People Powered Science II

At the beginning of the project I posted some thoughts on people powered science and how history might hold some lessons for contemporary citizen science practice. Since then I’ve been working some more on the people part of people powered science. I’ve been looking through the Zooniverse’s forums (each of the more than 100 projects hosted on the platform has a space for communication) and talking to some scientists. One interesting feature has started to emerge.

A big part of science is imagination. In a fascinating and slightly bizarre interview – ‘Einstein loves children’ / ‘”Reading after a certain age diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits.'” – with George Viereck published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1929, Albert Einstein claimed imagination was the most important part of his work:

I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination encircles the world.

There are several examples of imagination pushing Zooniverse projects into new areas – Hanny’s Voorwerp and the Green Peas are two of the most celebrated. The Peas and the Voorwerp are both objects that were spotted by people with less specialist knowledge (i.e. they weren’t trained as scientists) but the imagination to see that something interesting was happening. You can read about the Voorwerp in a comic produced by the Zooniverse and the Citizen Science Alliance. It opens with the lines, ‘Science is driven by that most basic of human impulses, curiosity’. In the case of the Peas, at first the non-scientists had to convince the scientists that the Peas were worth looking at (they turn out to be significant star-formation clusters). So one could take the Voorwerp and the Peas to be cases of Einstein’s imagination over knowledge thesis.

The ‘Science‘ section of the Disk Detectives project describes this type of discovery, again, in terms of curiosity:

computer programs can only detect what we tell them to measure. But you can do much more than that. With a large all-sky data set and your curiosity, the possibilities for unexpected discoveries are vast.

This is interesting because scientists often see themselves as curiosity and imagination-driven beasts, following Einstein’s characterization. Celebrating the Voorwerp and the Peas as curiosity and imagination driven discoveries could suggest they represent a purer form of scientific endeavor, one unsullied by the performance and publishing demands that some feel have warped academic careers and the research process.

This leads to two questions. If everybody on a project is working from the same imagination driven curiosity, why are some of them called scientists but others not? And if people report that what motivates them towards participating in the Zooniverse is a ‘a desire to contribute to scientific research‘, that is ‘real academic research‘, is this what they take the real to signify: a curiosity and imagination-driven practice?

The first question might seem less relevant but the naming of names certainly matters. The conceptual resources we use to characterize the world, shape our perceptions of it as much as representing our own values. Donna Harraway is famous for this type of thinking. As she puts it in her latest book, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, ‘It matters what thoughts think thoughts. It matters what knowledges know knowledges… It matters what worlds world worlds.’ Unsurprisingly her call for use of ‘Chthulucene’, to replace the Anthropocene, Capitalocene and so on, of recent appearance, made the Great Old One (guest blogging at, ‘skeptical that she did not mean to summon me by speaking my name, extra-H or no’. The choice to call the people without PhDs something different, even to call them volunteers, as the practice is on the Zooniverse, and not scientists, suggests that knowledge and training, on some level, despite what Einstein says, do make a difference.


That brings us to the second question, what is real research? What characteristics does it have? As with all ‘How Science Works?’ type questions, things get complicated pretty quickly. Opinion will vary and change over time. While many scientists, and those who think about what a scientist is and does, might be mostly Einstein (see: Popper), they also think at the same time in Kuhnian terms about themselves as technician-like ‘problem solvers’. One can also be a little bit Lakatos, somewhat Feyerabend, French on the big picture and Ladyman on the details.

Citizen science, because it is a young science, still very much in a process of definition, brings these questions to the fore and makes them not just descriptive, but also normative. Historians and philosophers of science have been thinking about what science has been and does for some time, but for citizen science practitioners, as they design projects and form practices, these are also a series of questions about what their science ‘should’ be.

This is something sociologists and the broad church of social studies of science can help with, despite the sometimes acrimonious relations between science and science studies. Given recent events, (can I just say Trump!?) and the growing crisis in science communication, it would seem to be the right time to have this big conversation on science. I would argue that armed with the lessons of history and philosophy of science, and science studies, citizen science in its imminence might be a suitable vehicle for that conversation.

We could also look at this issue of imagination from another direction, by thinking about the first part of that Einstein quote, and what role art plays in science. I’m interested in the playful and creative things people do around citizen science and how this sort of activity functions as part of the research process. How seriously should we take Einstein about the importance of enough artistry? The early evidence from the Zooniverse suggests very.


‘I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination.’ Thanks to

You can write your name in the stars, using images that were presented for classification in Galaxy Zoo, thanks to Steven Bamford. On another project, Science Gossip, one of the forum moderators, Jules, has made an alphabet of nineteenth-century initials. The images of people who volunteer make up the stunning visual identity of the Orchid Observers project (and the use of copyright on many of these images makes clear they are works of art). What do these artistic expressions mean in terms of real research? Are they epiphenomena to the core process? Or will they, like epigenetics, turn out to be a surrounding structure, in this case a creative architecture, that makes the whole enterprise tick? There’s some interesting historical precedent on this question.


