inventions are in many ways quite magical and are often anthropomorphized; in that respect the books are openly fantastical. It is worth remembering Hunter’s work as a conjurer here, and that the 1976 spin off activity book, Professor Branestawm’s Do-It-Yourself Handbook, includes several instructions for ‘science experiments’ which are largely magic tricks (although this is a long-standing trope in such books, see, for example, Secord, 2002). They might blow up a building or take over the house. In the 1970 collection, The Peculiar Triumph of Professor Branestawm we, unusually, find inventions which do work, although not in the way they were supposed to. However, interestingly, these were ‘invented’ by child readers, who won a competition run by the publisher to design a machine to be featured in one of the stories.

The key feature of the Branestawm character, and basis for much of the humor of the books, is that he is a social outsider, someone the readers (and other characters) should take some amused bewilderment towards. He is, for many of his fans, the epitome of the absent-minded professor. As Branestawm himself reflects at one point: ‘How strange we professors are, to be sure’ (1933: 173). He finds it hard to communicate with people, and often has conversations at cross-purposes (1933: 130). He walks into a swimming pool because he is thinking too much about finding a library (1933: 88) and continually forgets where he is. When he discovers the library, he tries to buy a bun there, thinking it is a bakery (1933: 29). He finds social life difficult, cumbersome and confusing and often feels out of place and lost. The playfulness of this stereotype is very explicit: in one story, he ends up inadvertently doing an impersonation of himself at the seaside, where people think he is a comic pretending to be an absent minded professor (1933: 203). He has a housekeeper, Mrs Flittersnoop and a best friend, Colonel Deadshott, but generally chooses to be left alone to work with his ‘inventions’.

The books have been translated into several languages, including Polish, Swedish, Italian, German and Thai[i]. There was a later BBC radio adaptation in 2001, and a television series in the late 1960s. One study of books used in British schools in the 1970s stated it was one of the top 20 books read allowed in primary schools, alongside the Chronicles of Narnia, The Borrowers, various works by Dahl and beating the Just William stories (Poole, 1986). They are still in print in the UK, although this is arguably largely due to the nostalgic tendencies of children’s publishing, and the books are less common today. Their attitude to race, gender and class would have kept them off school bookshelves from the 1980s onwards. In places, however, Branestawm appears to continue to resonate in British cultural imagery of the scientist; people will still refer to academics as having ‘Professor Branestawm hair’ as if it was an example everyone will know. Christopher Frayling suggests that the shorthand sketches children compose when asked to draw a picture of a scientist may come from computers, comics, cartoons, films or the cover of Professor Branestawm books (Frayling, 1005: 221) Arguably, it is strange that Frayling refers broadly to each media except for books where a very specific, rather out-dated example is given. However this only shows the power and apparent universality of the Branestawm image in particular cultures, which Frayling appears to belong[ii].

Variable Childishness of Professor Branstawm.

I believe the original 1933 Branestawm to be quite overtly constructed as childlike, both in Hunter’s text and Robinson’s illustrations. Yet, Branestawm’s childishness is variable across the twentieth century. As with any long-standing character (Dr Who, Superman, Tom Swift) the cultural referents used to construct the character and stories changed over time depending on the context, although Branstawm retained the same author, albeit changes in illustrator and editors. One of the more overt examples of how shifts in the public views of science had an impact on these changes in the book is that the James Adams’ illustrations of 1937 edition are much more heavily influenced by images of Freud, as a hairier, bearded Branestawm is shown in a neatly drawn pinstriped suit. As I will argue, the character – more in text than illustration – seems to ‘mature’ somewhat when Hunter returns to writing about him in 1970, becoming less and less childlike throughout the decade, before reaching a sort of ‘2nd childhood’ in the 1980s incarnations. This section will provide a sketch of some of the more childlike aspects of the (generally early) Branestawm, sometimes in comparison with (later) more apparently ‘mature, forms of the character.

To start with Branestawm’s childishness, for all his occasional seriousness in the face of social events such as parties, Branestawm has a clearly presented sense of fun. When the fair visits town, he is desperate to go (1933: 69 onwards). There are also childlike references to eating too much trifle and ginger beer (1933: 86); at bedtime he drinks cocoa and falls out of bed (1933: 169). His lack of social understanding also leads to quite childlike concerns, and he takes things to the extreme. For example, at the end of a fancy-dress party where the Professor and Colonel have gone as each other, people do not believe the had changed back from fancy-dress: ‘So they very nearly had to live in each others’ houses for the rest of their lives’ (1933: 154). The early illustrations show both Branestawm and the Colonel as reasonably short compared to other characters, and they often crouch over slightly, without the more confident posture of an adult. In one illustration Branestawm is shown wearing a ‘trouser elevator contraption’ (1933: 3), a set of braces attached to a fishing rod mechanism, which stops baggy clothes, falling down. This also has the effect of bunching the trousers around his bottom, making him look as if he is wearing a nappy. In the Heath Robinson images of Branestawm, he is often shown wearing clothes which are too big for him; as if he were playing at fancy dress, not quite grown into adult roles. The picture in the 1933 frontispiece shows Branestawm’s tie worn back to front, which is there as a symbol of the lack of care he gives to his clothes (a function of his absent minded-ness) but is also reminiscent of an untidy schoolboy. On some occasions the childlike is, perhaps oddly, constructed through references to symbols of old age. For example, he is depicted as balding. A baldhead is in many ways a symbol of old age, however, it is also has the effect of making the character look as if he hadn’t grown any hair yet. We are also told he has a large head explicitly because he is so brainy (1933: 7) but again, a large forehead is a rather baby-like characteristic. Interestingly, this is perhaps most overtly underlined when we see an image of Branstawm compared to himself as a baby. The Professor invents a potion that brings images to life, but his housekeeper accidentally pours it over a photo album, and facilities of Branstawm through the ages run amok throughout the house. One image shows Branestawm tacking aback by himself as a baby (1933: 121). The baby sits serenely on the floor on the left hand side of the page, grabbing his feet. The Professor mirrors this posture; while falling back in alarm, he bends his body in the middle in a direct reflection of the baby’s movement out to touch his toes. Although the professor is much taller than the baby, and clothed, the differences largely end there. They are both generally hairless. Significantly the baby’s hair is the course and frizzy type, characteristic of ageing, rather than light and soft curls. Further, the baby has glasses, despite overtly being much too young to wear them. This, to me, seems like a clear example of ‘ambivalence’ around child/ adult boundaries with respect to a scientist character, drawing similarity and difference at once. I also think it shows that Heath Robinson picked up on the same cues in the text as I spotted.

The 1930s Branestawm is seemingly terrified of people. Characters from the rest of the village, when we see them, are shown to like him, but generally he hides from social life, with the exception of one friend, Colonel Deadshott. Such anti-social behaviour is also in some ways quite childlike, reflecting a child’s lack of socialization or shyness. The distinction being that an absent minded professor is innocent of society by choice or inclination; for a child it may be more temporal, but effects are similar. Branestawm’s lack of socialisation is also symbolised through references to his odd approach to clothes, language and food. Again, these could be seen as childlike, having not learnt. They are humourous because they are incongruous to what might be expected as normal, but there are also ways in which they figure the character as cute, almost useless in a childlike way (underlined by the housekeeper character, there to take care of him). They also make him slightly inhuman though, almost alien. On food, he would have breakfast overnight so he could start earlier the next morning on an important job (1933: 15). With clothes, as well as the fancy-fress and trouser contraption incidents mentioned earlier, he is referred to as making notes on his shirt cuffs (1933: 16) and at one point inadvertently puts on a ladies bonnet (illust., 1933: 48). Hunter obviously enjoyed linguistic play, and although notes like “He had very few friends because people found it so very difficult to talk to him” (1933: 1) are perhaps a nod to scientific jargon, the language used by the character is more a matter of being vague and imprecise, suggesting a lack of familiarity with language rather than having developed his own advanced form of it: (saying “thingummy” and “whateveritis” (1933: 3). Perhaps most significant, people are indulgent, or at least tolerant of his odd behaviour – Deadshott pretends to understand him (1933:4). In one incident he blows a man’s house up. The professor offers to build him a new one. “But the clock-man said he’d rather invent his own house, thank you all the same” (1933: 66).

