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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

27 November 2018

Cats in science

Cat image
At the end of last week, our free exhibition "Cats on the Page" opened, covering cats in all their roles in fiction and art. Here are a few examples of the roles that cats have played in science.

The most famous cat in science, of course, is the notorious Schrödinger's Cat thought experiment, put forward by the physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935 to express what he thought were the truly bizarre implications of the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics. In this morally questionable experiment, a cat is sealed in a box with an apparatus that has a predictable probability, within a set time, of releasing cyanide gas and killing it, analogous to a subatomic particle which, until it interacts with another object, may be in one of a number of states with known probabilities. According to Schrödinger, when the probability of the cat being dead reaches 50%, it can be considered, so long as the box is not opened, to be simultaneously alive and dead. Schrödinger actually put this forward as a self-evidently ludicrous demonstation of how silly he thought that the Copenhagen interpretation was, but many physicists since have taken it entirely seriously, and single atoms or subatomic particles have been demonstrated in real-world experiments to behave as if they are in two states simultaneously.

There has been at least one recorded case of a cat being credited writer on a peer-reviewed scientific paper. In 1975, the physicist and mathematician Jack H Hethrington was irritated when a peer reviewer for Physical Review Letters pointed out that he had used "we" consistently in a manuscript on which he was the only credited author, and that the journal style guide would require this to be corrected to "I" throughout. Rather than rewrite the paper, Hethrington credited his cat, Chester, as the second author "F D C Willard", the "FD" coming from Felis domesticus and Willard from the name of Chester's father. In 1980 he published a popular science article under the name of Willard alone. In this case, it was reportedly motivated by disagreements between him and some co-authors, leading to them not wanting to credit it to any real person.

That example was not motivated by hostility, but stings based on exposing questionable degrees or dubious professional organisations by having animals "earn" qualifications have a long history. The first case seems to have taken place in 1967 when a Television Wales team investigating a bogus "English Association of Estate Agents and Valuers" successfully got them to appoint a cat named "Oliver Greenhalgh" as a fellow. British science writer Ben Goldacre has exposed the dubious nature of certain "nutritionist" qualifications by getting his cat a professional certification. To rub salt in, the cat had been dead for some time.

And finally, cats may some day have a role in protecting post-apocalyptic humans from our darker legacies if our technological civilisation collapses. A serious proposal has been made to genetically engineer cats to change colour or glow if they encounter radioactivity, and create a legend that they can detect evil, in order to prevent far-future peoples from unknowingly digging up still-hazardous nuclear waste dumps.

Posted by Philip Eagle (Subject Librarian - STM)

24 November 2018

Psychology Resources and Research Methods Workshop for Scholars


Image source: British Library Press Images

London is blessed with a rich seam of psychology research collections represented by the British Library and the London Psychology Librarians’ Group institutions.

Together curators, reference subject specialists and psychology librarians support students, researchers and professionals in advancing our understanding the the mind, brain and behavior.

You are warmly welcome to a free workshop on Monday 3 rd December at the British Library in the afternoon, focusing on psychology research resources in London.

Monday 3 December (14.00-17.00)

This workshop, for registered Readers (and those who would find it useful to register as readers for their research needs) takes place in the Eliot Training Room in the Library’s Knowledge Centre. The workshop programme is:

Part 1: Welcome to the Library and introduction to the London Psychology Librarians Group:

  • Qualitative methods in psychology research; Christine Ozolins, Neuroscience researcher, Birkbeck College
  • Psychology collections: the London Landscape; Mura Ghosh, Research Librarian, Senate House Library

14.50-15.30 Tea break (Tea provided)

Part 2 British Library Psychology Resources and Information Literacy:

  • Information literacy for psychology research; James Soderman/Paula Funnell, Liaison Librarians, Queen Mary College
  • The post graduate psychology student voice; Holly Walton, Psychology post graduate representative
  • Psychology resources in the British Library; Paul Allchin, British Library, Reference specialist,

16.30-17.00: Question & answer session.