Initials. Credit: Jules @ScienceGossip

Most people know two things about Alexander Fleming, that he discovered penicillin and that he was messy. Fleming didn’t wash his petri dishes and one day, looking down upon his mess, wham. Penicillin. This might not be the whole of the truth. Or more importantly, the interesting part. Fleming was an amateur artist and member of the Chelsea Arts Club, and, ‘painted ballerinas, houses, soldiers, mothers feeding children, stick figures fighting and other scenes using bacteria‘. The paintings are far from beautiful, but they raise a host of questions about the role that this side of Fleming played in his penicillin moment.

Hopefully I’ve convinced you there are good reasons for thinking deeply about imagination, curiosity and art in citizen science and how they relate to research.  Interestingly this is where the scientists I’ve spoken to get most excited. They really care about art and the art of citizen science especially. I’ll be reporting back with some of their thoughts on this shortly.

In Defence of ‘Stamp Collecting’

‘That which is not measurable is not science. That which is not physics is stamp collecting’. This quote (and variants thereof) is widely attributed to the Nobel prize-winning nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford. Like all the best one-liners, it is apocryphal, but nevertheless serves as a useful stand-point from which to consider the motivations of those who participate in citizen science, and attitudes towards them. The pursuit of natural history in particular is a branch of study that suffers most from the stigma of ‘stamp collecting’, as even during its heyday in the nineteenth century, those who assiduously amassed large collections of specimens were often subject to ridicule. William Kirby and William Spence, in their Introduction to Entomology, lamented that their chosen subject was one that ‘in nine companies out of ten’ would elicit ‘pity or contempt’.

Attempting to understand the feelings that motivated the individuals who engaged in natural history during the nineteenth century is a difficult task, as you run the risk of projecting our present-day preoccupations onto historical actors who may have experienced the world very differently to us. To further complicate matters, even when these individuals appear to be telling us exactly why they pursued natural history, we of course cannot always take their word for it.

Ent. Annual 1855 FrontispieceClaims that the study of nature brought one to a greater appreciation of God and his works was an oft cited justification, and although this was certainly a factor for some, it belies the complexity and diversity of individuals’ motivations. Another reason frequently given is the simple pleasure of spending time in the countryside, and it cannot be considered a mere coincidence that natural history reached its height of popularity at a time of rapid urbanisation. The excursion culture of field clubs and natural history societies in the second half of the century was a predominantly middle-class movement that allowed white-collar workers to escape the cities and towns in preference for the woods and fields. Many of the working-classes – Lancashire handloom weavers and Sheffield cutlers – also seized any opportunity to get away from the drudgery of factory or workshop. This was generally encouraged by those who were more socially fortunate, because natural history was considered a ‘rational recreation’. Particularly during the Chartist agitations, it was thought that if workers were busy collecting plants and insects, that left them far less time in which to plot revolution. Furthermore, as the entomologist J. O. Westwood pointed out, ‘can it be denied that if, amongst the lower classes, the collecting of objects of nature, and such-like pursuits, were more general, the vice of drunkenness and the reign of gin-palaces would be over’.


‘Instruments for collecting Insects’

Collecting was a nineteenth century passion, and almost anything could be subject to the period’s acquisitive urge. Butterflies, ferns, fossils, coins, stamps – all were eagerly hunted down, though admittedly some objects, particularly those that could fly, required considerably more energy to capture than others. Exactly what drove many to this pursuit is described by the entomologist Henry Tibbats Stainton: ‘each time that the collector of insects catches some species which he has not before met with, he receives a thrill of pleasure, which is difficult to render intelligible to those who have not felt it’. This feeling of adding to your collection, particularly if the specimen is rare, will sound familiar to those of us who collected Pokémon cards or football stickers as children. Charles Darwin was himself a keen insect collector in his youth, and later rediscovered the joy through his three sons, writing to Joseph Dalton Hooker, ‘I am reminded of old days by my third boy having just begun collecting beetles’, and related how ‘my blood boiled with old ardour when he caught a Licinus – a prize unknown to me’.

GalliersWe can only speculate what drove Thomas Galliers, the Liverpool policeman, to collect insects during the 1850s, just as we must guess as to what his superiors would have thought of his use of official ‘Liverpool Constabulary Force’ stationary to write letters to the Entomologist’s Weekly Intelligencer. Galliers’ correspondence with the editor of this periodical, Henry Tibbats Stainton, reveals that he was not content simply with amassing a collection. In August 1858, the policeman wrote to Stainton, enclosing ‘a fair sketch of a beetle I captured when flying near the Dingle Wood about this time last year’ (one can only presume that Galliers meant that the beetle, rather than himself, was flying when he caught it). Galliers hoped that Stainton might wish to give ‘a representation of it in the shape of a woodcut in the Intelligencer’, as he felt ‘such a fine specimen might gratify your readers’. This is typical of many communications received by Stainton in his role as editor, with many correspondents hoping they had acquired an unusual specimen that would make a valuable contribution to the periodical, and possibly to science itself. Unfortunately for Galliers, it seems he was disappointed on this account, as his beetle was not published in the Intelligencer.

Talking to the people who run twenty-first century citizen science projects, I am struck at how they are constantly surprised at the number and diversity of those who participate in their projects. Present-day citizen scientists have as many different motives and approaches as their nineteenth century antecedents, each choosing to devote their leisure time to counting penguins, spotting exoplanets, or identifying images from nineteenth century periodicals. For some, it is simply more interesting way of passing the time than watching television or browsing social media, but for others, the burning desire to make a contribution to science lies at the heart of their enjoyment of such activities. Even Ernest Rutherford would surely approve of that.