In the 1930s Branestawm hid away in his own private space of the home, and in the 1970s we see him out and about, interacting in more public spaces of libraries, school and parks. In the 1980s, we see a sort of synthesis of the two locations; the public world is brought into the home. It is thus a very domestic setting, but one at home and familiar with the outside world. In 1980s, he becomes much more explicitly affable and loveably foolish again, he has parties with jelly and ice-cream (1983b) and writes letters (1981b) although interacts with the world in a familiar way, not as terrified as he was in the early books, he generally stays at home (pleased when guests go home, producing a machine because he doesn’t like writing thank yous). He doesn’t want people around, although this rime around it doesn’t seem as if it’s because he is scared of others, more that he’s learnt they are annoying. In the 1970 book, there are also several encounters with children, emphasising the distinction between the two social roles, and with less of the juxtaposition performed to also show similarity we saw in the 1933 Heath Robinson illustrations. As Branestawm moves into the 1970s, the central characters of these books are now ones for the children to laugh at and look at from afar, not play at being. They are funny because they are odd to the children, not odd like the children.

Where as the 1930s inventions tend to be based in Branestawm’s home, designed to solve problems on running the house, in the 1970s, inventions are on a larger scale, working for public good of whole village, not just himself, based in the outdoors, in the centre of social life (parks, shopping streets, school). In the 1974 book, Professor Branestawm’s Great Revolution, the last story reveals what the revolution of the title is, the professor is asked to design a revolving restaurant. He also lectures at an institute for science and other scientist characters are brought in. There are references to the links between science and the military, as well as commercial culture. There is a greater sense of specialization. In first book it is not clear what he was a professor of; he invented machines, with the suggestion that he was an engineer, but he also had books on languages. Post war, he is more explicitly fashioned as a scientist/ technologist when he goes abroad it is not to anthropologically study the people, but to learn more of their inventions (1970: 37). Looking at the language, the Professor also discusses the science in slightly more detail, suggesting a rather more ‘adult’ vocabulary (compared with the thingummy and whatiscalled’s of the first book). There is even a rival Professor, Gasket Basket, who he gets into an inventing competition with, but uses underhand methods, employing “rascals” to steal Branestawm’s invention. Inventions in 1980s books return to rather more domestic settings (1981ab, 1982ab, 1983ab).

Professor Branestawm looks upProfessor Branestawm’s Trouser Elevator, W Heath Robinson, 1933

The Rhetoric of the childish scientist

There is a sense that the inability to interact with society is a necessary consequence for scientific achievement, and by that vein, also socially acceptable:

For although the Professor was so clever, or perhaps because he was so clever, he was very absent-minded. He was so busy thinking of wonderful things like new diseases or new moons that he simply hadn’t the time to think of ordinary things like old spectacles (Incredible Adventures, 1933: 1)

This is very similar to what Rosalind Haynes (1994) calls the ‘stupid virtuoso’, and arguably pre-dates the more Victorian image of childhood present in the book. Certainly, an absent minded professor is not unique to these books. However, there are ways in which stupid virtuoso characters can be endowed with aspects of childishness, and worth reflecting on this to deconstruct them, and consider the ways they may influence our ideas about children’s relationships with science (and vice versa). From a study of Richard Feynman’s popular writing, she argues that behind anecdotes of asking for lemon and cream in your tea, or asking a servant to dance lies a notion of ‘the wise fool’. As Leane puts it, ‘the boy who saw the emperor’s nakedness’. These stories are applied to show how the scientist can debunk unnecessarily or cruel social practices and find the efficient, true and (morally) right way ahead (Leane, 2007: 151). She does not reflect on it being a boy (rather than a person of any age) which manages to see the ‘nakedness. Yet, this unconscious reference to youth is significant, as we see the idea of the innocent child intersecting with notions of the scientist as either ‘disinterested’ (Merton, 1973) or a ‘modest witness’ of nature (Shapin and Schaffer, 1985).

Linked to this idea of innocence is a strong sense of simple-ness in the image of Branestawm, which I would also sits within some of the figuring of him as a childish character (whilst at the same time not being dependent on it). For example, again from the start of the first book:

Professor Branestawm, like all great men, had simple tastes. He wore simple trousers with two simple legs. His coat was simply fastened with safety pins because the buttons had simply fallen off. His head was simply bald and it simply shone like anything whenever the light caught it. (1933:1)

This equating an idea of simplicity to both science and greatness, which reflects cultural ideas of the scientist as humble, as well as more philosophical points such as Occam’s razor. It also implies we need not question him; he just is. Yet, interestingly, behind the appearance of simplicity lies a more complex sense of magic, as the character also plays up to the idea of the scientist as having an intuitive or hidden ability to work nature. E.g. in the description of one of his inventions (pretty standard for many throughout the whole series, until the 1980s):

Blue and yellow smoke shot out from every part of the machine. Wheels whizzed. Levers clicked. Little bits of stuff went buzzing up and down and round and round. And far beneath them the landscape rushed by quicker and quicker until at last they could see nothing but a grey haze all round them (1933: 4-5)

Similarly, from 1981: “Suddenly he had an idea. Right out of nowhere it came. Like catching measles, only nicer” (1981b: 5). It’s maybe worth remembering Hunter as a stage conjurer who fancied himself the fancy-dress of the mad scientist; an odd reflection of JBS Haldane, perhaps, who in his Mr Leakey stories (1937) adopts the costume of a magic man, but equally uses a children’s book to play with ideas of the scientist as magician. As Haynes’ history of fictional scientists shows, this idea of scientist as magic man has a long history; if anything it is an especially old form of the character. However, it’s also worth noting that this an almost magical connection between the child and nature is a very common theme in children’s literature too. As Rose puts it, the child is “constantly set up as the site of a lost truth” (Rose, 1994: 43). Applebaum (2006) has argued that such nature-child connections are used to distance children from science, and critique the latter in many science fiction books written for young people. However, I think Branestawm is an example of the ways in which the two can be combined, endowing the scientist character with the various positive characteristics of the child mysteriously in nature (for other examples of this, see also Bell, 2008ab).

Branestawm makes a messBranestawm makes a mess, W Heath Robinson, 1933


Concluding points

This essay has considered some of the ways in which an image of the child might be woven into those of a scientist. I hope this helps us consider some of the detail of our cultural construction of scientists, in particular their rhetorical appeal. Oddly perhaps, the childlike can endow the image of the scientist with a rather unthreatening and intuitive association with natural knowledge, even if childlike scientists will also have to work to distance themselves from other images of youth such as the more pathological notions of ignorance, triviality or thoughtlessness. As Elizabeth Leane’s (2007) discussion of constructed public face of Richard Feynmen suggests, there is a rhetorical appeal to such constructions, as childlike imagery may provide powerful symbols of an apparent link to truth and/ or purity of purpose. Leane’s study also shows how these fictional representations make spill into non-fictional ones. Branestawm is not part of a concerted public relations campaign for science, but such images can be extended elsewhere to be.

It would be a neat piece of analysis to argue that between the differences in age-based allusions of Branestawm are reflective of the emergence of ‘Big Science’ as a form of coming of age, but that would be too simple. To some extent this analysis is ahistorical anyway. Or rather, cross-historical. Not because what Branestawm depicts is in any way universal, but because children’s literature is so often carried across time. Due to the nostalgic tendencies of children’s book production and dissemination (i.e. that it is made by the generation before its audience, and parents often give books of their youth to their children), what Branestawm said about science then is largely what it says now. Branestawm is interesting today not only as an expression of science in the mid 20th century, but of one that both looked back nostalgically at the time and is still resonant in its nostalgia today; either through various recycling of post modern culture or more directly, as readers of the 1970s give it to their children, who give it to theirs. Instead, the variability and contingency of Branestawm’s symbolic childishness perhaps provides an extra analytical point. In the latter half of the twentieth century, Scientist characters became more central to public life, but at the same time would emphasise their special qualities to appear distinct. If I was to hazard any broad statement about the sweep of time the books reflect, it is that images of science became, perhaps, more ambivalent, drawing on the childlike images of the past and adding in new. The most recent edition of the 1933 book (which is the most long-lived) I could find was over a decade ago, but there are e-book versions, BBC last re-broadcast a reading of the stories in March 2011 and an online bookshop listing suggests a “Vintage” edition will be published again in 2013. So he may yet return, perhaps re-fashioned by a new author, illustrator or production team.

