Literary events at the Whipple: Dr. Holmes, ‘Darwin’s Bards’

As part of our growing series of literature-and-science events at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, last Thursday evening Dr. John Holmes from the University of Reading gave an excellent talk on his recently published book, ‘Darwin’s Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution.

John Holmes - Darwin's Bards
Dr. Holmes speaking in the main Whipple Gallery.

John is a bard of bards– he does not claim to be a poet himself, but he reads the work of his subjects with all the zest and verve of a true Romantic. He is always an enthusiastic and illuminating speaker, and the guests who came to hear his talk were engaged, had questions, and genuinely enjoyed the evening.

A comment from my former supervisor, Dr. Doug Shedd, on John’s book:

In discussion with one of the guests.

“John Holmes’s coverage of the relationship between science and poetry in Darwin’s Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution is remarkably complete. He has a scientist’s grasp of evolutionary theory and a thorough understanding of the controversies the theory has engendered. He also understands the difficulty many have had in finding meaning in an existence framed by Darwinism. Holmes’s investigation of how poetry addresses these problems is unique, and he is correct in thinking that, “poems can even change how we think about Darwinism itself.” Evolutionary science provides many of the details for understanding why the world is the way it is, but we need “Darwin’s Bards” to help us interpret these details, incorporate them into our collective consciousness, and fully understand what it means to live in a Darwinian world.” — Douglas Shedd, Thoresen Professor of Biology, Randolph College

Thanks to Melanie for being our photographer!

Poet in the Parlour: Residency, Day 4


An interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed that falls somewhere along the spectrum from ‘myself-as-poet-in-residence-with-whom-museum-guests-enjoy-an-interesting-chat,’ to, ‘myself-as-mistaken-docent-whom-people-ask-questions-relating-to-musem-objects-which-to-my-surprise-I-have-actually-been-able-to-answer,’ to— ‘myself-as-somehow-a-museum-object-or-specimen’!

Installation art?

Person enters Parlour and possibly notices my sign. Ah, person thinks, ‘poet in the parlour,’ looking over at me, sat in the little brown velvet Victorian chair, reading or writing, or typing on my not-so-Victorian-laptop. Person moves on to consider globes, stereoscopes, and other various objects.

And so I become one of the many things in the museum to, impersonally and silently, consider. Does this make me installation art? Is my presence in the museum still useful—is my very sitting here, in this scientific space, silently writing, bringing attention to ‘science and literature’? Even if we don’t talk to each other, am I encouraging museum guests to think of creative writing in relation to the history of science? Am I failing if this is not the case?

Herschelian telescope

It is my last day ‘in residence’ at the Whipple, and I have enjoyed the residency immensely. We are planning more events, so I will certainly be back, but I do hope to return in the ‘residency’ capacity. Having a few days or a week together of working from the Museum has allowed me to explore ideas of actually being in residence that would not have arisen otherwise—and it has helped my work, as well. I have written a good chunk of the novel, and, today, a new poem, which is a thrill as one hasn’t come for some time. I really have been ‘poet in the parlour,’ then.

I had a fantastic discussion with a guest who was visiting, and who bought a copy of my book, and recommended some great reading materials about optics and lenses (which have to do with a different book I recently finished). I love the somewhat random but definitely intellectual variety of the people coming through here.

Thank you to everyone who has helped me to take part in this residency, especially Melanie, Sarah, Josh, and Liba.

Poet in the Parlour: Residency, Day 3


Wednesday was a quiet day, for me anyway, in the Parlour.

One challenge to being in residence in the Parlour is that this particular room is set up so people, particularly children, can touch and play with the objects, to explore and interact and discover. On one hand, this makes me, a living and hopefully interactive guest, appropriate to the Parlour, whilst on the other hand, if a parent comes in with children who want to play, I suddenly shrink into a corner as ‘my parlour’ becomes a messy pseudo-Victorian living room with enthusiastic young ones for whom I take zero responsibility.