Matthew Wale

“Dressing up” Research: Impact and Public Engagement, Past and Present

Post by Sally Shuttleworth, Professor of English Literature, St Anne’s College, University of Oxford

With the rise of the ‘Impact’ agenda in contemporary Britain, and the requirement that researchers show how their work has influenced a wider public, a new breed of expert has sprung up — the writer of “impact case studies”, and popular accounts of research. Such beings are employed by university departments to magically transform the leaden prose of academics into engaging, easily accessible text. Small independent companies have emerged, offering their services to research grant holders, with promises of wide international dissemination, and the ability (to paraphrase the famous beer ad) to engage audiences other media cannot reach. The idea that scientists and researchers more generally should engage with the general public is of course not new.

Even the idea of a specially trained mediator has deep roots. In 1928 the journal Public Health (which had started life in 1888 as the journal for Medical Officers of Health), carried the text of a lecture delivered to the Northern Branch, by Daniel Polson, editor of The Evening Chronicle, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, advising members on how to use the press to further their work and to reach the general public. “Progress,” he argues, “is impossible without publicity” and “[o]ne of the most remarkable developments in press life in recent years is the system of what is called ‘making the press,’ and of using the press for the furtherance of outside policies.”[1]

Although there were long traditions of scientists using the press for publicity or political purposes, what Polson is alluding to here is a new self-conscious awareness on the part of professionals of the need to be seen in the media.   Polson suggests it is the Medical Officers of Health civic duty to use the press: “After all, we are governed by public opinion, and public opinion cannot govern unless it is well informed.”   Such a requirement should not be too daunting since there were “many ways in which medical news can be dressed up to make interesting, and at the same time, informative reading for the lay mind.”   Polson hastens to reassure his audience that medical officers themselves need not do such “dressing”; they were required simply to make their contributions as easy to read as possible, and then leave it to be “dressed up by men who are trained to produce the finished article in a way which will attract the eye and the brain.”[2] By placing themselves in the hands of the professionals, medical men could reap the rewards of high quality visual presentation, and enticing, accessible prose.

The responses of the assembled doctors were largely favourable, although there were worries about “stunts” being pulled; as one doctor commented, “A medical officer of health had only to say something sensational, and it would appear prominently in the press.”   There were also concerns that junior doctors might try to use newspapers to generate publicity for their work, in order to obtain undeserved promotion.   Such anxieties about “self-advertisement” link back to the debates of the late nineteenth century when (as forthcoming research on this project by Sally Frampton will show), the medical colleges attempted to prevent their members from writing in popular medical journals, amidst concerns that such writing could undermine the new-found status of the profession.

In the sphere of public health this created a particular tension: the development of preventive medicine depended on the success of medical officers and other interested professionals in engaging public interest, and shifting individual and institutional patterns of behaviour.   From the 1850s onwards, Sanitary Associations were set up in towns across the country, and there were many hectoring, and patronising pamphlets produced.   Not all attempts at reaching out to public audiences were so misjudged, however.   The meteorologist G. J Symons, who created a wonderfully non-hierarchical network of over 3000 rainfall observers (see was also exceptionally active within the national Sanitary institute.   In his 1879 address to the annual Sanitary Congress, as President of the Meteorology, Geology and Geography Section, he stresses the need for engaging the public, and anticipates the sceptics’ questions: “what is the use of making three days of it, and having a lot of dry scientific papers of no use to anybody, and incomprehensible by any but dreadfully scientific people?”[3]   His answer is a firm rebuttal of this view. There is no such thing, he argues, as a separation between “science and practice” and he goes on to show how meteorological understanding is fundamental to daily life, from ventilation in theatres to the positioning of houses. His vision is of a general public deeply engaged in issues of health and the environment, and willing to give their own time to help record and improve their environmental surroundings.

Perhaps the most successful vehicle for engaging the public with issues of public health was the publication by the Leeds surgeon and sanitary campaigner, Thomas Pridgin Teale, Dangers of Health: A Pictorial Guide to Domestic Sanitary Defects. First issued in 1879 it went through various editions and was translated into multiple languages (including into German by Queen Victoria’s daughter, H. R. H. Princess Christian).   W. H. Auden later recalled that it was one of his favourite books in his ‘Nursery Library’ (and he lamented that he had lent his copy to John Betjeman twelve years previously and it had not yet been returned).[4]   Teale’s work arose out of a lecture he had given at the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society in 1877, and such was its subsequent popularity, he decided to work with a Leeds artist, G. W. Foster, to produce an illustrated guide to sanitary defects that might be found in the home.   Although it sounds potentially deathly, the book is deliberately comic (in part), with each defect accompanied by anecdote and illustration, from the overtly farcical to the wryly humorous.   The young Auden was perhaps captivated by the tale of the butler who failed to appear with the wine, because he had fallen into a disused cesspit in the cellar.


More subtle is the representation of the woman superintending drainage work for her shooting box in the Highlands with “One eye for her work, and another for the workmen” (with the double entendre surely intended).


The “Jerry builder” buying seconds, is instantly recognisable by his louche, unprofessional demeanour.


