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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

05 October 2015

New opportunities for collaborative PhD research exploring the British Library’s science collections

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Applications for collaborative PhD research around the British Library’s science collections are now open to UK universities and other HEIs

AHRC logoThe British Library is looking for university partners to co-supervise collaborative PhD research projects that will open up unexplored aspects of its science collections.  Funding is available from the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships programme, through which the Library works with UK universities or other eligible Higher Education Institutes around strategic research themes.

Our current CDP opportunities include a project to examine the culture and evolution of scientific research, drawing on scientists’ personal archives, and another project to develop digital tools for the investigation of scientific knowledge in the 17th and 18th centuries:

The Working Life of Scientists: Exploring the Culture of Scientific Research through Personal Archives

This project will involve a detailed mapping of the key personal relationships of 20th century British scientists to shed light on the nature, communication and reception of scientific research. It will draw on the Library’s Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts collections, which include personal archives and correspondence from the fields of computer science and programming, cybernetics and artificial intelligence, as well as evolutionary, developmental and molecular biology. As well as being situated within social and cultural history, particularly the history of science and the history of ideas, this cross-disciplinary project is applicable to research in areas such as social anthropology, sociology and social network analysis. It will open up a nuanced understanding of the BL’s collection of the personal archives of twentieth century British scientists. It will enable us to better exploit these valuable collections to research audiences across a number of disciplines.

Hans Sloane’s Books: Evaluating an Enlightenment Library

SloaneEngravedPortraitCroppedThis Digital Humanities projectwill evaluate the library of Hans Sloane (1660-1753): physician, collector and posthumous ‘founding father’ of the British Museum. For over sixty years, Hans Sloane was a dominant figure on London’s intellectual and social landscape. At the heart of his vast collections stood a library of 45,000 books, which – alongside his voluminous correspondence and thousands of prints, drawings, specimens and artefacts – bears witness to his central position in a globalised network of scientific discovery. The CDP project will apply digital techniques to exploit the raw data on over 32,000 items in the Sloane Printed Books Catalogue, and will break new ground by developing digital tools to cross reference, contextualise and analyse the data. This will forge fresh insights into how medical and scientific knowledge was gathered and disseminated in the pre-Linnaean period, with relevance to the history of science, medicine and collecting.


Moving beyond our science collections, there is also a third CDP opportunity for a project on ‘Digital Publishing and the Reader’. This will investigate the changing nature of publishing in digital environments to consider how new communication technologies should be recorded or collected as part of a national collection of British written culture.

Applications are invited from academics to develop any of these research themes with a view to co-supervising a PhD project with the British Library from October 2016. Our HEI partners receive and administer the funds for a full PhD studentship from the AHRC and, in collaboration with the Library, oversee the research and training of the student. We provide the student with staff-level access to our collections, expertise and facilities, as well as financial support for research-related costs of up to £1,000 a year.

View further details and application guidelines.

To apply, send the application form to by 27 November 2015.


04 October 2015

From fiction to fact: the science of Animal Tales

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Alice Kirke investigates the facts behind the fiction of the British Library’s Animal Tales exhibition.

The Animal Tales exhibition at the British Library explores what our portrayal of animals within literature tells us about ourselves. The natural environment and its inhabitants have inspired generations of writers, but how do some of our favourite, anthropomorphised fictional creatures compare to their real-life counterparts? I set out to discover what the science says about the creatures lurking among the pages.

Cats: aloof and independent?

Valued for their companionship, skill in hunting vermin, and role in numerous ‘funny cat videos’ on YouTube, the domestic cat was first classified as ‘Felis catus’ by the Swedish botanist and zoologist Carolus Linnaeus in 1758. The exhibition features French philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s Essays,[1] in which he famously asked ‘When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?’ People have kept cats as pets for thousands of years. Though they are commonly thought to have first been domesticated by the Ancient Egyptians, who considered them to be sacred, there is evidence of earlier domestication dating from around 9,500 years ago.[2] There are many theories and misconceptions about the behaviour of these enigmatic pets. As predators, cats are very focussed on their environment leading to the common misreading of their behaviour as aloof, and although they are seen as ‘independent’ they are in fact social animals. Cat communication includes a variety of vocalizations as well types of cat-specific body language.[3]


Snakes: slithering and sinister?

