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Discover Science at the British Library

Introduction

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

18 May 2016

Shakespeare on the couch: The bard and psychology

To celebrate the opening of the British Library’s Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition, Paul Allchin explores Shakespeare’s perceptive understanding of human psychology.   

 “What makes Shakespeare eternal is his grasp of psychology. He knew how to nail stuff” Martin Freeman (Actor) 

Shakespeare -The Chandos portrait
The Chandos portrait, artist and authenticity unconfirmed. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London.


As far back as the ancient Greeks and Egyptians we have reflected on human behaviour and yet psychology was considered a branch of philosophy until the 1870s, from when it developed as an independent scientific discipline in Germany and the United States. Much has been written in the last couple of centuries on the psychology of Shakespeare and his dramatic works.

Shakespeare understood our inner demons and knew how to express them on the written page. For example Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”, pinpoints man’s flaws, that so well, feeds the fuel for his dramas:

But man, proud man, Drest in a little brief authority, Most ignorant of what he’s most assur'd; 

His glassy essence, like an angry ape, Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven, As make the angels weep.

Whether it is man’s inflated views of himself or the range of emotions from love to anger, Shakespeare seemed always to have something to say. In Henry VIII, Act 1, Scene 1, he advises on  anger management:

“Be advised, heat not a furnace for your foe so hot, that it do singe yourself”.

The British Library has a rich and varied collection in psychology, counselling and psychoanalysis, both historical and current, as well as electronic journals and databases such as PsychInfo and PsychExtra.  Both the humanities and science reading rooms include works on the open shelves and we hold a wealth of psychology texts in our storage areas. Some of these are in our lending collection and can be requested through college and public libraries using their inter-library lending services.

An example of such reflective literature is the book entitled “The Vale of Soulmaking: the post-Kleinian model of the mind” by Meg Harris Williams, H.Karnac (Books) Ltd. 2005, shelf mark YC.2006.a.12437, which includes Chapter 7, “Cleopatra’s monument”. This chapter outlines the post Kleinian psychological perspective on some of Shakespeare’s works. 

The post Kleinian model of the mind is an aesthetic one, developed by W.R. Bion and Donald Meltzer and takes Melanie Klein’s ideas of our infant Self’s relationship to evolving “internalised objects”, often parental and the resolution of emotional turmoil through symbol formation, dreaming, envisioning, and counter-transference.

Procession of characters from Shakespeares Plays by an unknown artist
Procession of Characters from Shakespeare's Plays by an unknown 19th-century artist

Shakespeare’s literary power resides in him being one of the great literary symbol makers and metaphor developers, along with Milton, Keats, Homer and Sophocles, able to articulate and give form to man’s deepest desires and dilemmas. Shakespeare’s role in feeding food to psychology and the 19th and 20th century psychoanalysis tradition through his plays and dramas is a testament to his insights into human nature.

Freud, Jung, Klein, and the post Kleinians provide psychological meaning making frameworks, varied lenses through which contemporary thinkers can appreciate and understand Shakespeare’s works.

William Shakespeares First Folio
William Shakespeare's First Folio (Image: WIkipedia)

 

Some of our out of copyright books have been digitised and are available through Google books and the British Library Explore catalogue remotely e.g. The Psychology of Macbeth, a lecture, etc. by George Sexton, (active 1857-1887).

What is clear is that Shakespeare has an uncanny ability to create characters that are archetypal and sets up in his plays, the conflicts, challenges, resolutions and pitfalls found in our daily lives. He gave us the psychodramas on the stage through which we can project our internal worlds and learn from the characters he invented.    

Paul Allchin, Science Reference Specialist.


The British Library's current exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts is a landmark exhibition on the performances that made an icon, charting Shakespeare’s constant reinvention across the centuries and is open until Tuesday 6th September 2016.

To find out more about Shakespeare collections at the British Library join our reference team for a special tour where you can find out how to access and research Shakespeare related collections not on display in the exhibition. Tickets are available here.

Find out more about Shakespeare and psychology here

After Oedipus : Shakespeare in psychoanalysis, Julia Reinhard Lupton and Kenneth Reinhard. Ithaca/Cornell University Press, 1993. Shelfmark: 93/12357 DSC 

Elizabethan psychology and Shakespeare’s plays by Ruth Leila Anderson. Shelfmark: W42/6604 DSC  

The mad folk of Shakespeare, John Charles Bucknill, (1817-1897), Second edition, revised, 1867, Shelfmark 2300.c.3. 