The dangers of building on contaminated land are aptly captured both in the illustration and slogan ‘Terrace of the Future on the Refuse of the Past”, suggesting that the health dangers that face us today are simply new versions of the problems confronted in the nineteenth century.


Teale also used his volume to promote one of his own inventions, a Window Ventilator in the Roof of a Brougham, enabling a busy doctor to have enough light and ventilation to read his book (or is that an ipad?) in comfort between calls.


Teale’s work skilfully attracts both “eye and brain”, drawing in a wide audience for the rather unlikely subject of household sanitary defects.

In recent years there has been a turn to animations as a way of capturing the essence of recent research and communicating it in a playful way to a wide audience (see, for example, ‘Jet Plight’   For my money, Thomas Pridgin Teale is hard to beat.   In his campaigns for improvements in the education system, he also produced one of the most resonant book titles of all time:   Hurry, Worry and Money: The Bane of Modern Education (1883).[i]   What else is there left to say?


[i]   See Sally Shuttleworth, The Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science and Medicine, 1840-1900 (Oxford: OUP, 2010) for a discussion of this work.

[1]   Daniel Polson, “The Press and Education in Health,” Public Health 41 (1927-28), 360-64, p. 362.

[2]   Polson, “Press and Education,” 362.

[3]   G. J. Symons, “Presidential Address, Section III, Meteorology, Geology and Geography,” Third Congress, Croydon 1879, Transactions of the Sanitary Institute of Great Britain I (1880), 173-89, p. 173.

[4]   Edward Mendelsohn, “A Note on Auden’s ‘Nursery Library,” W. H. Auden Newsletter 22 (Nov. 2001), 36-38.

“Why are Medical Journals so dull?” A Potted History of Tedium in Medical Journalism

In 1958, the endocrinologist Richard Asher wrote a provocative article for the British Medical Journal lamenting the lacklustre and boring style of the modern medical journal: “Medical Journals are dull; I do not think there is any doubt about it” the doctor declared. Asher complained of the drab and colourless design of journals and the endless articles they contained that were tediously long and authored by those who “have nothing to say, and they do not know how to say it”. [1] Despite the acid humour, Asher was voicing genuine concerns about the readability of medical journals. The problem, as he saw it, was that the coldly impersonal and obscure language of modern science was making medical writing unintelligible; doctors were vanishing from their own narratives only to be replaced by reams of diagrams, tables and esoteric, anonymised ramblings.


Cartoon from an 1883 issue of Punch. Wood engraving by Charles Keene. (Wellcome Library, London)

Anxieties like Asher’s, about the literary merits of journalism, were not new among doctors. That medical periodicals could be dry, dreary and under-read was a perennial discussion point in the nineteenth century. In 1823 when the medical weekly the Lancet was first published by the surgeon Thomas Wakley, it caused a flurry of controversy by upturning the traditional style of the medical journal.[2] Wakley’s unauthorised publication of the lectures of high-profile hospital surgeons provoked the wrath of the medical elite, while his exposés of medical scandals and sharp-tongued tone attracted immediate attention from practitioners across the country as well as the wider public. Wakley’s journalistic strategy was risky, and the informal style of the Lancet was used by its detractors to denigrate it. One rival journal criticised the Lancet’s approach as little more than a ploy to attract more readers, opining that “where one reader attends to a dry record of facts, ten we know will be gained by embellishings”.[3] But Wakley was banking upon a demand among practitioners and students for a journal that provided something more than the staid case reports and long-winded communications which the existing medical monthlies and quarterlies were filled with. It was a risk that paid off, with the Lancet outselling its rivals in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Nonetheless publishers and editors remained acutely aware of the risk of losing readers with unappealing content. It was well understood that the lifestyle of the medical practitioner was not one that left much room for reading. Many doctors struggled to make a living, meaning that purchasing medical literature was hardly a priority for most. Often practitioners simply did not have the time to read due to the demands of their work. Thus the editorials of new medical journals frequently made claims to entertaining, easily digestible content suited to the needs and desires of the overworked doctor. When the London Medical Circular began in 1852, for example, its editor hoped only that the journal would “form pleasant and useful reading for an occasional half-hour”, believing most doctors did not wish to waste the limited reading time they had with “the perusal of a voluminous paper”.[4]

By the end of the nineteenth century there was a growing industry in popular health journalism, with a wave of new titles on sanitation and domestic hygiene flooding the literary market. These journals were more closely aligned with the dynamics of contemporary journalism than the medical weeklies, many embracing the trend towards light, readable and entertaining literature suitable for the increasingly literate populace. Publications like The Hospital, which had an audience drawn from both the medical profession and the public, criticised the Lancet and British Medical Journal for their publication of complex and overly long articles; the more lively tone of the popular journals was making the medical weeklies vulnerable once more to accusations of dullness.[5] In 1883 Punch published a caricature (above) which tells us something about the way in which medical journals were perceived by the public; a man at a club is reading the Christmas edition of the Lancet much to the disappointment of his friend. Entitled ‘”Depressing!” the man’s friend encourages him to put the journal down and enjoy a game of Pyramids instead. Partaking of medical literature, its pages filled with death and disease, was being ridiculed as a rather gloomy way to spend one’s time.