References:

  • Applebaum, Noga (2006) ‘The Myth of the Innocent Child: the Interplay Between Nature, Humanity and Technology in Contemporary Children’s Science Fiction’, The Journal of Children’s Literature Studies, vol3, issue 2, July 2006.
  • Applebaum, Noga (2005) ‘Electronic Texts and Adolescent Agency: Computers and the Internet in Contemporary Children’s Fiction’, in Reynolds, Kimberly (ed) Modern Children’s Literature. (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave).
  • Bell, Alice (2008a) ‘The Childish Nature of Science: exploring the child/science relationship in popular non-fiction’ in Bell, Alice, Davies, Sarah & Mellor, Felicity (eds) Science and its Publics: Following Scientists into Popular Culture (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars), 79-98.
  • Bell, Alice (2008b) Science as Pantomime: Explorations in Contemporary Children’s Non-Fiction Books, PhD thesis, Imperial College London.
  • Frayling, Christopher (2005) Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know: The Scientist and the Cinema (Reaktion Books, London).
  • Gieryn, Thomas F (1995) ‘Boundaries of Science’, in Jasanoff, Shelia et al (eds) (1995) Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (London: Sage) pp393-443.
  • Gieryn, Thomas F (1999) Cultural Boundaries of Science. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
  • Haldane, JBS. (1937) My Friend, Mr Leakey (Harmondsworth: Penguin).
  • Haynes, Rosalind (1994) From Faust to Strangelove: representations of the scientist in western literature (Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore).
  • Hume, Kathryn (1984) Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature (New York and London: Methuen).
  • Hunt, Peter (1994) An Introduction to Children’s Literature (Opus, Oxford)
  • Hunt, Peter and Lenz, Millicent (2001) Alternative Worlds in Fantasy Fiction (London: Continuum).
  • Hunter, Norman (writer) Robinson, W Heath (illustrator) (1933) The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm (John Lane, London)
  • Hunter, Norman (writer) Arnold, James (illustrator) (1937) Professor Branestawm’s Treasure Hunt (John Lane, London)
  • Hunter, Norman (writer) Robinson, W Heath (illustrator) (1939) Stories of Professor Branestawm (selections of first two books) (EJ Arnold & Son, Leeds)
  • Hunter, Norman (writer) Robinson, W Heath (illustrator) (1946) The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm (Penguin, Harmondsworth)
  • Hunter, Norman (writer) Adamson, George (illustrator) (1970) The Peculiar Triumph of Professor Branestawm (Bodley Head, London)
  • Hunter, Norman (writer) Hughes, Derek (illustrator) (1974) Professor Branestawm’s Great Revolution and other incredible adventures (Bodley Head, London)
  • Hunter, Norman (writer) Rose, Gerald (illustrator) (1981a) Professor Branestawm’s Pocket Motor Car (Puffin, Harmondsworth)
  • Hunter, Norman (writer) Rose, Gerald (illustrator) (1981b) Professor Branestawm and the Wild Letters (Bodley Head, London)
  • Hunter, Norman (writer) Rose, Gerald (illustrator) (1982a) Professor Branestawm’s Mouse War (Bodley Head, London)
  • Hunter, Norman (writer) Rose, Gerald (illustrator) (1982b) Professor Branestawm’s Building Bust-Up (Bodley Head, London)
  • Hunter, Norman (writer) Rose, Gerald (illustrator) (1983a) Professor Branestawm’s Hair-Raising Idea (Bodley Head, London)
  • Hunter, Norman (writer) Rose, Gerald (illustrator) (1983b) Professor Branestawm’s Crunchy Crockery (Bodley Head, London)
  • Hunter, N (writer) Robinson, W Heath (illustrator) (1993) The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm (Puffin, London)
  • Jenks, Chris (2005) Childhood, 2nd edition. (Oxford: Routledge).
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  • Lambourne, Robert (1999) ‘Science Fiction and the Communication of Science’, in Scanlon et al (eds) Communicating Science: Contexts and Channels (London: Routledge), 146-157.
  • Lamont, Michele & Virag Molnar (2002) ‘The Study of Boundaries in the Social Sciences’, Annual Review of Sociology 28:167-95.
  • Leane, Elizabeth (2007) Reading Popular Physics: Disciplinary Skirmishes and Textual Strategies (Hampshire: Ashgate)
  • Locke, Simon (2005) ‘Fantastically Reasonable: Ambivalence in the Representation of Science and Technology in Super-hero Comics’, Public Understanding of Science, vol 14 (1): 25-46.
  • Mellor, Felicity (2007) ‘Colliding Worlds: Asteroid Research and the Legitimatization of War in Space’, Social Studies of Science, vol. 37(4): 499-531.
  • Mellor, Felicity (2003) ‘Between Fact and Fiction: demarcating science from non-science in popular physics books’, Social Studies of Science, vol. 33, no4: 509-538.
  • Merton, Robert (1973) The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations, edited with an introduction by Norman W Storer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
  • Mitroff, Ian I. (1974). Norms and counter-norms in a select group of Apollo Moon scientists: A case study in the ambivalence of scientists. American Sociological Review, 39, 579-595.
  • Nodleman, Perry (1985) ‘Out There In Children’s Science Fiction: Forward into the Past’, Science Fiction Studies, vol 12: 285-295.
  • Poole, Roger (1986) ‘The Books Teachers Use’, Children’s Literature in Education, vol 17(3) 159-180.
  • Prelinger, Megan (2010) Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race 1957-1962 (New York: Blast Books).
  • Rose, Jacqueline (1994) The Case of Peter Pan, 2nd edition. (Basingstoke: Macmillan).
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  • Shapin, Steven & Schaffer, Simon (1985) Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and The Experimental Life (Princeton UP: Princeton)


Acknowledgements:
This work was carried out as part of doctoral research (AHRC grant no: 05/116470) at the Science Communication Group, Imperial College. Drafts of this paper were presented at several conferences. My thanks to the organisers of these events, as well as all attendees for their attention, suggestions and questions.


[i] My thanks to the ‘academic discussion of children’s literature – uk’ listserv for assistance in tracking down Branestawm in translation.

[ii] It should be noted that here Frayling is discussing a set of drawings produced by 7-11 year olds in the South West of England in summer 2003. An argument for the resonance of Branestawm in the subjects of the 1983 UK study he is replicating might be more convincing.

Troll Below? Science policy below the line.

troll

Some streetart on a bridge in Dublin

I have an essay in James Wilsdon and Rob Doubleday’s collection: “Future directions for scientific advice in Whitehall” (downloadable for free). It’s an invitation for the various greats and goods of science policy to not only use social media to promote their ideas but to “go below the line” and listen to the public there too. I know such listening is problematic – I’m not about to try to rehearse all the problems here, they exist and are generally very specific to the people and cases involved – but that doesn’t mean you can’t try.

There’s a shorter version on our Guardian blog, or here’s a preview of the full thing:

We should ask what we want openness to mean online, what forms we want to invest in, and how this should be organised. There is a lot more to open science than simply open access. Indeed, a preoccupation with the latter as a solution to social ills may well be a way of avoiding dealing with the former. Further, how we choose to finance and manage forms of open access is far from straightforward. Whilst politicians, scientists, publishers and learned societies argue it out, the #icanhazpdf hashtag is gradually whittling away at current publishing models (used so people looking for paywalled papers can find those with institutional log-ins who are willing to be generous on their library’s behalf). Scientists may feel persecuted by activists, especially if they engage in debates over climate change, alternative medicine or animal rights. They may also feel that when work flows into ‘social media’, even more of their private lives are being taken over by work. Online interaction can be tiring.