The mind according to Shakespeare : psychoanalysis in the bard's writing, Marvin Bennett Krims. Shelfmark YC.2007.a.1806 and m06/.37542 DSC   

Psyche & symbol in Shakespeare, Alex Aronson. Bloomington. Shelfmark: 72/10648 DSC 

Psychoanalysis and ShakespeareNorman N. Holland. New York : Octagon Books, 1976, c1966. Shelfmark: 77/30526 DSC

The psychology of Shakespeare, by Bucknill, John Charles, 1970, Shelf mark X11/1303 DSC 

Shakespeare and psychoanalytic theory, Carolyn E. Brown, Shelfmark  YC.2015.a.10365

Shakespeare on the couch : on behalf of the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy  by Michael Jacobs. Shelfmark YC.2009.a.9109 

The Vale of Soulmaking: the post-Kleinian model of the mind, by Meg Harris Williams, shelf mark YC.2006.a.12437 and  m05/.26094 DSC   

13 May 2016

Shakespeare: a King of Infinite Space?

To celebrate the opening of the British Library’s Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition, Richard Wakeford (information specialist in science, technology and medicine) looks at how Shakespeare wove contemporary science into his work.

William Shakespeare lived in a remarkable time, on the cusp of the medieval world view and the scientific revolution. But how far was he aware of this new thinking and how much did it appear in his writing? Certainly Shakespeare did not make any scientific ideas obvious, any more than he made his views on religion or politics obvious. The clues are scattered but have been explored in a recent book by Dan Falk.

The Starry Messenger

One striking resonance is that the play Cymbeline, written in 1610 and first performed in 1611, drew upon Galileo Galilei’s publication of Siderius Nuncius (The Starry Messenger) in 1610. Incidentally, Shakespeare and Galileo were exact contemporaries, born two months apart in 1564.

In Cymbeline, a tangled tale of death, rape and cross-dressing, the character Postumus is in prison awaiting execution. In a masque scene, four ghosts of his dead family appear in a dream to dance around the god Jupiter, pleading for his life. This chimes directly with Galileo’s observations in the Starry Messenger that Jupiter is orbited by four moons.

The Starry Messenger
Left: Frontispiece of The Starry Messenger (Sidereus Nuncius) 1610. Right: Inside page.  (Images: Wikipedia)

 Galileo recorded the movement of four new objects around Jupiter over several successive nights.

“I therefore concluded and decided unhesitatingly, that there are three stars in the heavens moving about Jupiter, as Venus and Mercury round the Sun; which at length was established as clear as daylight by numerous subsequent observations. These observations also established that there are not only three, but four, erratic sidereal bodies performing their revolutions round Jupiter...the revolutions are so swift that an observer may generally get differences of position every hour.”

He hath overthrown all astronomy

This discovery cracked Aristotelian cosmology apart and rang around Europe. It is known that the mathematician and astronomer Thomas Harriot had read the work in London during the summer of 1610, soon after its publication in March in Venice1 and the English ambassador in Venice, Sir Henry Wotton, had immediately sent a copy to Sir Robert Cecil, the Lord Chamberlain, for the attention of the King, writing that “he [Galileo] hath first overthrown all former astronomy”.

It is likely that a book with such a high profile was read, or even more likely, gossiped about, by the King's playwright. Shakespeare’s company had become the Kings Men on the accession of James the First with Shakespeare made a “groom extraordinary of the chamber”. Furthermore the King was a science and technology fan, an enthusiastic collector of clocks and mechanical devices, and an admirer of the German astronomer Kepler2.

What was Shakespeare attempting to do in the masque scene? Scholars have disagreed over his knowledge of science, seeing him either as a native of the medieval world of astrology, or a science nerd writing Hamlet as a detailed, coded exposition of Copernican astronomy. Or maybe it was neither of these two extremes but simply that he sprinkled fashionable new ideas over his play to catch the fancy of the King. It is not known if Cymbeline was performed at court but a masque, accompanied by music, dancing and spectacular staging, strongly suggests a court performance.

William Herschel and Hubble Space Telescope
Left: William Herschel, discover of Uranus' moons Titania and Oberon. Right: Hubble Space telescope used to identify the moons Mab and Cupid (Images: Wikipedia)

Shakespeare’s links to astronomy have continued down the centuries. Sir William Herschel, after discovering Uranus in 1781, went on to locate the first two of its many moons in 1787, naming them Titania and Oberon. In 2003 the moons Cupid (after a character in Timon of Athens) and Mab (after Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet), were discovered using the Hubble space telescope.