Who and what are medical journals for? And what duty do medical journals have to make their content readable and entertaining? Discussions about the role scientific journals have historically played in the circulation of knowledge have not left much room for the question of readability. But journal audiences were not untouched by the need for well-written content. In medicine at least, this has long been an issue, and one that draws out other lines of inquiry, from the ways in which time-poor, overworked doctors access information, to the manner in which medical periodicals have been influenced by broader trends in journalism. With the shift in the last few years towards open access models of publishing and large repositories of pre-print manuscripts, the role of the scientific journal is coming under renewed question.[6] Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal has argued that journals connected to associations (such as the British Medical Journal is) should forget altogether about focusing on original research, of which many members may have limited interest, and instead on producing a “cheap and cheerful publication that will entertain their members so that they are pleased to receive and read it”. [7] A number of medical journals now have patients involved as contributors, editors and peer-reviewers, and this also has implications for their tone and content.[8] The literary style of the medical journal is not simply an aside to the ‘real deal’ of journal content, but can actively shape the ethos, audience and financial fortunes of a publication.

[1] Richard Asher, “Why are Medical Journals so Dull?”, British Medical Journal 2 (1958):502-503.

[2] Michael Brown ‘”Bats, Rats and Barristers’”: The Lancet, Libel and the Radical Stylistics of Early Nineteenth-Century English Medicine’, Social History 39 (2014): 189-209.

[3] “Hospital Reporting,” London Medical Gazette 1 (1828): 697. As quoted in Carin Berkowitz, Charles Bell and the anatomy of reform (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2016): 84.

[4] “Address to the Reader,” London Medical Circular 1 (1852): 1.

[5] “The Hospital to its Readers,” The Hospital 22 (1897): 2.

[6] Aileen Fyfe et al, Untangling Academic Publishing: a history of the relationship between commercial interests, academic prestige and the circulation of research (2017)

[7] Richard Smith, “The death throes of national medical journals,” BMJ Opinion (March 2nd 2016).

[8] Richard Smith, “The trouble with medical journals,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 99 (2006): 115-119.

Symposium Report: ‘Doctor, doctor: Global and historical perspectives on the doctor-patient relationship’

ConSciCom team member Alison Moulds discusses the medical humanities symposium she co-organised earlier this year.

Symposium PosterOn 24 March 2017, a one-day symposium – ‘Doctor, doctor: Global and historical perspectives on the doctor-patient relationship’ – was held at St Anne’s College, University of Oxford. It was organised by myself and Sarah Jones, a DPhil Candidate in French. The event was funded by a Medical Humanities programme grant from The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), the Constructing Scientific Communities project, and St Anne’s College.

The symposium explored practitioner-patient interactions across different cultural contexts and throughout history. From the outset, our aim was to encourage interdisciplinary and international perspectives on medical humanities. We were particularly keen to attract researchers working in languages other than English and on non-Anglophone cultures. Sarah and I were delighted with the response to our call for papers, which far exceeded our expectations.

Our final line-up for the event featured more than 30 speakers, working across a range of disciplines (from Classics to Anthropology, Literature to Sociology) and based in a range of countries (from Italy to Russia, Spain to the United States). There were humanities scholars and clinicians, as well as individuals who bridged the divide or worked in other areas, such as on creative projects. Various career stages were represented in the programme – from Masters and PhD candidates to senior academics working in the medical humanities. The event attracted more than 70 attendees also drawn from diverse backgrounds, from general practice to fine art.

Poster presentations

Poster presentations during lunch: Douglas Morgan (KCL)

The symposium opened with a keynote presentation from Dr Anna Elsner, Senior Researcher at the Center for Medical Humanities at the University of Zurich. Elsner’s paper examined the representation of clinical encounters in twentieth-century French literature alongside medical and bioethical research on the physician-patient relationship. The rest of the day was divided into parallel panels on themes ranging from medicine and material culture to institutional experiences of healthcare, and from classical to early modern medicine. Individual papers touched on issues such as medical case reports, cancer narratives, patient photography, and transgender healthcare. During lunch we had two poster presentations from Douglas Morgan and Farah Chowdhury, MSc Medical Humanities students at King’s College London.

Throughout the day there were opportunities for networking and it was wonderful to see colleagues from different disciplines and institutions sharing their interests and establishing connections.

The broad range of papers enabled participants to consider how representations and experiences of illness have changed over time and across different contexts and how patients’ expectations about their healthcare interventions have shifted. It was fascinating to see the different types of sources researchers drew upon in their work; medical textbooks, musical theatre, oral interviews, and archival documents such as court records were all scrutinised for the insights they offered into the medical encounter. Among the major themes arising from the symposium was how the doctor-patient relationship is rarely a 1:1 exchange; instead it takes place against a backdrop of other interactions. Patients also come into contact with nurses and other healthcare practitioners, while doctors interact with the patient’s friends and family. Attendees discussed how both doctors and patients bring personal experiences and attitudes to the specific medical encounter.

