How the Humanities Can Help Transform Science

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Slides from my talk at the 4Humanities London meeting, UCL, 18 September 2012

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How the Humanities Can Help Transform Science

  1. 1. How the Humanities canHelp Transform ScienceAndrew PrescottKing’s College London
  2. 2. The most remarkable contribution to human progress to have emerged from theUCL campus happened before the College was even built. In 1808 RichardTrevithick ran the first fare-paying passenger train, Catch Me Who Can, as afairground ride on the land where UCL now stands. The example of Trevithickchallenges many of the ways we think about technology and innovation.Transformation and economic growth do not flow seamlessly from the appearanceof new inventions. Industrialisation was a patchy, localised and haphazard process.Trevithick found it difficult to generate a wider public interest in his inventions, andthe fairground ride was a desperate attempt to create interest - the advocacy oftechnology in this case required a humanistic strategy of performance. Theexample of Trevithick challenges our polarised view of science and arts.
  3. 3. These images show British Library, Royal MS 9 C.X: 14th centurymanuscript from St Albans Abbey of Pope Innocent IV’s commentaries onthe Decretals of Gregory IX. This manuscript was badly damaged in a firein 1731, which burnt many manuscripts in the Cotton and Royal Libraries.Many of the damaged manuscripts were conserved in the nineteenthcentury, but this manuscript was deliberately left unconserved to show theeffects of the fire on the manuscripts.
  4. 4. Beowulf Manuscript: BritishLibrary Cotton MS Vitellius A.xv.This manuscript was alsobadly damaged in the fire, butrestored in 1845.
  5. 5. First page from an eleventh-century Psalter produced inEngland: British Library,Cotton MS. Vitellius E. xviii, f.1The fragments of thismanuscript were rescued in afirst campaign of work on theCotton manuscripts in the1820s. The issuesassociated with theexploration of manuscriptssuch as these pose manychallenges which are of asmuch scientific as humanitiesinterest.
  6. 6. Beginning of Mark in aninsular gospels compiledabout 700, which hasclose relationship inscript and decoration tothe Lindisfarne Gospelsand the Book of Kells:British Library, CottonMS. Otho C. vThe fragments from thismanuscript were alsorescued in the 1820s.Advice on theconservation of themanuscript was given bySir Humphry Davy, whowas a Trustee of theBritish Museum.
  7. 7. Portrait of Sir Humphrey Davy(1778-1829) by Thomas PhippsDavy is celebrated as a pioneer ofelectrolysis, discoverer of elementssuch as sodium and potassium, firstperson to identify chlorine as anelement, and inventor of the safetylamp (used to transport the Olympicflame!)But he was also:-Pioneer in pigment analysis onpaintings and sculptures-Shared laughing gas sessions withColeridge-Editor and proofreader forWordsworth and SoutheyFigures such as Davy challenge ourdistinction between the scientist andthe artist.
  8. 8. Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum. Between 1750 and 1765, 1,785carbonised papyri were recovered from this villa, the remains of alibrary assembled by the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus ofGadara
  9. 9. During his visits to Italy, Davy conductedpioneering experiments in pigment analysis atsuch sites as the Baths of Titus, assisted by hisfriend the sculptor Canova.
  10. 10. In the face of growing industrialisation andcommercialisation, Coleridge sought:‘a general revolution in the modes of developing anddisciplining the human mind by the substitution of lifeand intelligence for the philosophy of mechanismwhich, in everything that is most worthy of the humanintellect, strikes Death’What would Coleridge have made of impact, auditculture, key performance indicators, researchexcellence frameworks?He would have loathed them as expressions of amechanistic (Benthamite?) spirit which strikes Death
  11. 11. Coleridge wanted to ‘warm his mind with universalscience’‘I would be a tolerable Mathematician, I wouldthoroughly know Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Optics andAstronomy, Botany, Metallurgy, Fossilism, Chemistry,Geology, Anatomy, Medicine’.My argument is that the use of innovative scientifictechniques to investigate and explore the manuscripts,books, paintings, sound and artefacts which constitutethe objects of humanistic research can help generate thenew universal science of which Coleridge dreamed.
  12. 12. C.P. Snow and the Two CulturesRecently rekindled by Eric SchmidtA misplaced debate?A plea for scientists to be better understoodBut is the problem more that science has ceased tobe driven by humanities problems?Davy as inspired in his scientific researches by papyri,medieval manuscripts and pigments as by batteries,laughing gas and coal minesThe humanities offer challenges for new types ofscientific explorationIn thinking back to the period of industrialisation, wecan see a synergy between the arts and newtechnologies
  13. 13. Model of Newcomen Steam Engineat the University of Glasgowrepaired by Watt in 1765. It waswork on this model that led Watt todevelop the separate steamcondenser.According to John Robison, themodel was ‘at first a fine plaything toMr Watt, and to myself, now aconstant visitor at his workshop. Butlike everything which came into hishands, it soon became an object ofmost serious study’.Robison: ‘Everything becamescience in his hands’
  14. 14. JAMES WATT AT THE UNIVERSITY OF GLASGOWJohn Robison: All the young lads of our little place that were anyway remarkable for scientific predilection were acquaintances ofMr Watt; and his parlour was a rendezvous for all of hisdescription. Whenever any puzzle came in the way of any of us,we went to Mr Watt. He needed only to be prompted; everythingbecame to him the beginning of a new and serious study; andwe knew that he would not quit it till he had either discovered itsinsignificance, or had made something of it. No matter in whatline – languages, antiquity, natural history, - nay, poetry,criticism, and works of taste; as to anything in the line ofengineering, whether civil or military, he was at home, and aready instructor.