Richard Wakeford, Science Reference Specialist


To find out more about Shakespeare collections at the British Library join our reference team for a special tour where you can find out how to access and research Shakespeare-related collections that not on display in the exhibition. Tickets are available here

The British Library's current exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts is a landmark exhibition on the performances that made an icon, charting Shakespeare’s constant reinvention across the centuries and is open until Tuesday 6th September 2016.

An original copy of the Starry Messenger is displayed in the science case in the Treasures of the British Library gallery. It opens at one of the pages illustrating the surface features of the Moon, another of Galileo’s discoveries that broke with the traditional concept of celestial perfection. Galileo’s sunspot letters are also on display and can be seen here.

The title of this blog "A king of infinite space" is taken from a quote by Shakespeare's Hamlet: "O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams" (Act II, Scene 2)

 Read more about Shakespeare and Galileo here:

  1. Bloom T,F., Borrowed perceptions: Harriot’s maps of the moon. Journal for the History of Astronomy, 1978, 9: 117-122. An online version is here.
  2.  Feingold, M. The mathematicians' apprenticeship : science, universities and society in England 1560-1640.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.General Reference Collection X.800/38615
  3.  Galileo, G. The starry messenger or Galileo's O, edited by Horst Bredekamp. Berlin: AkademieVerlag, c2011. General Reference Collection YD.2012.b.2230
  4. 4Shakespeare W. Cymbeline; edited by John Pitcher London: Penguin, 2005 General Reference Collection YC.2005.a.2678 (John Pitcher’s introduction also explores the link between Shakespeare and Galileo.)
  5. Richard Wakeford: Science Reference Specialist

20 April 2016

The Thinking Machine: W Ross Ashby and the Homeostat

The British Library holds the personal archive of W. Ross Ashby - psychiatrist and expert in cybernetics (the study of the control of systems using technology). In this guest post Hallvard Haug, postdoctoral fellow at Birkbeck, University of London, examines the figure of W. Ross Ashby and his key invention the homeostat - a machine capable of adapting itself to the environment. A shorter article on W. Ross Ashby is featured on the British Library Untold Lives blog.

Ross Ashby (1903-1972) was a central figure of the post-war cybernetics movement in the UK, especially due to the popularity of his books Design for a Brain (1952) and  An Introduction to Cybernetics (1956). Ashby kept a thorough record of his thoughts throughout his adult life, and a collection of his papers has been donated to the British Library by his family.

1963in-his-office
Photograph of W Ross Ashby taken in his office 1963, Biological Computing Laboratory, University of Illinois. Copyright the Estate of W. Ross Ashby. www.rossashby.info

The centrepiece of the collection is Ashby’s notebooks which he kept from 1928 up until the year of his death. Among students of cybernetics these are legendary, and for good reason. Over the course of nearly 50 years, Ashby took meticulous stock of his thoughts on the material nature of the brain, and the notebooks show the workings of a highly systematic and deeply creative mind. Written in a precise hand, the journals brim with insights, speculations, calculations, graphs, drawings, newspaper clippings and circuit diagrams. Ashby also kept a meticulous topical record complete with content pages, cross referencing, summaries of entries, as well as two different sets of indexes — also included in the collection (Add MS 89153/27-30). Eventually, the notebooks ran to 7189 pages and spanned a total of 25 volumes.

20160404_095103334_iOS 1
Journals 18-25 with handwritten labels including page numbers (Add MS 89153/18-25). Copyright the Estate of W. Ross Ashby. www.rossashby.info

At first, the notebooks were a pastime; eventually, however, the ideas Ashby explored became original enough to be publishable and in time these notes became the focus of his working life as his cybernetics work. The most famous of his innovations was the homeostat, a machine which demonstrated and embodied his theory of learning and adaptation in a mechanical apparatus which, entirely on its own, regains stability when perturbed. The development of the homeostat is documented thoroughly in the notebooks, from its first entry on 19 November 1946:

"I have been trying to develope [sic] further principles for my machine to illustrate stability, + to develope ultrastability" (Add MS 89153/9).

In the coming years, it was the centrepiece for his cybernetic activities.

