Biographies & Memoirs


I was fifty-four when I gave my first lecture at the Royal Institution, Albemarle Street. It was a formal Friday Night Discourse, with an invited audience in evening dress, and I was asked to put on an unaccustomed dinner jacket and bow tie. My announced subject was ‘The Coleridge Experiment’. The aim was to explore that particularly controversial meeting between science and poetry when Humphry Davy, shortly after starting the Bakerian Lectures in 1808, had gallantly risked his reputation by bringing Coleridge-then in the depth of opium addiction and a fierce marital crisis-to give an extended series of fourteen lectures on the Imagination, before a distinguished invited scientific audience at the Royal Institution. My own lecture was intended to describe the utter chaos that had ensued, but also the few wonderful visionary moments that had been sparked by Coleridge, and which had subsequently shaped much of the modern concept of creativity, and the notion of the imaginative leap.

Just before starting, I stood behind the closed double doors to the historic lecture theatre, trembling slightly as I heard the solemn growl of the audience on the other side. I was very conscious that I was about to step out onto the very dais where Davy, Faraday and Coleridge himself had once lectured. The Director, standing quietly by my elbow, whispered encouragingly to me. He also wondered, in passing, if I had been told about the atomic clock? No, I had not been told about the atomic clock.

The Director explained that there was an atomic clock which buzzed loudly in the lecture theatre after exactly fifty minutes. Lecturers were expected to end their talks on this signal. With the first stirrings of real panic, I murmured that this could presumably be treated as a sort of early-warning system for prolix speakers. Well, yes, indeed it could; but it was rather more a question of desirable scientific precision. Indeed, the tradition was that the speaker should fit his lecture to exactly fifty minutes, no longer and no shorter, and should immediately wind up his talk when the buzzer sounded.

The Director now looked rather quizzically at my loose bundle of lecture notes. I wondered if the memory of Coleridge’s notorious prolixity had never been quite erased from the Institute’s collective consciousness. He added reassuringly that in his experience most of his distinguished scientific lecturers had contrived to be saying their very last sentence at exactly the moment when the atomic clock went off. It was all rather elegant: Talk-Buzz-Stop-Applause. And of course there would be applause. With that, the Director stepped briskly forward and threw open the large double doors, to reveal the steep tiers of bench seats, crowded with expectant faces, and the growing silence of an atomic clock, noiselessly ticking away…

Indeed, there is a particular problem with finding endings in science. Where do these science stories really finish? Science is truly a relay race, with each discovery handed on to the next generation. Even as one door is closing, another door is already being thrown open. So it is with this book. The great period of Victorian science is about to begin. The new stories are passed into the hands of Michael Faraday, John Herschel, Charles Darwin…and the world of modern science begins to rush towards us.

But science is now also continually reshaping its history retrospectively. It is starting to look back and rediscover its beginnings, its earlier traditions and triumphs; but also its debates, its uncertainties and its errors. No general science history would now be considered complete without a sense of the science achieved centuries ago by the Greeks, the Arabs, the Chinese, the Babylonians. It is no coincidence that the last few years have seen the foundation, in numerous universities across Europe, Australia and America, of newly conceived ‘Departments of the History and Philosophy of Science’. The earliest pioneering ones began at Cambridge (UK), and Berkeley (California), with others quickly following at Paris X (Nanterre), Melbourne, Sydney, Toronto, Indiana, Caltech and Budapest (1994). Similarly, it seems to me impossible to understand fully the contemporary debates about the environment, or climate change, or genetic engineering, or alternative medicine, or extraterrestrial life, or the nature of consciousness, or even the existence of God, without knowing how these arose from the hopes and anxieties of the Romantic generation.

But perhaps most important, right now, is a changing appreciation of how scientists themselves fit into society as a whole, and the nature of the particular creativity they bring to it. We need to consider how they are increasingly vital to any culture of progressive knowledge, to the education of young people (and the not so young), and to our understanding of the planet and its future. For this, I believe science needs to be presented and explored in a new way. We need not only a new history of science, but a more enlarged and imaginative biographical writing about individual scientists. (I make some suggestions in the Bibliography that follows, under the heading ‘The Bigger Picture’.) Here the perennially cited difficulties with the ‘two cultures’, and specifically with mathematics, can no longer be accepted as a valid limitation. We need to understand how science is actually made; how scientists themselves think and feel and speculate. We need to explore what makes scientists creative, as well as poets or painters, or musicians. That is how this book began.

The old, rigid debates and boundaries-science versus religion, science versus the arts, science versus traditional ethics-are no longer enough. We should be impatient with them. We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective. Above all, perhaps, we need the three things that a scientific culture can sustain: the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe. And that is how this book might possibly end.

 My account may be found in The Proceedings of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, Vol. 69, 1998.

 I am encouraged to see that my old teacher and early mentor Professor George Steiner, starting from an entirely different premise, has recently come to a similar conclusion: ‘Hence my conviction that even advanced mathematical concepts can be made imaginatively compelling and demonstrable when they are presented historically… It is via these great voyages and adventures of the human mind, so often charged with personal rivalries, passions and frustrations-the Argosy founders, or gets trapped in the ice of the insoluble-that we non-mathematicians can look into a sovereign and decisive realm…Locate this quest…and you will have flung open doors on “seas of thought” deeper, more richly stocked than any on the globe.’ See ‘School Terms’, in My Unwritten Books (2008). The imagery behind this splendid passage comes, of course, from Romanticism: Wordsworth on Newton from The Prelude, and Caspar David Friedrich’s painting of 1825, The Sea of Ice, in which the explorer’s tiny, gallant ship is foundering amidst enormous polar ice-floes-but, hope against hope, may yet survive.

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