June 25, 2016, by Brigitte Nerlich

That was the week that was

This week was one of the strangest weeks of my life.

In the middle of the week I had two days of real enjoyment. On Tuesday, 21 June, current and former members of our Institute for Science and Society came together at an event organised for me by Sujatha Raman and entitled ‘Adventures in Science, Language and Society with Brigitte Nerlich’. It was lovely to see old friends, students and colleagues again, to chat with them and to go out with them in the evening for a great tapas meal. I even got a cake! This was a delightful celebration of the Institute, which has been my academic home since the year 2000.

The following day, Wednesday the 22nd of June, was the day of the end of award conference for our Making Science Public programme. Many colleagues from far and wide came to this event and, again, we all enjoyed ourselves, despite the political storm clouds gathering overhead. We had a barbecue in the evening; I got slightly drunk, discussed the upcoming referendum endlessly; and then the day of the referendum dawned.

And then, on the 24th of June, I woke up in a different world. I realised that I now live in a country where I no longer feel at home.

Feeling homeless

Still feeling rather stunned, I thought – what on earth can I possibly write about? I can certainly not say anything about the referendum and its aftermath that others haven’t said already and so much better than I ever could.

Then I remembered that at the end of award conference, one of the speakers mentioned the 19th century in passing and I had interjected laughingly, ‘oh great, give me the 19th century and I feel at home’. So, I began to think that despite my feelings of angst and alienation, there were things during the week that, apart from the celebration and the conference, had made me smile and feel at home – not in a country but in a genre of book; I am a bookworm after all and feel most at home in old books and especially in books about the history of science.

Feeling at home

One thing that made me smile recently was reading an excellent book which brought to life the life and work of Thomas Willis and his group of friends in Oxford and then London during the 17th century. The book is called The Soul Made Flesh by the science writer Carl Zimmer and was published in 2004. The book is beautifully written. It is indeed gripping. I couldn’t put it down. It is one in a suite of history of science books that have recently brought real joy and pleasure to my life. It complements The Egg and Sperm Race by Matthew Cobb and Eye of the Beholder by Laura J. Snyder (just to stick with the 17th century).

The Soul Made Flesh was one of those rare books that I just couldn’t stop talking about. So I gave little impromptu lectures to unsuspecting friends and colleagues on the bus, in the kitchen or in the café. About being astounded to see beautiful anatomical drawings of brains dissected by Thomas Willis and about being told that they were painted by none other than Christopher Wren. Upon which one friend said, jokingly, ‘perhaps that’s where he got his ideas for domes from’.

I also told them about Willis, this time the doctor rather than the anatomist and proto-neuroscientist, going out into the countryside to try and cure rich and poor people, something he wasn’t very good at. One such visit took Willis, I said, to Ragley Hall in Warwickshire (‘ah, I have been there’, said my friend), where Lady Anne Conway was more or less imprisoned all her life because of recurring headaches.

After visiting her (and not curing her), Willis wrote down the first detailed description of a migraine (‘oh poor thing’, was the reply). Most interestingly, I told my unsuspecting interlocutors, Anne Conway corresponded with her half-brother John Finch who was studying at Christ’s College, Cambridge (‘ah, Christ’s, I have seen that college’ said another friend) who then introduced her to Henry More, the Cambridge philosopher. Over time, Anne Conway corresponded with many leading philosophers across Europe and eventually wrote her own philosophical treatise, which, some say, may have influenced the work of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz…….

I am not sure that the people I foisted this information on will go out and buy the book, but that was not the point of telling them these and other stories. The point was that I myself enjoyed telling these stories and I think my friends enjoyed listening to them – or gave a very good impression.

This made me think: A good book that brings science to life also brings that science to our lives. It gives science a home. This is one of the best ways of making science public.



Posted in Personal ReflectionUncategorized