The homeostat — a bulky and somewhat baroque machine built from military surplus parts — had a single purpose: to regain stability in response to perturbations in its environment. It is hard to convey precisely how the homeostat worked: set up as four identical units connected to each other via electrical inputs and outputs, each unit was topped with electrically conducing vanes dipped in water troughs. Like oscillographs, the vanes moved back and forth in the trough, reacting to the electrical input from their environment — the output from other blocks in the setup — and each block had an electrical output determined by the position of the vane in the trough. If the vane was directly in the middle of the trough, the electrical output was zero; if, however, it was positioned any other place in the trough, it provided electrical output to the other blocks, affecting the positions of the vanes it was connected to. Thus, when the machine was set in action by pushing a vane out of position, the vanes on all four units would react by moving back and forth, in reaction to their respective environments.

Add 89154 4-crop
Image of Ashby’s hand drawn diagram for the final version of the Homeostat from page 2432, Journal 11. (Add MS 89153/11). Copyright the Estate of W. Ross Ashby. www.rossashby.info

What made the homeostat so interesting, however, was its ability to return to equilibrium once a vane had been upset. Each of the units was constructed to also produce electric feedback to their respective vanes, depending on the conductivity of the vane. This feedback was determined according to a random table, and the machine would cycle through the table as long as the electrical output was not zero. Eventually, however, the vanes, cycling through random states, would come to a halt as each block found the appropriate feedback configuration. For Ashby, the return to equilibrium that the homeostat demonstrated was equivalent to the brain’s — whether human or animal — capacity for learning. The return to equilibrium demonstrated by the homeostat also showed how what only seems purposeful can come about by randomness, and Ashby believed this principle of feedback mechanisms spontaneously restoring equilibrium was a governing principle in nature. Indeed, in 1945 he noted that he had decided to follow in Darwin’s footsteps: like with the homeostat’s return to equilibrium, he viewed a species’ evolutionary adaptation to its environment as a return to equilibrium, and is only apparently purposeful. This tendency towards what Ashby called ‘ultrastability’ was referred to by Norbert Wiener as no less than ‘one of the great philosophical contributions of the present day.’ Eventually, Ashby was invited to present it at the ninth Macy conference for cybernetics in 1952.

20150827_081011000_iOS
Image of the Homeostat taken from Ashby’s lecture slides. (Add MS 89152/40). Copyright the Estate of W. Ross Ashby. www.rossashby.info

The influence cybernetics exerted on both the sciences and humanities in the 1950s and ’60s was considerable: its central insights touched upon, transformed and occasionally dominated disciplines ranging from computer science, artificial intelligence and genetics through psychology and sociology, and also influenced intellectual movements such as structuralism. Its universal character gained it great popular appeal, but also meant cybernetics never had a comfortable institutional or disciplinary home, with only a few university departments dedicated to it. Despite its popular appeal, Ashby has remained something of an obscure figure. The autobiographical notebook ‘Passing through nature…’ gives a rare insight into his private thoughts, and suggests that it was at least partly due to Ashby’s reticence towards being in the public eye:

"My fear is now that that [sic] I may become conspicuous for a book of mine is in the press. For this sort of success I have no liking. My ambitions are vaguer.

   I am something of an artist, not with pencil or paint, for I have no skill there, but with a deep appreciation of the perfect. […] I have an ambition some day to produce something faultless." (Add MS 89153/33)

Against his inclinations, Ashby set out to spark public interest in his ideas in the 1940s, and for a brief period the homeostat was the topic both of popular magazines and radio shows, promoted as an ‘artificial brain.’ Ashby kept a record of his success, pasting newspaper clippings in the notebooks. The journals are a treasure trove for insight into the trajectory of ideas: from the premature attempts at precisely stating a problem, to the mature implementation, years later, of a successful theory and its subsequent dissemination.

Hallvard Haug is a Wellcome ISSF postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Medical Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London. His interest in W. Ross Ashby stems from his PhD research on the history of human enhancement technologies, which included a section on cybernetics.

Further reading:

The British Library acquired the W. Ross Ashby archive in 2003. It consists of notebooks, correspondence, notes, index cards, slides and offprints and is available to researchers through the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue at Add MS 89153. The estate of W. Ross Ashby also maintains a website The W. Ross Ashby Digital Archive which contains digitised copies of much of this material as well as a biography and photographs. It can be found at www.rossashby.info

Andrew Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches for Another Future (Chicago: 2010).

Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings, 2nd ed. (London: 1989).