A 17th century depiction of Lamia from Edward Topsell's The History of Four-Footed Beasts

Snakes have a sinister reputation in literature and culture. In ancient Greek mythology Lamia, the mistress of Zeus was transformed into a terrifying serpentine demon by Zeus’ jealous wife Hera. In Keats’ poem Lamia[4], displayed in the exhibition, the protagonist appears in her beautiful human form before being transformed back into a serpent at her wedding feast. To an extent, this was a comment on science itself; knowledge of the natural world destroyed its beauty.



 Snakes are perhaps so often portrayed as evil in literature because some species are dangerous to humans, but snakes are diverse creatures- there are over 3,000 species of snake in the world, with at least one type of snake on every continent except Antarctica. There is debate among evolutionary psychologists over whether the fear of snakes is innate. Since those with a phobia of snakes would be more likely to stay away from them and avoid the dangers of being bitten, they had a better chance of surviving and passing on their genes. Recent research suggests that although the fear of snakes is a learned behaviour, people do have a knack for spotting them; when shown images of snakes surrounded by objects of a similar colour babies and young children detected snakes faster than other objects.  

Spiders: creepy crawlies?

Frequent scare stories in the UK press about invasions of deadly spiders prey on a common fear of arachnids. There are over 40,000 different species worldwide, and although the vast majority are venomous most are not dangerous to humans. Arachnologists, experts who study spiders emphasise their diversity in terms of their appearance, habitats and behaviour.

Due to their wide range of behaviours, they have become symbolic of various attributes, including patience, cruelty and creativity in art and mythology.  The character of Anansi, a spider who often acts and appears as a man in West African and Caribbean folklore, has taken on a variety of different traits over time. Anansi Company,[5] featured in the exhibition, is a modern version of tales about Anansi and his friends which are central to Caribbean culture.

Crow: cruel or cunning?

The Crow and the Pitcher, illustrated by Milo Winter in 1919

In common English, corvids including crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays and magpies, are all known as ‘the crow family’.  Ted Hughes’ Crow draws on mythology surrounding the much maligned creature, which is often connected with death.[6] In Irish mythology, crows are associated with Morrigan, the goddess of war and death, and the collective name for a group of crows is a ‘murder’. However, they have also been linked with prophesy, cunning and intelligence. In one of Aesop’s fables, a thirsty crow spied a pitcher containing a small amount of water, which was out of reach of its bill. The crow began dropping pebbles into the pitcher one by one, thereby raising the level of water and enabling it to drink. A 2009 study published in Current Biology which replicated Aesop's fable, found that four captive rooks used stones to raise the level of water in a container, allowing a floating worm to move into reach, showing that the goal-directed behaviour of Aseop’s crow is reflected in actual corvid behaviour. European magpies have demonstrated self-awareness in mirror tests, and crows and rooks have been shown to have the ability to make and use tools, previously regarded as a skill specific to humans and a few other higher mammals. This scientific research suggests that crows are one of the most intelligent animals in the world.

Animal Tales showcases many more familiar yet enigmatic creatures. The wealth of material in the Library collections can be used to trace animals in literature as well as the latest scientific research about their characteristics- come and see the exhibition and follow up with some research into your favourite fictional beasts!

[1] Michel de Montaigne, Les Essais de Michel Seigneur de Montaigne. (Paris, 1602) C.28.g.7

[2] Vigne JD, Guilaine J, Debue K, Haye L, Gérard P (April 2004). "Early taming of the cat in Cyprus". Science 304 (5668): 259

[3] Dennis C. Turner, and Patrick Bateson, The domestic cat: the biology of its behaviour. (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2000) m00/46105

[4] John Keats, Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of St. Agnes & other poems. (Waltham St. Lawrence, 1928)

[5] Ronald King & Roy Fisher, Anansi Company. (London, 1992) C.193.c.8

[6] Ted Hughes & Leonard Baskin, Crow: from the life and songs of the Crow (London, 1973)

30 September 2015

Overpowered! The Science and Showbiz of Hypnosis

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Performer and entertainer Christopher Green's new book "The Science & Showbiz of Hypnosis" is published by British Library Publications on 16th October 2015. In this blog post Christopher explores the intriguing history of hypnosis and investigates some of the science behind this curious practice. Hear more from Christopher at the launch event at the British Library on 13th October. Tickets are available here.

