Research intelligence: Gifts for posterity

An oral history project is interviewing the stars of UK science and their unsung supporting acts. Zoë Corbyn writes

March 4, 2010

Their work has saved lives, delivered the information age and forewarned humanity of impending global catastrophe. But until now, the personal stories of many of Britain's most eminent scientists have remained untold.

Now a project is under way to interview the UK's leading scientific lights and their supporting acts, preserving their thoughts for posterity.

The British Library's Oral History of British Science project aims to document the stories of 200 well-known scholars, as well as lower-profile scientists and technicians.

It is the first comprehensive programme of its kind and is being led by Rob Perks, oral history curator at the British Library, and Katrina Dean, the library's curator of the history of science.

Mr Perks said that a surprisingly high proportion of living British scientists, including several Nobel laureates, have never been interviewed at length.

"In the case of many leading scientists, we don't even have recordings of their voices, let alone extended interviews," he said.

"We have lots of interviews in the British Library's collections with Holocaust survivors, miners and farmers, but we don't have many scientists."

The scheme is being funded by a £500,000 donation from the Arcadia Fund, which finances projects to protect endangered natural and cultural treasures. The money will cover 100 interviews, lasting on average between 10 and 15 hours each, and the British Library is seeking funding for another 100.

The project covers four themed strands. The Arcadia Fund will pay for "Made in Britain", which will examine important discoveries in science and technology that have led to new industrial applications in computing, the applied sciences and engineering. It will also fund "A Changing Planet", which will address advances in environmental and climate change science.

The themes that have yet to win funding are "The Factory of Life", which will look at developments in biomedicine, and "Cosmologies", which will consider developments in theoretical fields such as astronomy and high-energy physics.

The iconic and the mundane

The interviews are intended not only to cover scientific discoveries, but also to reflect the reality of everyday science.

The subjects will be interviewed about everything from their early lives and influences to their daily work in the laboratory and the field. They will also be encouraged to talk about their personal beliefs and views on mortality.

Dr Dean said the project team had "a range of bigger-picture issues that we want to address", and that, given their length, the interviews would be very detailed.

"Even when there are interviews with scientists, it is pretty unusual to find ones as long as 15 hours ... They won't just be giving us the iconic moments," Mr Perks added.

It is envisaged that the material will be of particular interest to historians of science, military historians and those studying science policy. It is also hoped that the interviews will capture the imagination of the public.

So far, only a handful of the interviews are under way or complete. Charles Swithinbank, the glaciologist who was the youngest member of the first international expedition to Antarctica (1949-52), is currently in the hot seat, as is Geoff Tootill, a member of the University of Manchester team that built the first modern computer, nicknamed the "Baby". It ran its first successful program in 1948.

Donald Broad, a lab technician who worked with Nobel prizewinner Max Perutz, has also been interviewed, and Joseph Farman, the atmospheric scientist who in 1985 announced the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer, is waiting his turn.

The project team has "working lists" of other interviewees for the first two strands, developed in consultation with an advisory panel of historians of science, broadcasters and scientists themselves. But the lists are expanding and changing, and there is still time for researchers to make suggestions, Mr Perks said.

He stressed that the project was interested not only in famous scientists, but also unheralded people in teams that made major discoveries.

Audio recordings of the interviews will be placed online, along with transcripts and some video footage, and the material will be released throughout the three-year project.

But will the interviews really give insights that future researchers will be interested in? Mr Perks hopes they will: "Of course, you can never predict what will grab people in the future. As archivists we can gather only what we can. But one thing I am sure of is that interviews lasting 15 hours are going to give you a lot of material."

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