A related issue is whether the public can be trusted with science in the open. One might, for example, feel pleased when the Science Media Centre manages to keep a story out of the press (as when I heard senior scientists cheer in the case of a story about GMO food last year). Alternatively, one could follow the lead of the Cancer Research UK news blog which accepts that stories they don’t agree with will get published, but uses the more open spaces of the web to put extra context out there, hoping those who care will find it. One recent piece of research argues that the ‘incivil’ tone of web comments can derail evidence-based public debate on science, technology and especially environmental and health issues. For all that I can personally relate to this (having uncomfortably found myself being incivil myself, as well as at the receiving end of incivility), such calls for polite behavior online leave me uneasy. Complaints about ‘tone’ are too easily used to quell dissent. Words like ‘troll’ can become a proxy for what is, at best, disagreement, and worst, class hatred.

It is now 18 years since Bruce Lewenstein suggested a ‘web model’ as an alternative to top-down ideas of science communication in his study of the cold fusion controversy. This networked view seems almost too obvious today, as gross a simplification as the deficit model. But it contains an important message that is increasingly hard to ignore: the simple messiness of scientific discourse. Although neater debate has its uses, especially in policymaking, that doesn’t mean we should aim to tidy it all up. This mess is how we build capacity for more coherent exchanges, build trust, learn and digest. It is also where people can show dissent and support for science, both of which are important. We should be wary of being too spooked by the incivility or apparent lack of expertise online. As science policy debate bleeds onto social media, we shouldn’t be scared to take a dip below the line, and take some time to look and listen. You never know what we might find.

For personal reasons – and partly to make a slightly tongue in cheek point – comments are closed for this entry.

John Hayes MP and the bourgeois

Goveart

Gove-themed streetart, Brighton.

Our energy minister John Hayes seems to enjoy the word “bourgeois”. I don’t blame him, it’s a fun word to say.

Back in October, he described the idea of onshore wind farms as “a bourgeois left article of faith based on some academic perspective”, arguing that “We need to understand communities’ genuine desire” instead “These things are about the people and I am the people’s minister” (as the Telegraph said, this seemed odd from a Tory minister). I heard him make similar claims to be on the side of the real people in a lecture at Imperial College later that month too. Yesterday he used it again, this time while dismissing David King’s perspective on clearing rainforest for biofuels as “detached, bourgeois views” (from 2hr 40 mins in). Within hours, this line had made it into Hayes’ Wikipedia entry, nestled between references to his low Stonewall rating and membership of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child.

If Hayes is going to apply the language of class war, we might as well run with it, especially as his perspective reminds me slightly of Soviet agricultural policy. I’m not being facetious. It’s also where I find some worth – as well as the ultimate poverty – of Hayes’ perspective. Let me explain.

Soviet agricultural policy is fascinating stuff. Short version: There is a long-standing Marxist issue with reductionist and determinist nature of genetics (and honestly, Francis Galton was a bit of a dick). A chap called Trofim Lysenko offered an alternative, and ended up dominating Soviet biology and agricultural policy to the extent that dissenters would be sent to the Gulags. Aside from a more socialist view of how nature worked and should be managed, he also offered a character of a self-taught, plain-speaking “barefoot scientist” of the people. It was worked in contrast to an idea of isolated lab-based ivory tower academics apparently more interested in animals and chemicals in bottles than people (good In Our Time on Lysenkosim). It was an attractive message. Even though if was also largely wrong, with disastrous consequences to boot.

In the same way, Hayes’ claim to be for the people sounds attractive too. Many scientists today, even David King, do seem distant and bourgeois. Hayes has a point in that, even if I think it’s ultimately used to disempower the public voice and be anything but as egalitarian as he implies. Who exactly are the publics against wind power? (they prefer it to a shale gas well, at least). And the landgrabs issue behind much of the biofuels story this week? All about inequality.

The last few decades have seen a lot of good work on public engagement with UK science. However, this challenge is huge, especially in the more politically charged issues like climate. It amounts to a quantity of work which frankly we haven’t come close to scratching the surface of investing in enough. Also, at the same time as all the increased public engagement work’s been going on, science education has managed to alienate many members of the general public. There are fees, etc, limiting access to universities but there are deeper problems too. The school-science curriculum is still largely designed to prepare people for A-level then undergraduate science, even though most people won’t take it that far. It’s also (oddly perhaps) influenced by the lobbies who want to keep a distinct identity for chemistry, biology and physics, meaning multidisciplinary, political topics like climate science don’t get the attention they deserve. There have been movements to try to design a science curriculum more focused on making educated publics, not scientists. But the scientific lobby largely manages to undermine it. Interestingly, one of the first UK politicians to really push for this “school science for the people” was Thatcher, Hayes’ Tory class war around science isn’t exactly new.

In recent years, the science lobby has also been actively arguing for “triple science” GCSE as the gold standard for those who want to do science at the top universities. Except there aren’t enough science teachers to go round, so this puts certain schools at an advantage. Tories seem to love triple science. The cynic in me says it’s because they know it keeps the proles out. Science used to be seen as a field open to working class kids – especially compared to classics or literature – but increasingly, it’s not the case. Access to scientific careers is a public relations issue in many ways, because if science is see as something “people like me” wouldn’t do, it’s culturally distant. Simply having friends and family who work in particular fields is one of the most powerful forms of engagement there is.

School science is the only time everyone learns together. We should do it better, and the scientific community need to take a good, hard look at themselves and think about how the choices they make in constructing themselves – or at least their undergrads – may further social inequality. And how this can come back to kick them in the bum when they get called bourgeois.

On the Today Programme, Hayes claimed to be talking about pragmatics: “my principle concern is to keep the lights on, and if the lights went off it’d be no good saying it was for the right reason, energy security is fundamental. It’s all very well having these kind of detached, bourgeois views but I have to deal with the practicalities”. In comparison, King had just been asked if saving the rainforest was a hippie-ish concern to save orangutans. He replied very calmly: “never mind the orangutans, it’s about the oxygen that we breathe, we’re talking about something quite serious”.

Precisely because the desire to breathe isn’t “bourgeois” it’s important scientists work harder to keep the public onside.

Pseudo Tory revolutionary art, Brighton

Should scientists be bolder in public?

tomorrow disappeared, street art in east london

I spoke at the London Climate Forum this weekend. This is a rough sketch of what I said.

Jeremy Grantham is the investor behind the “Grantham Institute” centres for climate change research at Imperial and the LSE. He recently wrote a provocative opinion piece for Nature, arguing:

Overstatement may generally be dangerous in science (it certainly is for careers) but for climate change, uniquely, understatement is even riskier and therefore, arguably, unethical. It is crucial that scientists take more career risks and sound a more realistic, more desperate, note on the global-warming problem. Younger scientists are obsessed by thoughts of tenure, so it is probably up to older, senior and retired scientists to do the heavy lifting. Be arrested if necessary. This is not only the crisis of your lives — it is also the crisis of our species’ existence. I implore you to be brave.

It’s a bold statement. But possibly not a fair one. As Roger Pielke Jr quipped, “how about you go first?” More to the point, perhaps, many scientists recoiled from the suggestion, not simply because they lacked the courage or conviction of their work, but because they felt that isn’t a productive way to do science in public. People’s ideas of science vary, but to many it is not about bolding delivering anything, but asking questions.

And yet, perhaps Grantham has a point that climate is different. It’s more urgent, and there are more than enough people external to science ready to pounce and amplify your understatement for you. It’s surrounded by a very different political narrative of certainty and doubt than, for example, BSE. It’d be wrong to build a policy of scientific advice for climate based on models constructed in other crisis. Further, one might argue that climate science as a community is a bit too reticent, a bit too quick to hide (at least compared to other actors in the field), perhaps because the scientists who are currently at the most senior levels came into it before it was such a high profile political issue; they didn’t sign up for this.

In many ways, this isn’t a new dilemma. One might even say it’s the basic paucity of scepticism, the evental emptiness of doubt: At some point, you have to believe in something and act, or you do nothing. That doesn’t mean we have to be stuck though, it’s just a matter of deciding when you do choose to put questions to one side and act.