To find out more or to book a place, please email us at: or speak to a member of staff at the Science Reference Desk.

The speakers will share their expertise on the what, where, and how of psychology research in London based libraries and the research needs of students and researchers generally.

BL flickr 11004937825

Image source:

Posted by Paul Allchin - Reference Specialist, Science.

14 November 2018

Light in the Dark Ages: Anglo-Saxon Medicine

The Anglo-Saxons and medicine (in the modern scientific sense of the word) do at first glance seem to be separated by a huge chasm of science and reason. No doctor today would recommend the use of cow dung in any circumstances! Yet, when one looks more closely, we can see that the Anglo-Saxons idea of medicine (or perhaps “healing” would be a more appropriate term) is based not just on superstition but classical teachings, folklore and practical observation. In particular, the Anglo-Saxon’s were no different from other people of the distant past in that they held on to an ancient desire to harness the healing power of plants and the world around them.

Early managed plant life, and later gardens, were for culinary and healing purposes, rather than leisure or aesthetic reasons. This is evidence from the long history of Herbals, or, in effect, botanical encyclopaedias. One of the oldest extant examples of an Herbal and healing / medical book is Bald’s Leechbook (shelfmark Royal MS 12 D XVII). One recipe from Bald’s Leechbook involves mixing wine, leek and garlic to vanquish an infected eyelash follicle, more commonly known as styes. Freya Harrison, a microbiologist, and Christina Lee, an Anglo-Saxon scholar, decided to test this Anglo-Saxon potion in laboratory conditions. The potion was tested on skin samples infected with Staphycloccus aureus which is a version of the bacteria that causes styes and the MRSA superbug. Amazingly, the potion killed 90% of the bacteria of this antibiotic-resistant superbug (C. Wilson. New Scientist, 2015). This demonstrates the Anglo-Saxons were not just blindly throwing around different ingredients in the hope of finding a cure, but were applying various potions and then noting the effects. In this case, they would have noticed what we know today as the antibacterial qualities of garlic and leek.

Bald's Leechbook

Text page from BL Royal 12 D XVII, f. 7v, Bald's Leechbook

Bald’s Leechbook also suggests that the Anglo-Saxons were aware of a longer medical tradition going back to antiquity. This can be glimpsed from a linguistic study of the text. The vernacular material provides insightful readings of Latin technical vocabulary, and also shows a knowledge of technical terms of Greek origin. However, this limited knowledge of the ancient world does create what Cayton describes as “an uneasy fusion of Classical doctrines such as the four humours, and pagan Teutonic ideas such as the worm and elfshot as carriers of disease.” (Cayton, 1977)

As the exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War makes clear, the Anglo-Saxons were much more than just a bunch of inward looking Dark Age warriors who had no knowledge of the wider world, and whose only medical experimentation involved using leeches and cow dung to solve their ailments. We can see from Bald’s Leechbook alone, that the Anglo-Saxons were involved in rudimentary observational science and had a knowledge of Latin and Greek texts.

To add a light hearted note, I should also say that the Anglo-Saxons believed in the Doctrine of Signature. This is the belief that herbs and plants that resembled parts of the body could be used to treat ailments for the corresponding body parts. I think there could be plenty of material here for a new Carry On film about the Anglo-Saxons!


Selected Bibliography

Wilson. C, (2015). ‘Anglo-Saxon remedy kills hospital superbug MRSA’. New Scientist

Cayton. H. M, (1977). Anglo-Saxon Medicine within its Social Context (University of Durham). Link to ETHOS;jsessionid=728405D3CDE4BC17210EE440A7856171?

Meaney. A. L, (1992). ‘The Anglo-Saxon View of the Causes of Illness.’ Health and Disease and Healing in Medieval Culture. Ed. Campbell. S et al (Macmillan). British Library shelf mark YK.1992.a.2007



By Ian Moore - Science Reference Team