  15. 15. Pipe Organ made by James Watt, 1762, now inPeople’s Palace Museum, Glasgow“We imagined that Mr. Watt could do anything;and, though we all knew that he did not knowone musical note from another, he was asked ifhe could build an organ wanted for a MasonicLodge in Glasgow. He said ‘Yes,’ but he beganby building a very small one for his friend, Dr.Black, which is now in my possession. In doingthis a thousand things occurred to him which noorgan-builder ever dreamed of—nice indicatorsof the strength of the blast, regulators of it, etc.He then began to study the philosophical theoryof music.”
  16. 16. James Watt’s Portable Drawing Machine
  17. 17.                                                                                                             
  18. 18. James Watt’s workroom in his house at Heathfield Hall. Paintingby Jonathan Pratt, 1889: Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.The busts relate to Watts’s attempt to make a sculpture copying machine.
  19. 19. Watt’s sculpture copying machine recalls 3D printing. It is appropriate thatmoulds used by Watt to test the sculpture copying machine were scanned by ateam led by Professor Stuart Robson and Dr Mona Hess from UCL, and usedto recover a lost bust of Watt: http://www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/9892
  20. 20. Examples of reagentdamage in the manuscript ofCantar de Mio Cid, NationalLibrary of Spain. Chemicalreagents were historicallyused to read faded inks, butthey made the manuscriptillegible. We have noadequate means of coveringthe lost text.
  21. 21. Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale deFrance, an early biblical palimpsest badly damaged by theapplication of chemical reagent.
  22. 22. The burnt Magna Carta in the British Library. Damaged not only by fire in 1731, butalso by subsequent poor conservation. Do we have the imaging techniques toexplore these manuscript survivals?
  23. 23. Manuscripts reused as book covers in the library of the University of WalesTrinity St David. Reconstructing these dismembered manuscripts, reading theconcealed parts of these leaves: all these potentially pose exciting scientificchallenges.
  24. 24. The potential application of these techniques is not restricted toancient manuscripts. The Library of Congress used multi-spectralimaging to reveal how Thomas Jefferson changed ‘fellow subjects’ to‘fellow citizens’ in a draft of the Declaration of Independence: http://www.loc.gov/today/pr/2010/10-161.html
  25. 25. Raman Spectroscopy has been used at theUniversity of Cambridge, UCL, University ofGlasgow and elsewhere to explore compositionof inks in ancient manuscripts
  26. 26. Dry point annotation in the Hengwrt Manuscript of The Canterbury Tales,National Library of Wales
  27. 27. New Techniques: Reflectance TransformationImaging. Take a look at this video:https://vimeo.com/30213656
  28. 28. Early ultra violet machine for reading damagedmanuscripts. Note that one of the founders of theGlasgow company which manufactured it was thefamous scientist Lord Kelvin
  29. 29. The arts and humanities provide a rich visual and textualresources posing immensely complex scientific problems. Thegulf between men like Davy and Watt, who were as immersedin aesthetic philosophical and cultural problems as they werein technical and engineering issues, and modern science isillustrated by the story of Lenna. Whereas Watt sought toreproduce statues, and Davy collaborated with Canova,modern image scientists use a cropped image from a Playboycentrefold to test their algorithms…Can’t the arts and humanities at least provide betterchallenges than Lenna?
  30. 30. Wikipedia:Lenna or Lena is the namegiven to a 512×512 pixelstandard test image which hasbeen in use since 1973, andwas originally cropped from thecenterfold of November 1972issue of Playboy magazine. It isa picture of Lena Söderberg, aSwedish model, shot byphotographer Dwight Hooker.The image is probably the mostwidely used test image for allsorts of image processingalgorithms (such ascompression and denoising)and related scientificpublications.The rest of the Lenna story:http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~chuck/lennapg/
  31. 31. What I presented at UCL was focused on my own primary interest ofmanuscripts and books, but there are many other areas of thehumanities where there is rich potential for new types of collaborationand synthesis between the arts and the sciences, such as archaeology.This is an illumination dome for polynomial texture mapping, aninnovative 3D imaging technique being used increasingly byarchaeologists.
  32. 32. Marine archaeology is another area of great collaboration…
  33. 33. The various projects seeking to use ships logs and other historic records to reconstruct oldweather to help study climate change are another example of a different sort oftransformative collaboration between scientist and humanities scholar:http://www.oldweather.org/http://historicweather.cerch.kcl.ac.uk/http://eira.llgc.org.uk/
  34. 34. My stress here on material survivals – manuscripts, books,artefacts – may seem at odds with the increasingpreoccupation with data. But again there is potential here forgreater collaboration between science and the humanities.Digital humanities specialists played a fundamental role in thedevelopment of the eXtensible Markup Language (XML)which is vital to the way the web runs today, but we havefailed to publicise this very much.
  35. 35. But I worry that the work many digital humanities specialists have done onthe representation of knowledge and the development of knowledge has notfed through to the way in which the semantic web is starting to be deployed.Because of its reliance on Wikipedia and other public domain resources inits semantic networks, the representation of human civilization in Google’sKnowledge Graph is crude to the ;point of parody. The need for greaterinvolvement of humanities scholars can be seen be flicking through just afew pages…
  36. 36. But we ended by looking at the Herculaneum scrolls again, bringing the wheel fullcircle to Davy. I described the work of Professor Brent Seales at the University ofKentucky which seeks to use custom-built CT scanners and new imagingtechniques to image the interior of carbonised papyri.We watched this video:https://vimeo.com/22606936A fuller account of Professor Seales’s project is available here:https://vimeo.com/35691952

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