I don’t think we should be prescriptive about what scientists do here. If some would rather focus on uncertainty, fine, but equally I don’t think we should necessarily admonish those who take their work more boldly to the streets either (for one thing, that plays into stories those working against scientific advice would seek to promote: who are we really serving when we do such scolding?). That’s not to say we can’t critique individual actions we disagree with, but I’d like to think science is big and diverse enough to cover a range of approaches to science in society, and that we should be ok with that. If anything, we should celebrate and foster diversity of political attitude and approach. There’s a lot more to scientists in society than simply those who speak out and those who don’t; there are different ways to speak, a range of frames and a diversity of possible audiences. As Pielke Jr argues in his book the Honest Broker, their are various models for scientific advice one might choose, the important thin gis scientists do pick one approach, and do so consciously  thinking about which they apply, when and why.

I’m not sure I agree with Grantham’s focus on senior scientists, although they will have to be more accepting of such an approach if younger, less senior ones are to be involved too. This kind of work doesn’t just have to be done scientists either, but other members of the scientific community: educators, public engagement officers, artists, psychologists, sociologists, writers, press officers, storytellers, filmmakers, all sorts. (Yes, these people are part of the scientific community – broadly defined – and many are very skilled too).

We just don’t see enough of this activity applied to climate science. And so, I’d say if Grantham really wants a stronger public discourse on climate science, he should put his money where his mouth is and fund some. There used to be the Grantham Prize for journalism, the funding for which was recently shifted to training journalists, but journalism is only one part of the sort of work needed here. I would like to see a much larger project of investment in a larger range of climate communications. (I think it should be funded by the government, but that’s another fight). I know way too many science communication people who deliberately frame their ideas to have a biomedical theme so they can apply to Wellcome public engagment grants. If Grantham helped put together a climate version, I’m sure many would shift their energies, and that’d probably be a lot more productive in the long run than front page photos of Brian Hoskins occupying an oil rig.

JD Bernal: the communist crystallographer

Uni of Sussex

A small sign of political protest at the University of Sussex this morning.

I was supposed to go to the JD Bernal Lecture at Birkbeck College a few weeks back; given this year by David Willetts. Except it was cancelled after a perceived threat of “disruptive” political protests. So I found myself with a free evening. I had another invite that evening, to an event at my old employer, Imperial College, celebrating their ongoing relationship with EDF. Or a mate was giving a talk about Spanish communism. In the end, though, I decided the best way to pay tribute to Bernal was to curl up with a few books about him.

Here are my notes.

John Desmond Bernal was born in 1901 in County Tipperary. He went to boarding school in England, then a scholarship to Cambridge in 1919, studying maths and science, followed by doctoral work with William Henry Bragg at the Royal Institution. He moved back to Cambridge in 1927 as lecturer in structural crystallography, becoming assistant director of the Cavendish Laboratory in 1934.

Bernal was one of those scientists people feel the need to say “he never won a Nobel” about, presumably because maybe he could have. It’s sometimes argued that he just spred his expertise a bit too thin. He was largely recognised as a bit of a general clever-clogs, picking up the the nick-name “sage” at university. A couple of his PhD students – Max Perutz and Dorothy Hodgkin – did win Nobels though, as had his old supervisor, Bragg. Rosalind Franklin worked with him for a bit, as did Maurice Wilkins, Francis Crick and Aaron Klug. So he had a bit of Nobel shine around him. But it’s maybe inappropriate to lead a discussion of Bernal with a list of famous people he worked with though. He was, after all, as famous for his socialism as his science.

At school he had been rather insulated from politics. But from early 1920, he started attending Socialist Society meetings at Cambridge and, as a PhD student living in Bloomsbury later that decade, he joined both the Holborn Labour Party and the Communist Party (it wasn’t especially remarkable to be a member of both at the time). He marched in the General Strike in 1926 and was supposed to have been left very moved by the experience of walking though London streets left at a relative standstill. But his years in Bloomsbury, if anything, weren’t especially inspiring politically, and it was in the 30s back in Cambridge that he got more active. There’s a story that he was galvanized by the Russian delegation’s contribution to a major history of science conference held at the Science Museum in 1931, but I tend to think reports of damascene moments are worth taking with a pinch of salt. Some said Bernal eventually took to Marxism with a religious fever, a replacement for the Catholicism of his youth (a point others also have made about his adoption of Freud). Again, I’m sceptical when I read people are religious in their political zeal, it just seems a bit patronising. I don’t know though, maybe Bernal was. Apparently he wasn’t strictly a “card carrying” commie, having dropped his actual card sometime in 1933 and not bothering to replace it (see Fred Steward’s chapter in Swann & Aprahamian).

Bernal wasn’t unusual as a politically active left wing scientist in 1930s Britain. Eric Hobswam cites CP Snow as saying if you were to poll a couple of hundred of the brightest young physicist in the mid 1930s, you’d have found around fifteen communists, a good fifty more on left and a hundred admitting to leftie sympatheises, with the rest neutral apart from the odd handful on the right (Swann & Aprahamian, 1999: xii). Bernal could be seen as at the forefront of what some would call “red science” in three ways: the organization of scientific workers, part of political mobalisation of science against war and as one of the more influential prophets for the potential of science for progress (Swann & Aprahamian, 1999: xi).

One of the outcomes of they way Bernal was not only a scientist interested in politics but someone who felt the two should be connected was his 1939 book The Social Function of Science. The book paid strong attention to the way resources were allocated to various parts of science and technology had become crucial to the development of nations. It was highly influential, instrumental in the development of the social studies of science. As Chris Freeman summarises, for Bernal science is the most important thing humans do and so, in both short and long term, it’s own justification. It provides such a huge capacity for social change and improvement of peoples lives. It just had to be planned out in the right way. At the heart of Bernal’s book – and his political legacy – is a call to organise this great human power of science, and to organise it to serve the many, not the few. His particular inspirations and approaches contained, arguably, somewhat of an over-idealisation of USSR’s particular way of planning science by Bernal. But that doesn’t mean his central desire to try to organise science is necessarily wrong, just that we might disagree about the best way to go about it. There are a range of ways we might organise science, and a range of ways we might be explicit and hope to involve others in this process.

Freeman agrees with Bernal’s enthusiasm for ambitious well-organised use of science and technology for human welfare, but stresses need to be complemented with equally explicitly commitment to promotion of open critical debate (see also Freeman’s Vega lecture on Bernal). In reference to Bernal’s much publicsised support of Lynsenco, Freeman argues that the best way to criticise and expose reactionary ideas in science remains to point out they are unscientific in public, not to rely on political labels. Bernal’s view of organising science was basically “a vision of brains interlinked to form a complex hierarchical system” (Swann & Aprahamian, 1999: 129), and that’s where the list of “great names” at the start sort of fit. Bernal venerated expertise, or at least he had a strong belief the benevolence of the scientific expert when it came to distributing the power to make decisions about science. In many ways this is what separates him from some contemporary social studies of science. It’s also one of the (many) ways his rather scientific and technological utopian approach diverges from greener left wing politics.

In 1938 Bernal was appointed professor of physics at Birkbeck, but at the onset of the Second World War he was pressed into service. Apparently John Anderson (that’s Anderson as in Anderson shelters) wanted Bernal as a scientific adviser “even if he is as red as the flames of Hell”. Together with his friend Solly Zuckerman, Bernal gave analysis of bombing a quantitative basis, which helped make a case against exaggerated claims about the effectiveness of Allied bombing, going on – with Patrick Blackett – to advise against the bombing of several German cities as a waste of manpower and resources. Later, Bernal and Zuckerman were seconded to General Mountbatten’s D-Day planning team, and a strong friendship sprang up between Bernal and Mountbatten.

After the war, Bernal resumed his professorial duties at Birkbeck, setting up the Biomolecular Research Laboratory in 1948. Post war, although apparently he “helped put the S in UNESCO” (Swann & Aprahamian, 1999: xxiii) his politics sometimes got him into trouble with the scientific establishment. He was excluded from the British Association for the Advancement of Science after speech he gave in Moscow critiquing the nature and control of science in the capitalist west, and Julian Huxley refused to work with communist scientists. Bernal was also an active peace campaigner, involved in the World Peace Council. When the British Peace Committee attempted to host the World Peace Congress in Sheffield, a number of delegates ended up stranded in London, including one Pablo Picasso. Bernal organised a party in his flat for them, and Picasso drew a mural on the wall of Bernal’s sitting room. Bernal later gave it to the ICA, and it’s currently at the Wellcome Collection (only a few blocks from Birkbeck).