After the symposium, we circulated a follow-up survey among attendees to evaluate the event. We received 18 responses, which represented around 25% of attendees. Respondents were asked to rate aspects of the symposium on a scale of 1-6 (from low-high); the event programme received an average score of 5.6. We asked attendees what they enjoyed most about the event, giving them the opportunity of a free-text response. Delegates cited various aspects including the ‘varied programme’, the ‘vibrant and enthusiastic atmosphere’, and the ‘range of disciplines and voices represented’. The multi-disciplinary nature of the event was seen as particularly profitable: when asked whether the event had changed their views, one participant suggested that it was useful to hear from clinicians as they offered insights different from the ‘theoretical’ approach of medical humanities. The paper by Riana Betzler (postdoctoral fellow at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for the Advanced Study of Natural Complex Systems in Austria) was praised by a number of attendees as having challenged their preconceptions about the role of empathy in doctor-patient interactions.

It was a packed day (especially for a Friday!) and one of our key conclusions is that we would have loved to expand the symposium into a longer event. Several delegates suggested they would have enjoyed further opportunities for networking and exchange, while others wished they could have attended more sessions rather than choosing between parallel panels!

Closing remarks

Symposium organisers Sarah Jones and Alison Moulds

The purpose of the symposium was to create a diverse network of scholars working in the medical humanities and we intend to build on the success of the event. Further details regarding the symposium’s legacy will be announced on the website in due course:

The Victorian origins of ‘space weather’

Today we take it for granted that activity on the Sun causes colourful displays of the aurora (the ‘northern lights’ in the northern hemisphere; the ‘southern lights’ south of the equator) and, in extreme cases, power cuts and disruptions to satellite communications. We now know that the Sun triggers these phenomena through its magnetic field and the stream of subatomic particles it emits, called the ‘solar wind’ – which in turn affects Earth’s magnetic field. We call the state of the solar wind and magnetic activity in the solar system ‘space weather’. Aurorae do not just take place on Earth: they can occur on any planet that has both a magnetic field and an atmosphere. They have been photographed in the atmospheres of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune; more recently, spacecraft have imaged them in the skies of Mars.

We strongly associate pictures of aurorae on other planets, as well as terms like ‘space weather’ and ‘solar wind’, very much with the space age. However, the possibility of detecting aurorae on other planets – and, by implication, the existence of the Sun’s influence throughout the solar system – was first suggested by two British astronomers working in the mid-nineteenth century: Balfour Stewart (1828-1887) and Edward Sabine (1788-1883).

A correlation between aurorae and the Earth’s magnetic field had been known since the eighteenth century, when Anders Celsius (best known for the Celsius temperature scale) and Olof Hiorter noticed frequent and wild oscillations in the direction of magnetic north during an auroral display. In the 1830s, the astronomer and scientific polymath John Herschel (1792-1871) undertook a systematic study of sunspots while on a four-year observing expedition at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. In 1837, he noticed a peak in both sunspot and auroral activity and thought that it would be worth investigating whether a correlation between these two phenomena applied more generally. Six years later, German apothecary and astronomer Heinrich Schwabe discovered that the number of sunspots waxed and waned in a ten-year cycle. Then, in 1852, Sabine discovered a similar periodicity in the Earth’s magnetic field and noticed that it coincided exactly with Schwabe’s sunspot cycle. Herschel saw this discovery as confirmation of a link between sunspots and aurorae, and he now suggested that the ‘red clouds’ seen during a solar eclipse (now known as solar prominences) might be ‘reposing auroral masses’.

In response to Sabine’s discovery, the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) set up a solar telescope and a suite of magnetic instruments in the Association’s observatory at Kew, to further investigate this correlation. The solar telescope, known as the Kew ‘photoheliograph’, took pictures of the Sun every clear day so that sunspot activity could be compared with the magnetic readings. (See separate article and associated video on the ConSciCom web pages about Elizabeth Beckley’s role in solar photography at Kew.)

In 1859, Balfour Stewart became superintendent of Kew Observatory. On 1 September that year, just two months after Stewart took up his post, the astronomers Richard Carrington and Richard Hodgson independently noticed a pair of bright lights appear above a large sunspot group, only to disappear a few minutes later. The timing of this explosion on the Sun, now known to have been a solar flare, coincided exactly with a jump in the traces produced by the magnetic instruments at Kew, and triggered Stewart’s interest in connections between solar activity and terrestrial magnetism.

In the early 1860s, Stewart and Sabine engaged in a lively correspondence on the nature of the newly-discovered Sun-Earth connections. In an August 1862 letter to Sabine, Stewart revived (without acknowledgement) Herschel’s 1852 assertion that the red clouds seen during eclipses might be aurorae on the Sun. In his reply to Stewart, Sabine took the speculation further, suggesting that the solar ‘aurorae’ triggered aurorae on Earth and wondered whether ‘all the planets participate in such appearances, though we may never attain to their observation’. Stewart, in turn, suggested a variety of observational evidence in favour of the red solar clouds being aurorae, including the fact that, as with sunspots, their greatest frequency coincided with periods of magnetic disturbance on Earth. As to Sabine’s suggestion that aurorae might occur on all the planets, Stewart wondered whether ‘perhaps Mr De La Rue could photograph one [of the planets] during an Aurora and ascertain this’.

Warren De La Rue (1815-1889) was then Britain’s leading pioneer of astronomical photography. He was instrumental in designing the Kew photoheliograph and was famous for his photographs of the Moon. Neither De La Rue’s nor anyone else’s photographic technology was then capable of photographing aurorae on other planets, but since 1979 spacecraft, including the Hubble Space Telescope, have photographed aurorae around the poles of Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune (though scientists believe that Jupiter’s aurorae are due primarily to the interaction of the planet’s magnetic field with its volcanic satellite Io rather than the solar wind).