OverpoweredWhat we call hypnosis now has been going on in our brains since we were first human, and it will carry on until there are no more humans.  At this stage of our cultural development we happen to call it hypnosis.  It also happens to be regarded by the vast majority of human beings as something of a joke, by many others as irrelevant and, even those of us who are fascinated tend to focus more on the big moustaches and kitchsy, campy, quirky notions of the big-mouthed practitioners of the subject.  But it belongs to all of us.  It’s a human process.  What exactly is going on chemically, biochemically and bioelectrically isn’t known, but we are fools if we think it’s just the preserve of fellas in spandex shirts.  It’s the people in the white coats that we should be interested in.  Especially in our age of increasing mental dis-ease.  These days, it’s much more acceptable to alter your brain chemistry using powerful drugs in the hope that a tiny percentage of it’s efficacy will help with lifting your mood.  And yet, harnessing what is after all a perfect natural human process – one person simply helping another to experience something – is thought of as a bit sinister and weird.  So I salute the neuro-hypnotism research.  I suspect in a few hundred years when some irreverent and light-hearted comedian writes a round up of their thinking of hypnosis using books from our time, that they look at this and say “Christopher was over-focused on type-face, bill matter and moustaches, but he was right about the neuro-science.  It was, after all, what they called hypnosis back then, that proved the turning point in helping human beings fight back from the damaging mental ill-health caused by fighting the squishing effects of capitalism on a daily basis”.  I can dream, can’t I?

Christopher's second favourite old-time hypnotist 'Karlyn'

This stuff might only be taken seriously once we move on from the word ‘hypnosis’.  It needs serious rebranding.  I think that’s a shame, because as you see from this book, I celebrate all the bright shouts and all the dark shameful whispers in the history of the hypnosis, but to the average person it’s too bleedin’ confusing.  Could it be time to change the name?  A modern day hypnotic hero is Dr Amir Raz.  He started off as a magician while studying to be a doctor.   He says “Magic taught me a lot about psychology in terms of attention, directing attention and how the mind works. At one point I started reading about hypnosis and decided to marry the two."  But he acknowledges the need for the rebrand and I like his solution, although it’s a bit worthy and not spunky enough. 

"Hypnosis is tricky because it has such a checkered history. Many people feel uncomfortable with it, even within the scientific community, because they think it's not something that a serious scientist should get involved in. Part of the reason it has this bad reputation is because of things like stage hypnosis, where you see a bunch of people clucking like chickens."  Dr Raz suggests ditching "hypnosis" in favour of "focused attention" or "susceptibility to suggestion”.

This is not a million miles away from the term coined by James Coates in 1905 “suggestive therapeutics” though as I’ve pointed out in my book, this is likely to get people in cahoots with pimps rather than psychiatrists.  But though his new names don’t zing, Dr Raz makes a rallying cry for the future of the subject.  "I don't consider myself a hypnosis researcher. If anything, I'm more of a neuroscientist with an interest in attention. I see hypnosis as an interesting tool for illuminating interesting scientific questions about consciousness, volitional control and authorship”

Of course, I want to challenge myself and think of a new term for hypnosis that takes all of the history and all the modern neuroscience into account.  I want to be a 21st Century rebranding Braid.  But then he cocked up with the name Hypnosis, introducing all sorts of notions of sleep etc that have misled people ever since.  I’m sure I’ll do the same.  But I’ll have a go.  Please contact me with your own suggestions and let’s solve this one, fam.


Relaxed wakefulness


Attention Therapy

…. or following in the footsteps of the arch egotist hypnotist Walford Bodie who coined the term Bodic Force, I suggest calling it after myself - Green Power.

Oh dear!  Your turn!

Christopher Green