I haven’t really gone into his personal life here, but Hobsbawn, in his LRB review of Andrew Brown’s The Sage of Science described Bernal as having a “purple” approach to sex to complement his otherwise redder characteristics. Brown says Bernal and his wife took to their open marriage “with gusto” (pdf, see page 65). You can google around a bit for more. He had a few kids. His mum sounded pretty cool. Read the first few pages of Brown’s book for details on her. There are a few portraits of him in the national collection and a plaque outside his old flat in Camden. He died in 1971 and is buried in South London.

So there you go. John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971). A scientist, a leftie, a pacifist, a lover and a fighter. “Red as the flames of Hell”, but mates with Mountbatten. Not a card-carrying communist, but no less an enthusiastic one. You can make up your own mind as to what you think he’d have made of the threat of a protest over higher education funding, or of a lecture in his name being given by a Tory science minister. Birkbeck have published the text of the talk Willetts would have given, so you can make up your mind what Bernal would have thought of that too.

Science and the greens

I’ve written a piece with Adam Corner about science and the green movement.

It’s a complex issue with many components, characters, ideas and histories to weave through. Although I have a lot of sympathy when people, like Fred Pearce, worry the green movement is too often “turning up on the wrong side of the scientific argument”, I also think we should be careful of marginalising the political contribution the green movement can offer. Scientists and members of the green movement – where they don’t already overlap – should be listening to each other more.

You can read the full piece at the New Left Project, or here’s an extract:

It’s not just their scepticism of science and technology, which gets the greens into trouble with the scientific community; it’s their overconfidence in it too. In the wake of the 2009 “Climategate” hack, Mike Hulme wrote a piece for the Guardian complaining that climate camp activists misunderstood science as they tried to use it for political advocacy. Citing an example of a banner claiming protestors were “armed only with peer-reviewed science”, Hulme stressed they were armed with much more than that. The Climate Camp protest reflected a powerful vision of politics and economic justice, and should be open about that. Using phrases like “as demanded by the science” only emasculates public debate.

It is important to see that Climate Camp slogan in its political context too though. The campaigners were responding to concerns that they were dangerous; they wanted to suggest they were armed with something other than sticks. The actual banner has a set of ellipses as well as the word “only” between “armed” and “peer reviewed”. Read in such light, we could even see this as a relatively humble cultural reference to science, applied for its timidity, not ferocity. Moreover, why not stand behind some science? Especially as there are so many others quick to try to diminish the strength of scientific voices in this debate. We appreciate this may sound at odds with our earlier emphasis on the political nature of science and technology, but it is possible to be aware that science won’t win a battle outright, and still say it is part of the argument. We think our environmental policy decisions can cope with the small degree of nuance required to draw on science whilst also putting it in a social context. We think our environmental policy needs to be able to do this.

Steven Yearley suggests environmental NGOs were initially wary about campaigning on climate change; they were looking for concrete successes and this topic just looked like one designed to provoke and sustain controversy. Looking at recent campaigns, we might be excused for thinking some have returned to a rather 80s focus on saving animals and battling corporate corruption. It’s all bees, oil spills, gas bills and aircraft noise, with the complex, abstract and contested topic of climate change hiding in background. Maybe the climate science will come out from behind the polar bear pictures with the publication of the fifth IPCC report, or maybe not. Sense About Scienceare working on questions of the public understanding of uncertainty. Arguably this is a worthwhile, scientific and sensible thing to do, but considering the well documented well-funded and well-organised campaigns to spread doubt in climate science (the so-called “Merchants of Doubt”), it’s understandable many are concerned about such an approach. One person’s open and healthy acceptance of uncertainty is another’s “dragging heels with inaction”, or even stirring trouble. Uncertainty, like many aspects of environmental policy, can be rhetorically deployed to a range of ends.

Happy birthday Frank Oppenheimer!

The conservation of angular momentum at the Deutsches Museum

The conservation of angular momentum being demonstrated at the Deutsches Museum, 1926.

I’ve written about Frank Oppenheimer before, but as today marks the 100th anniversary of his birth, I thought he was worth mentioning again.

Frank Oppenheimer had a fascinating life. I highly recommend KC Cole’s biography of him. The short version is that he was born into a reasonably wealthy American family and followed big brother J Robert (of Manhattan Project fame) into physics. Frank stood next to Robert when the atom bomb was first tested. After the war, however, Frank ended up being black-balled from academic research due to his brief membership of the Communist Party in the 1930s. I’ve read rumours that this was because of how sensitive his brother’s work was to the energy industry but only rumours, I’ve never seen anything strong on that. So Frank sold an old painting of his Dad’s and ran a cattle ranch instead. How’s that for alternative postdoc careers? When a vacancy for a science teacher opened at the local high school a few years later, he tried his hand at education. He sounds like a fun teacher, starting lessons with trips to the local dump to collect bits of old machines to use in demonstrations of thermodynamics. He also developed a large library of teaching resources to share with other teachers or students. His reputation spread and he ended up being invited back to teach at the local university. In 1965, he secured a fellowship to do some research at UCL and, while he was there, visited several of the major European science museums. These inspired him to set up something similar, but more informal, when he got home. This became San Francisco’s Exploratorium, opened in 1969.

As the Exploratorium website puts it, they broke the science museum mold. It was more science by way of the local dump than the rarified archive of the Patent Museum and Great Exhibition which set the basis of the London Science Museum collection. Many exhibits were put together from old bits of scientific equipment Oppenheimer had talked contacts at NASA and Stanford into donating. There is a lovely story that someone spotted new traffic lights in the street outside, so they asked the company that manufactured the lights to donate the old ones and that became an early optics exhibit. From the start, the Exploratorium was built on a very scientific commitment to the sharing of knowledge and continuous development as well as reasonably artistic sense of playful reinterpretation. As their website puts it, the exhibits are never “done”. Maybe I’ve read too much sociology, but this image of slightly messy, opportunistic, networked and tinkered-with science seems like quite an appropriate exposition of 20th century research. There was also a strong commitment to openness. Their workshops were set in the centre of the museum, with windows so visitors could see the exhibits being developed and fixed. Most importantly, perhaps, they shared instructions of how to make their exhibits with other institutions through training networks and a set of “Cookbooks“. It’s all a bit open source.

Their ideas spread far and wide, and Exploratorium exhibits have been made and remade around the world. I once stumbled across a sort of pop up Exploratorium in a subway tunnel in Brussels which included exhibits made by schoolchildren. Exhibitions have been developed and localised as they moved. I remember a “thong-a-phone” exhibit from a science museum in Brisbane I worked in for a bit in 2001, which I’m guessing would have a different name in the UK or USA (it was a musical instrument you played by hitting pipes with what Australians call thongs but I’d call a flip-flop). They all also drew on a longer history than just the Exploratorium. The Science Museum’s Children’s Galleries, opened in 1931, sits firmly in this history, as do books and shows by characters such as John Henry Pepper.  The picture at the top of this post is of staff at the Deutsches Museum in 1926 demonstrating an exhibit which looks very like a common Cookbook exhibit on the conservation of anular momentum. I think the idea for “Explainers” to staff the gallies came from France, but today there are a huge range of different Explainer-like programmes all over the world.

In terms of the UK, it’s worth stressing the role of Anthony Wilson in the early development of the Launch Pad gallery in London’s Science Museum and Richard Gregory in Bristol as well as some of the hands-on exhibits at the Natural History Museum. Those are just a couple of names I could mention though, lots of other people have had a role all over the place, as the field has grown with a culture of continuous development which was facilitated by, but not in any way limited to or even originated with, the Exploratorium approach. Moreover, whatever the hardware, these exhibits would be constantly re-interpreted by staff and visitors. If I learnt anything from my time as an Explainer, it was that you couldn’t know how someone would interpret an exhibit. Reading kids’ letters to the Explainers was especially illuminating (sometimes outright puzzling). Science centres are about interaction, and are themselves a consequence of such interaction too.

So, Happy Birthday Frank Oppenheimer! You old (sorta) commie, you helped make something lovely. The power of the Exploratorium has arguably been due to communication between people and things, not individuals. Still, Dr O had key role. As his museum readies itself for a move next Spring, I hope the story of Frank’s interesting scientific career keeps on being told and his legacy continues to be redeveloped and remade across the world.