Figure 1. Aurora around the southern pole of Saturn, photographed with the Hubble Space Telescope. Image courtesy J. T. Trauger (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) and NASA.

Although Sabine and Stewart’s prediction had to wait more than a century to be vindicated, their logic was correct: something emanating from the Sun was influencing the entire solar system at the same time. We now know that this ‘solar wind’ is made up of charged subatomic particles that become tangled in planetary magnetic fields and cause their atmospheres to glow with auroral light. What, however, could these two visionaries have had in mind in 1862, when the smallest particle known to exist was the hydrogen atom?

Stewart’s work makes it clear that he believed solar emissions travelled through an invisible, all-pervading medium called the ‘ether’. In the mid-nineteenth century, with the rise of the wave theory of light, such a medium had become a popular way of explaining how light travelled through space. In the forefront of this ether physics was Stewart’s contemporary and fellow Scot, James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), whose electromagnetic theory described mathematically how light is an electrical and magnetic wave that propagates through this hypothetical ether. The ether was needed in the wave theory of light, because as a wave, light needed something to propagate through, just as sound requires air in which to travel.

Moreover Stewart, a staunch Christian believer, saw the ether as a convenient way of explaining the newly-discovered law of the conservation of energy without compromising the religious doctrine that the universe would one day come to an end. The ether provided a repository into which all the energy in the universe would eventually be dissipated, leaving the universe ultimately devoid of light and heat.

Stewart believed that as the planets changed their positions relative to the Sun, they moved through this ether and drew energy out of the Sun, causing magnetic effects that gave rise to sunspots and, as a consequence, aurorae. According to Stewart, the ether meant that the Sun and planets were tightly bound to one another, so that the motion of one body would have an effect on the others. Over the 1860s and 1870s, he used the solar results at Kew to develop some increasingly elaborate theories that attempted to correlate the positions of planets in their orbits with variations in sunspot activity. At the same time, he built experiments to find evidence for the ether, by measuring the heating of a disc spinning rapidly in a vacuum, eliminating friction with the air as a source of heat.

Watch a short video taken in 2007 by the STEREO A spacecraft, showing the tail of Comet Encke being buffeted by the solar wind – thought by Balfour Stewart and his contemporaries to be due to the ether. (Courtesy of NASA/STEREO.)

Both these approaches had inconclusive results. Stewart claimed to have detected heating in his spinning disc experiments, though modern scientists believe that this was due to the less-than-perfect vacuum attainable with the equipment of the mid-nineteenth century. After 1905, the ether theory gradually became discredited by Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity. This painted a new picture of how light waves travel through space, dispensing with the notion of an ether.

However, the story of Balfour Stewart’s researches into solar-terrestrial physics has one ironic twist. In 1870, Stewart left Kew to become professor of ‘natural philosophy’ (now called physics) at Owens College in Manchester (now the University of Manchester). One of his students at Manchester was a young Joseph John (‘J. J.’) Thomson, who in 1897 would discover the electron – the first of the subatomic particles now known to make up the solar wind.

Dr Lee Macdonald is a historian of science in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, specialising in the history of astronomy and the physical sciences. In addition to working part-time for the Constructing Scientific Communities project, Lee works as Research Facilitator at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford.

The Conversationalist Podcast – Episode 1: ‘Conversazione’

ConSciCom is very excited to introduce our new podcast series, The Conversationalist, an audio programme modeled on the Victorian tradition of ‘conversazione,’ public events that brought together science, arts, and the general public. At this podcast cocktail party, we invite experts on the history of science to tell us intriguing tales from the past that reveal how scientific knowledge has developed and changed and how ordinary people have contributed to scientific discovery.

Just as natural knowledge had been part of the coffee-house culture in the eighteenth century, so, in the Victorian era, science operated in the public gaze. The conversazione, Italian for conversation, was one of the principal forums where the Victorian public came together to discuss and learn about the latest scientific discoveries and advancements. Held in public spaces such as town halls and scientific institutes, they were a panoply of nineteenth-century urban middle-class life, displaying the civic pride of bustling provincial town and cities or the regal refinement of metropolitan institutions like the Royal Society.

Cornhill-Conversazione (1)

Conversazione: Science and Art, illustration by Richard Doyle

In this wonderful wood engraving by the Victorian illustrator Richard Doyle, entitled ‘Conversazione: Science and Art,’ we witness ‘literary lions, artistic celebrities, famous lecturers upon science, distinguished inventors in mechanics, discoverers of planets’ who all ‘talk to one another, exchange ideas, or criticise some new invention, or drink tea’ (no cocktails here!). In a grand room ‘fitted up with all kinds of curious, interesting, and instructive objects,’ a ‘traveller is expounding, with the aid of a plan of the bones, and a full-length portrait of the creature in a complete state, the manners, customs, and personal appearance of the very latest discovery in natural history,’ while portraits of ‘the last thing out in the way of pre-Adamite monsters are also to be seen, being a portion of one toe, in a fossil state, of a new species of megatherium—very rare.’ There are also ‘microscopes through which you may gaze at the wondrous beauties to be seen in the foot of a frog,’ and there is ‘an electric battery in one corner of the room, at which ladies and gentlemen may be shocked as much as they like’ (Richard Doyle ‘Conversazione: Science and Art’, Cornhill Magazine 6 (1862), 269–70).

