Science blog

Discover Science at the British Library


We are the British Library Science Team; we provide access to world-leading scientific information resources, manage UK DataCite and run science events and exhibitions. This blog highlights a variety of the activities we are involved with. Follow us on Twitter: @ScienceBL. Read more

12 November 2015

Memory Matters: The Art and Science of the Brain

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Alexander Brown reflects on the recent Memory Matters event in collaboration with UCL Neuroscience.

If I wanted to define ‘Memory Matters: The Art and Science of the Brain’ with a quote, it would be the words of Lewis Carroll’s White Queen in “Alice Through the Looking Glass”: ‘It is a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.’ In short, it was too fine an evening to be terse about.

Memory matters programme
The Memory Matters event programme

In the erudite setting of the British Library, sheltered from familiar London screeches, the event appropriately began with an example of procedural memory, the tango. The passionate and strangely grave dancers were scientist and artist collaborators Nicky Clayton and Clive Wilkins, whose theme was mental time travel. Clive introduced memory as a subjective yet shared experience allowing exploration of the past, prediction of the future, and the envisioning of imaginary worlds. Nicky then spoke of mental time travel in science. The hippocampus, the hub of declarative memory, was introduced, and the consequences of its destruction portrayed through a heartrending video interview of musician and amnesiac Clive Wearing. With only a moment-to-moment consciousness, the absence of the permanent marker of the past abandoned his present to mere thoughts, passing away one by one into oblivion. This man, who had no memory of having eaten, tasted or touched, nevertheless stated: “consciousness has to involve me”. This was followed by the story of a study on caching food in that remarkable bird, the jay. When left in either a ‘breakfast room’ or a ‘hungry room’ over a series of nights, the jay was five times more likely to store food in the ‘hungry room’ the next morning.  This demonstrated the jays ability to plan for the future, bettering small children in that activity.

Clive then spoke on the role of mental time travel for the artist. As Carroll alluded to, humans are the only species that allow time to move in two directions, via thought. This process is coloured by our culture, history, and mistakes.  Sir Frederick Bartlett, experimenting on subjects asked to recall fragments of Canadian Indian folklore, revealed how our memories can rewrite history according to self-serving preconceptions. The Moustachio Quartet, a tetralogy of novels penned by the speaker himself, mines mental time travel for ‘tools in the artist’s toolkit’. The four books can be read in any order, giving the reader power to distort and reinterpret the action of the novels just as our imagination or the order of events might reshape our reality. This phenomenological approach to memory, in which phones and teacups are mere extensions of our being, is both individualistic and also shared, and from it spring the ideas (and prejudices) of society. Memory becomes our social organization. As was discussed following an insightful question from the audience, this collective vision is one of many possible visions, equally as subjective as the individual one, and certainly less sincere.

Interval activities
Interval activities at Memory Matters event

Three breakout rooms were on show during the interval. The first, ‘Perceptions of Dementia’, hosted by the Alzheimer's Society challenged assumptions. Film and discussion provided the opportunity to step into the shoes of someone with dementia, enduring the difficulty of making a cup of tea and desperation on busy London streets. The second, ‘Forgetting to Fly’, celebrated the fruit fly in modern neuroscience, displaying common tests of locomotion and one using the flies’ moreish tastes for cider vinegar and rotting banana to test its memory. This room was hosted by early career researchers from UCL's Institute of Healthy Ageing. The third, ‘Voices of Science’, provided an online collective, subjective memory of oral histories from past greats from British science and technology.

On returning to the lecture theatre, I Remember Things’ showcased the talents of Chris Rawlins, who, treating memory as a ‘muscle’ to be trained, was able to recall street names and places in London based only on map grid references given to him by members of the audience. He followed this with a demonstration of a memory-improving technique, and some fantastic feats of photographic memory.

Memory Matters performers
Memory Matters performers (L-R: Hugo Spiers, Chris Rawlins, Nicky Clayton and Clive Wilkins)

Finally Hugo Spiers brought us back ‘from tap dancing to facts’, giving an overview of the ‘abnormal’ brains of London taxi drivers, whose posterior hippocampus swells as they commit London’s many streets to memory. We learnt that the posterior hippocampus is more active the greater its options, such as when stepping out onto a sunlit courtyard without anywhere in particular to go. A very elegant experiment on rats was described, where the rodents were shown rice beyond a barrier in a particular inaccessible location. Following sleep, they tested the frequency at which they later made the correct turning towards the area with the rice, now available. The results showed that rats - quite splendidly - appear to dream of the future, emphasizing the role the past plays in planning ahead. The rat creates a map of the future with echoes of the past, simulating its future journey, like London cabbies, in the hippocampus.

The amnesiac Clive Wearing obsessed over possessing ‘the captured thought’, among the many that forever evaded his consciousness. In Chris Marker’s short film La Jetée, across an oneiric sequence of black-and-white stills, the main character rejects the ‘real’ world in favour of a memory with the woman of his dreams. Without spoiling a wonderful film further, I wondered how different and yet how identical the two wishes were, and how bound we are to memory and identity, which, if not entirely mythological beasts, transcend our reason and science. Making these connections was of course why we all presented ourselves at the doorstep in the first place. I congratulate the British Library, UCL Neuroscience and all involved on a very exciting effort at bridging art and science.

Alexander F Brown (PhD student, Department of Molecular Neuroscience, UCL Institute of Neurology)

PS. If you missed out on this event then stay tuned! A highlights video will be available soon

09 November 2015

Science in Schools: What are the options?

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Here we share some of the highlights from our most recent TalkScience event.

The topic under discussion at the 30th TalkScience event was the future of secondary science education. We welcomed  Ed Dorrell (Times Educational Supplement) to chair a panel of expert speakers including Professor Louise Archer (Kings College London), Peter Finegold (Institution of Mechanical Engineers), and David Perks (East London Science School).