William Crookes

Sir William Crookes charity shop

A picture of some shop fronts on the Caledonian Road, a little to the north of Kings Cross station. At the forefront is a slightly grubby blue sign: the Sir William Crookes charity shop. A lot of London charity shops are big brands like Oxfam or the British Heart Foundation, but there are a few independents like this too. They tend to be based around local charities though, named after a campaign or hospital, not a person. So, when I passed this shop one night on my way home from a party, it stuck out. I also recognised the name. Crookes, Crookes, where I have I heard that before?

OH THAT WILLIAM CROOKES.

Reaches for Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Sir William Crookes (b. 17 June 1832, London – d. 4 April 1919, London), a physical chemist who did fundamental work in the development of atomic physics. The eldest kid of sixteen, his father was a successful tailor with a shop in Regents Street. The DSB says he had irregular schooling, although Hannah Gay (BJHS, 1996) also stresses that for all that his interest in chemistry was self-motivated and unsupervised, he was not without support. At 16, he joined AW Hofmann‘s Royal College of Chemistry, ending up as Hofmann’s personal assistent for a few years in the early 1850s. Hoffman’s focus was organic chemistry, but inspired by Faraday, amongst others, Crookes turned his attention to chemistry’s interaction with physics. In 1854 he was briefly superintendent at Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford, and in 1855 moved to teach chemistry at College of Science in Chester.

(At this point I like to imagine him as a teacher in a mid 19th century version of Hollyoaks, but maybe not). 

Crookes moved back to London in 1856 and set up a private laboratory in his home and started an entrepreneurial scientific career the DSB entry described as ‘catholic’. He was an ambitious man, both in business and science, a strong believer that pure science would lead of financial rewards. One might argue he had to be: he had ten kids to support.

His work with vacuums is credited with making possible the discovery of the x-ray and the electron, and was apparently a bit annoyed not to have discovered the x-ray himself. In early March 1861, he found a bright green line in a spectroscopy he was running. He initially thought it was an impurity, but by the end of the month he was confident it was a newly discovered element, and called it Thallium, after the Greek for green shoot. In 1873, he invented what’s known as the Crookes radiometer; an airtight glass bulb, containing a partial vacuum and a set of vanes, mounted on a spindle, which rotate when exposed to light (you’d recognise one if you saw it). He was knighted in 1897, and held presidencies of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Society. He founded Chemical News and was involved in several other publications. He published somewhere between 250-300 papers during his career, on a wide range of subjects. As the DSB puts it “with aid of his literary adviser, Alice Bird, Crookes acquired a well-deserved reputation as a Victorian sage”.

(Oh, how much do I want to know more about the Bird lady? Also, do check out quite how much of a sage-like beard Crookes had). 

Ok, you’re probably wondering what the hell has this got to do with a charity shop on the Cally Rd? Did he do the Victorian philanthropist thing and found a hospice or library or something? Did he do load of work on radiation, so a cancer charity’s been named after him, like Marie Curie? Nope. Well, he did work on radioactivity in his later years, but that’s not it… The URL on the shop-front sign was down, but using the Wayback Machine I found content in English and Portuguese, connected to a spiritualist church.

Yep, spiritualist church. Spiritualists, in the words of Wikipedia, are not to be confused with spirituality. It is a specific religion which has some roots in Christianity but dates from 1848. Try BBC’s spiritualism at a glance if you want a primer. The very short version is that they believe you can communicate with the dead.

If you are WFT-ing that a chap who was a President of the Royal Society might have been into séances, you wouldn’t be the first. A contemporary of Crookes, WB Carpenter, the man DSB describes as Crookes ‘archenemy’ would talk of two Crookes, one a rational scientist the other a credulous spiritualist. That’s a very narrow view.

(If you are feeling as if you’d like to stop reading for a bit and listen to some soothing music at this point, try this neat little video, from the British Society for the History of Science outreach team)

Crookes was brought up with the Christian view of an afterlife. He also suffered the death of a beloved brother in 1867. More to the point, there was a range of kinetic, audible and luminous phenomena (and ideas) associated with a séance to capture his scientific attention. Let’s also remember that by the middle of the 19th century, the Victorians had seen huge social and scientific change, people like Crookes wanted to be open to extra-ordinary ideas, and in many ways a study of spiritualism offered a physically-based explanation of aspects of the world. It’s also worth stressing that he was deeply sceptical of much of it, and intolerant of obvious hoaxes, taking a meticulous empirical approach, even if (or perhaps because) he also believed that ‘real’ mediums who could talk to the dead existed. He submitted a paper to the Royal Society on the subject which was rejected on grounds it was not exciting enough (Crookes then published in his own Quarterly Journal of Science), and they did later publish negative observations of another medium.

It’s probably worth mentioning that he was President of the Royal Society after all of this (1913-15). Although the DSB entry does dryly conclude with line that this presidency “was marred not only by the outbreak of war but also by a degree of ill feeling from the young generation of fellows that he had sowed the wild oats of genius past his allotted time” and Gay also notes that many of his awards from the scientific community seem to have been given grudgingly, that wasn’t necessarily because of his involvement spiritualism. Studying ghosts wasn’t quite the credibility-krypotonite it might be for a scientist today.

Gay’s paper starts with the observation that it’s often asked why Crookes didn’t do more with his career, but that one could equally ask why did he accomplish so much? She argues that although he didn’t come from a ‘gentlemanly’ background, or an especially scientific one, his family were not without money or connections. Several members of his family had connections in bookselling, which helped him later in publishing work. He also built on early professional networks at the Royal College of Chemistry, which Gay refers to as a fraternal culture, based on communal if competitive laboratory work supplemented by many outdoor and evening activities. Later, although he had a private lab in some respects this was a “a family economy”. His wife helped, as did his mother in law and, when they were old enough, kids. There were also key roles played by a mentor (George Gabriel Stokes) and skilled laboratory assistent (Charles Henry Gimingham).

Gay’s paper concludes with the important point that there is often an ‘underground economy’ in the production of scientific knowledge which we should always be aware of. She means this in terms of the construction of the conventional science and engineering; behind every great man of history there is not only likely the cliched great woman but a load of other support systems and networks it can be easy to miss (or even deliberately obscured in myth-making). A similar point could easily be made to understand the ‘two sides’ of Crookes. There is always a lot more to a scientific career than just the things that get written up in textbooks, and a lot more to the generation and development of scientific ideas than necessarily ends up lasting as ‘scientific’ thought.

I still have no idea what Crookes’ would have made of his name being used for a shop-front charity in North London though (I mean, the dude was from West London…) or precisely what the money raised by that shop funds.

Book Review: Free Radicals

With his new book, Free RadicalsMichael Brooks has done something which surprised me: he’s produced a popular science version of Against Method.

Against Method, if you don’t know it, is a philosophy of science book by Paul Feyerabend, published in 1975. It argued against the idea that science progressed through the application of a strict universal method, and caused quite the fuss at the time (it continues to, in places). Brooks is keen to distance himself from the more extreme ends of Feyerabend’s version of this view, but agrees with a central sense that, when it comes to doing “good” science, “anything goes”.

Subtitled “the secret anarchy of science” Brooks’ book argues that throughout the 20th century, scientists have colluded in a coverup of their own inherent humanity, building a brand of science as logical, responsible, gentlemanly, objective and rational when in reality it’s a much more disorganised, emotional, creative and radical endeavor. This, Brooks argues, is not only inaccurate but dangerous; education and public policy would be much more successful if science was only more open about its inherent humanity.

This picture of the anarchy of science is done with affection and a clear strength of belief in science. I’m sure some would be tempted to dub it Against Method Lite, but Against Method, With Love might be more accurate. The message seems to be that scientists are people who do amazing things, even though (and sometimes because) they take drugs, lie, cheat, are reckless, work on stuff other than what they’re supposed to, are horrible to their wives, fudge their results, are motivated by money or are simply a bit of a dick. In places, Brooks also emphasises the religious beliefs of many great scientists, and the way in which religion could sit easily alongside, even inspired, their research.