Such events were at times eclectic and mesmerising and at times bizarre and boring. In our (eclectic and mesmerising!) first episode of The Conversationalist, we discuss conversazione with Professor Sally Shuttleworth and Professor Gowan Dawson. We ask what conversazione reveal about Victorian culture and science and also what we can learn from them today. And at the end of each episode, we check in with our podcast bartenders for a recipe or a story about the food and drink that so often sustained the vibrant conversations that characterised Victorian conversazione.

Listen on SoundCloud.

The Material Culture of Citizen Science: Workshop Friday 12 May at St Anne’s College

The Material Culture of Citizen Science

Friday 12 May 2017

9.00 – 5.30

Seminar Room 8

St Anne’s College, Oxford

In recent years, citizen science has flourished in and out of the academy. Across the globe, via projects such as   Zooniverse, socially and intellectually-engaged members of the public contribute in crucial ways to the making of new scientific knowledge. Within academic discourse, scholars have embraced the term “citizen science” as a   heuristic analytical tool for thinking about activity both past and present.  Thus far, historical scholarship on citizen   science has tended to focus on people and institutions. This workshop extends the current conversation by  examining and reflecting upon the technologies and materials that have enabled citizen science to flourish. What are the practical means that fostered the break down of the divisions between professional and non-professional    science? What kinds of technologies and materials can be identified, and how did they shape the interactions among participants and thus, the production, circulation and use of scientific knowledge, in the digital age and before? Citizen Science practitioners, researchers from the Oxford-based project ‘Constructing Scientific  Communities: Citizen Science in the 19th and 21st Centuries’, and  members of the Max Planck working group “Working With Paper: Gendered Practices in the History of Knowledge” will discuss these questions in historical perspective.  In particular, our conversations will concentrate on the use of paper as a central means to mediate between  seemingly divergent actors and spaces and those digital technologies that have replaced it.

Programme: The workshop programme is available here 

Registration: This is a closed workshop, but a limited number of free places are available to book. If you would like to book a place, please contact Alyson Slade on no later than 5.00 p.m. on Wednesday 3 May 2017 who will then confirm the place. Please also indicate if there are any dietary requirements.



Connecting with the Crowd Conference: 16th June 2017 at the Natural History Museum, London

Conference: Connecting with the Crowd

Date: Friday 16th June 2017

Time: 10:00-17:00

Venue: The Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London, SW7 5BD

This one day cross-disciplinary conference aims to explore best practices and new perspectives on crowdsourcing citizen science.

This event is jointly sponsored by the British Ecological Society through their Special Interest Group for Citizen Science, and the Constructing Scientific Communities Project.

Register Here

Crowdsourcing projects and platforms abound, involving over one million citizen scientists in the analysis or interpretation of images and data online. This conference will showcase the latest tools, technologies and approaches available to engage and collaborate with diverse audiences online.

Key elements of the event will be to share lessons learned, and to explore collaborations with social science researchers to understand who makes up ‘the crowd’, how we can best reach, engage and connect with them, and how effective they are at crowdsourcing research data.

This event provides a networking and professional development opportunity for researchers and students from the fields of science, social science and the arts and humanities, as well as practitioners in science communication, citizen science and crowdsourcing.


Keynote speakers include Chris Lintott, Professor of Astrophysics and co-founder of the Zooniverse crowdsourcing platform, University of Oxford.

Call for abstracts for speed talks: We have allocated time within the conference for a number of five minute speed talks and would like to invite delegates to submit proposals. Speed talks can introduce a crowdsourcing project, share lessons learned, share experiences of using a particular tool or technology, reflect on strategies to recruit, retain or connect with ‘the crowd’, or cover any other aspect of crowdsourcing you’d like to share. We really want to make this an opportunity for a diverse range of people and projects to share their experiences. Please send a 200-word abstract including the title and the names and institutions of the contributing authors to  by 5 May 2017

The conference will also feature interactive formats including a chance to meet platform developers and leaders over a coffee, and a collaborative ‘Wish List’ Wall where we invite all attendees to share their needs and desires for new tools, apps or functionality on existing platforms to support new crowdsourcing projects, or extend existing ones.


Booking is required. £22.50 – Full fee. £15 – Students / retired / unemployed / BES members.

The conference fee includes lunch and morning/afternoon refreshments.

Registration deadline for early booking rates is 17:00 on Friday 12 May 2017. After this date, tickets (if available) will increase in price. Places are limited so please register now! Deadline is May 28th!

Please contact Kath Castillo on with any queries.

To download the event flyer, please click here.




Sally Shuttleworth on BBC Radio 4

Professor Sally Shuttleworth has been a panellist on two BBC Radio 4 programmes broadcast on 9th March 2017.

For  In Our Time hosted by Melvyn Bragg, Professor Shuttleworth discussed Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South. The programme is available here. 

As part of Radio 4’s Mars season, Professor Shuttleworth was a panellist on “What We Saw from the Ruined House” to discuss HG Wells’ science fiction novel The War of the Worlds. The programme is available here.