The panel gave a wide-ranging introduction referring to the skills shortage and the economy, science in society, and social justice. These broad issues framed the discussion of more specific points about the nature of the science curriculum (baccalaureate or ‘traditional’ academic science education), CPD for science teachers and the concept of ‘science capital’. The introduction was followed by a lively discussion between the audience and the panel.

Take a look at the highlights video here:


You might also be interested in this blog post where you can find out more about the range of resources relating to science education that are on offer at the British Library.

And if you missed out on this event - fear not! There is still one more TalkScience event at the British Library this year - the Christmas Quiz! Tickets are available via the British Library box office and cost £10 per team (up to 5 people).

Katie Howe

27 October 2015

Science education: A short guide to resources at the British Library

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Tonight we host our 30th TalkScience event, ‘Science in schools.’ Here we outline a range of British Library resources that may be useful for science education researchers. The guide is by no means exhaustive but will give you a flavour of the resources held across the Library’s collections.

 Educational Research

Our collection of academic monographs and peer reviewed journals, including key titles such as Science Education, as well as literature produced by membership organisations such as the British Educational Research Association and the Association for Science Education, contain a wealth of practical and theoretical research into science pedagogy.

Bibliographic databases, such as The British Education Index, Australian Education Index, Web of Science, and SCOPUS[1] can be used in our Reading Rooms to find references to a range of content related to science education, including books, journal articles, conference papers, and research reports across various disciplines.

Girl DNA

We collect curriculum resources,including textbooks and other teaching aides,[2] giving an insight into the content of school science lessons, while popular science titles and children’s science books offer a wider context for gauging scientific literacy.

 Education policy

Debates over education can be traced through a range of official publications from Parliament, ministerial departments and agencies. Hansard, the report of proceedings of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, is available to browse in the Social Science Reading Room, and full text searches of Parliamentary papers can be conducted via the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers database.

Changing practices of inspection and assessment in the UK can be charted through the reports of regulatory bodies such as Ofsted and Ofqual, and research published by international agencies such as UNESCO[3] provides a global context for understanding legislative change in the UK.

Digital documents

The online resources described in this section allow full text reports to be downloaded remotely for free.

The Management and Business Studies Portal contains documents such as research reports, briefings, case studies, and working papers produced by research institutes, professional societies, government bodies, and trade unions, which have been curated into subject areas; ‘Technology, Innovation and Change’, and ‘Accounting, Finance and the Economy’ are particularly relevant to science education.

The Social Welfare Portal offers information on all aspects of social welfare in the UK and overseas, including education from early years to postgraduate level. Research reports, consultations, and policy proposals issued by think tanks, universities and campaigning charities among others, are selected for inclusion by the Library’s social policy curators.

EThOS facilitates free access to the full text of 160,000 digitised UK doctoral theses and can be searched for titles relating to science education.

Contemporary commentary

NewsroomCommentary on educational change in the UK can be traced through our newspaper collection, which spans the national as well as regional and local press. The British Newspaper Archive contains 12 million fully searchable pages, and we subscribe to a range of newspaper electronic resources, including key titles such as The Times, the Daily Mail, and The Guardian.

Our Broadcast News service has more than 40,000 news programmes recorded since 6 May 2010, many of which can be searched by subtitle. International comparisons can be made by searching the online resource NewsBank: Access World News, containing full-text newspaper articles from over 12,000 newspapers worldwide. In addition, titles from the professional press including the weekly Times Educational Supplement and Times Higher Education are available in our Reading Rooms.

The UK Web Archivesecures permanent online access to key UK websites and has been organised into searchable special collection and subject areas, including ‘Education & Research’.

 Life stories

The British Library Sound Archive contains a huge collection of recorded sound and video. Interviews with scientists and engineers recorded as part of the Oral History of British Science initiative can be accessed on site and are searchable through the Sound and Moving Image catalogue.

Voices of science

The Voices of Science web resource offers curated access to audio and video highlights from the interviews, organised by theme, discipline and interviewee. Many of the interviewees reflect on their education, giving a fascinating insight into their experience of school science.

Science at the British Library

The British Library holds most of the scientific monographs published in the UK, a large proportion of the English-language journals published in Europe and North America, and an extensive collection of both peer-reviewed journals and professional journals, which can be accessed in our dedicated Science Reading Room. We are developing collaborations with UK universities and Higher Education Institutes, and our events programme engages the public with topical scientific issues. Follow us on Twitter and read our blog to find out more!


Learning at the British Library

Learning BLOur collection is at the heart of our schools programme. Led by our team of specialist educators, the programme combines a skills-based approach centred around critical thinking, research, and visual, verbal and digital literacy together with opportunities to encounter original and rare objects both onsite, online and nationally. Teaching resources and thousands of high resolution collection items, current academic research, films and animations can be accessed on our website.



Getting Started

  • Use our library website to find out about our collections, online service, and what’s on in the Library.
  • Use Explore the British Library to find details of books, reports, journal titles, newspapers and many more parts of the Library’s collections.
  • Find out about services in our Reading Rooms, and pre-register for a Reader Pass.

[1] Find these on the catalogue by searching for the title then selecting ‘Databases’ under ‘Material Type’ on the dropdown menu to the left.

[2] The best way to find them is by conducting an advanced search in the main catalogue. Use ‘science’, or a particular subject word such as ‘physics’ or ‘chemistry’ as a keyword in the ‘Main title’ search field, then use the exact phrase ‘study and teaching’ in the  ‘Subject’ search field. You can then further refine your results using the drop-down menu to the left of the results list.

[3] Search for UNESCO in the ‘Author’ field and education in the ‘subject’ field