Personally, I’m unconvinced anarchy is the right word here. Messy and human is perhaps better. Or, as a colleague put it at a conference earlier this month: “just people doing people things, in people ways” (I appreciate this doesn’t make for such a sellable book though). Still, the result is a warm, engaging and neatly plotted trundle through aspects of the history of science which the more cheerleading heroic histories tend to avoid. In some respects, the book’s approach of short historical tale after short historical tale is reminiscent of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. There is a key difference though. Bryson’s book, when it came out in 2005, bugged me. Bryson is famous for his travel books, in particular a chatty style which talks about the people he encounters with a fair bit of pisstaking (affectionate, and often respectful pisstaking, but pisstaking nonetheless). But, witty as A Short History was, Bryson seemed to have left his ability to take the piss at the door of the Royal Society. It wasn’t a warts and all view of the world-weary observant traveller; more a cleaned up polished pictures you save for the tourist brochure. The scientific community welcome Bryson’s book with open arms. I was left thoroughly bored by its reverence. Brooks on the other hand, perhaps because he has a scientific background himself, doesn’t seem to be nearly so star-struck (and isn’t, I’d say, nearly so boring).

Again, let me stress Brooks’ approach is not “anti-science” in any way. But that’s not to say such an Against Method, With Love approach is without problems. I suspect many of my colleagues in the social studies of science would worry about this somewhat celebratory twist on the idea of anarchic science. They’d want more critique, more probing (because, I should also stress, they see such critique as a way to better science, they generally do this with love too). I also suspect Brooks’ focus on the big names of science – Nobellists and the like – would jar with those who eschew great men stories in favour of uncovering the less obvious, more detailed and often anonymous networked texture of science. Brooks might have produced an anti-hero popular history of science, but it’s still one with a focus on great men. Indeed, there is a way in which these stories of slightly crazy scientists simply constructs a whole new mythical image of the scientist, one that adds new and different forms of barriers between science and society. I’m not convinced science is necessarily a “bad boy” any more than I believe in the mythical branding Brooks aims to puncture.

(An anti-hero history of science isn’t a new one, nor are critiques of it. Rosalind Haynes touches on it in her history of the fictional representation of scientists; work that was neatly reapplied to non-fiction contexts by Elizabeth Leane. There’s a section of my PhD on the rhetoric of an anarchic image of science presented in some kids’ books too)

I’m really not the intended audience for this book though. I’d love to know what a more general reader from outside the scientific community makes of it. I’d also like to know what professional scientists think of the books’ image of their work, and how other scholars in the history, philosophy and sociology of science felt about this refashioning of their ideas. I did enjoy reading it though, I think the concluding points about the political worth of accepting the human side of science are, at the very last, worth more public debate.

David Kirby’s ‘Lab Coats in Hollywood’

dinosaur!Dinosaur model from the 19thC, still on display in a South London park.

Verisimilitude. Good word, isn’t it? It’s one of my favourites.

It means ‘the appearance of being true or real’. It’s not just a term for people who study semiotics: philosophers of science use it too (or at least Popper does), as a way comparing theories’ claims to closeness to truth. It’s more ‘truthlikeness’, than truthiness, but has a range of uses and applications, many of which get somewhat intermingled when it comes to actually putting science to work in society at large.

Top tip: After much swearing at my laptop while writing up my PhD thesis, I discovered typing verysimilartude into Word gets you the correct spelling prompt.

This is a slightly abstract way of introducing a great new book I’ve just finished reading: David Kirby’s Lab Coats in Hollywood. The book is the product of several years of Kirby’s sociological research uncovering the backstage role some scientists play in the film industry, as consultants on the depiction of scientists and scientific ideas on screen. Kirby also seems to love the word verisimilitude, and the occasional messiness of its uses. It’s even on the dust-jacket. But this isn’t an esoteric tome of jargon-filled social science. It’s a neat little book for a generally interested reader; direct, clear, thoughtful and communicated with a genuine interest in the people it studies.

Although the bulk of his examples are films of the last decade or so, in some respects, there is a long history to this sort of work. Kirby refers to my favourite example here: the Crystal Palace dinosaurs (pictured). In particular, the way Richard Owen, back in the 1850s, jumped at the chance to be the scientific advisor, so these models would match his ideas of what they looked like, not those of his rival, Gideon Mandell (Kirby, 2011: 15-16). As Kirby stresses, the construction of a movie is a very complex business, one which involves a huge number of specialists and has some rather unequal power structures. Arguably, Owen had more clout over the Crystal Palace dinosaur models than the scientists involved in the Jurassic Park films did. A scientific consultant may well be listened to at times, and in places within the making of a film, and then later ignored. Indeed, in some respects it’s an odd fluke that any films have scientific consultants at all, and there is no standardised method for integrating them into the film-making process (Kirby, 2011: 42-3).

It’d be wrong to think of film-makers as dismissive of a scientist’s point of view though. They wouldn’t invite them on set in the first place if so. Indeed, one of the key points Kirby makes is how important a scientist’s version of verisimilitude is to the film industry. The book has loads of examples of this (seriously, the number of films that have used advisors might surprise you) but my favorite example is Finding Nemo‘s missing kelp. As Kirby tells it, marine biologist Mike Graham was asked by the animators if there was one thing in the film that might disturb him, what would it be. Graham replied that he’d hate to see kelp in a coral reef (it only grows in cold waters). There was an uncomfortable shuffling in the audience. But go check your DVD: there is no kelp in Finding Nemo. Each frond was carefully removed, at a considerable cost (Kirby, 2011: 102-3). Even films which sell themselves on fantasy (e.g. talking fish) rely on a certain sense of reality too: they need to be credible even in their love of the incredible, and science can help them do this. There’s a lot film-makers can find inspiring in scientific research too; a lot of visual beauty and novel ideas, a lot to make people go ‘wow’. That’s all good material for movie-making. Kirby has a lovely example of a visual used in the 2009 Star Trek movie, inspired by input from astronomer Carolyn Porto (Kirby, 2011: 12).

Kirby also stresses how it important the verisimilitude of films is to scientists, something you can see very well from the fact that remuneration is not simply financial, and often relates to their work. Some do get paid for their work. Some feel this as inappropriate and so take alternative payment like tickets to premiers, some ask for funding for research programmes. Some see it as part of their responsibility to the public understanding of science, some want to promote their ideas, or see them realised with movie-technology, some find it simply fun (Kirby, 2011: 56-63). The National Academy of Sciences has a project to connect scientists and engineers with  professionals in the entertainment industry ‘to create a synergy between accurate science and engaging storylines in both film and TV’. Personally I’m not entirely sure if this is a constructive approach to the perceived ‘problem’ of science in fiction or a giant red herring compared to less showy education and public engagement work (? genuine question mark here, I don’t know. Kirby refers to audience research, but conclusions and comparisons are very hard to draw here), though it may well make professional scientists feel a bit happier; to let off a bit of steam.

Kirby has some constructive advice for anyone who does want to try promoting science through Hollywood: worry less about how you might make the science in entertainment products more accurate, and more about showing filmmakers that accurate science could actually make their film better (Kirby, 2011: 10). Other advice for scientists include get involved early on, and respect the filmmakers’ expertise too. Kirby further invites the reader to think about what scientific accuracy might mean within the necessary shortcuts and sometimes fantastical contexts of the film business. Yeah, there’s Finding Nemo‘s coral, but there’s also Brian Cox’s role in Sunshine, a scientific consultant who was brought in to talk to actors about a scientist’s psychological motivations as much as scientific ideas (Kirby, 2011: 71, 73). Those wanting to have an impact on the public discourse about science through movies would do well to think beyond a narrow sense of  ‘scientific literacy’. As Kirby stresses in his conclusion, based on what we know from the fossil record, the representation of Dilophosaurus in Jurassic Park is completely inaccurate, but the film had much greater public impact (for good or bad) in terms of its depiction of scientists as heroes, as paleontology as exciting, and as genetic engineering as potentially dangerous (Kirby, 2011: 230).

I’ve been recommending Kirby’s research to students for years (links on his site), and I’m glad I can now recommend a whole book to a much wider audience too. If you are interested in the politics of science fiction, some of the oddities of the film industry, scientific accuracy in popular science or simply an interesting mix of cultures, it’s worth a read.