The Poet is IN

That noted, I also am quite pleased at children (and their parents) discovering the stereoscopes, kaleidoscopes, shell mosaics, doll-houses, paper cut-outs, stained-glass crafts, and other various sparkly and twirly thingys which are, and forever will be, eminently more lasting and interesting than any Nintendo, Gameboy, Playstation, Xbox or otherwise.


However, if I do return to be in residence in the Whipple again, I also think I may try to reside in one of the other galleries. The Parlour is cozy—a shaft of sunlight slants through the glass doors even now, and it is quiet, with no guests at the moment. It does as it claims—‘evokes the atmosphere of a home belonging to a Victorian family in the late 19th century.’ [It also, personally, evokes the atmosphere of a home belonging to my grandmother, which makes me happy.]

Today, then, was not a writing day, but a reading and thinking day, which are certainly necessary.

Poet in the Parlour: Residency, Day 2


Today has been fairly quiet so far—about seven people have come through the Victorian Parlour as of 2pm, and I had a pleasant little chat with one. The sign has definitely helped people understand why I’m here, though there is still a bit of the jumpy shyness from some guests who are deep in thought, so I’m trying to maintain my idea of not talking too much unless they seem interested.

I’ve been writing quite a bit this morning, which is one of the main reasons for being here, and I’ve just taken a little break to stroll around the ‘Globe Inn’ gallery of globes and admire the inspirational array.

Telescope built by William Herschel (photo: Whipple)

However, I paused to look out the little window of the gallery into the main Whipple room, which happens to provide an excellent view, just to the right, of one of William Herschel’s own telescopes.

I admired it yesterday from the main gallery too, and can’t help but marvel at the serendipity of being here, at the Whipple. Kudos to Melanie, who first introduced me to the Whipple Curator, Liba Taub, when she realised the significance of the affiliation  with my Darwin work early on.

Still, I can’t help but delight in the fact that just downstairs there is currently a special exhibit entitled ‘Darwin’s Microscope,’ which holds, among other objects of great interest, one of Darwin’s own microscopes, and now I’m writing this book on William and Caroline Herschel, and the Whipple has one of William’s telescopes, too! That is truly serendipidous, as I was inspired to work on the Herschels after moving near the ROG, and the Whipple connection is extra luck.

Strange as it may sound, these things truly are a happy coincidence. I’m willing to bet the next object of interest to me for a novel—to do with anatomical wax models—hold a place in the Whipple collection as well, which would also be delightful.

The fact is, the Whipple Museum of the History of Science is part of the History and Philosophy of Science department here at Cambridge, and it is precisely in this field where my interests lie, not least because it involves the history of science, but also because it allows for creative exploration into practically any other subject—that is to say, the field of the history of science is inclusive and connected, or connecting, rather than exclusive.

The Age of Wonder

Richard Holmes puts it more eloquently at the end of the epilogue of his excellent recent book, The Age of Wonder, how the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science:

‘But perhaps most important, right now, is a changing appreciation of how scientists themselves fit into society as a whole, and the nature of the particular creativity they bring to it. We need to consider how they are increasingly vital to any culture of progressive knowledge…For this, I believe science needs to be presented and explored in a new way. We need not only a new history of science, but a more enlarged and imaginative biographical writing about individual scientists…here, the perennially cited difficulties with the ‘two cultures,’ and specifically with mathematics, can no longer be accepted as a valid limitation. We need to understand how science is actually made; how scientists themselves think and feel and speculate. We need to explore what makes scientists creative, as well as poets or painters, or musicians.’

It is this tall order which I am attempting with the work-in-progress—but it is a delightful voyage of discovery as much as it is a challenge. Much like Holmes’s Romantics, there is beauty and terror in an effort mostly suffused with wonder.

Poet in the Parlour: Residency, day 1

An Copernican armillary sphere from the collection.
An Copernican armillary sphere from the collection. (photo: Whipple)

Whipple Museum of the History of Science, 19/10/09

I attended the Cabinet of Natural History at 1pm today, at which PhD student Ruth Horry gave a fascinating talk on air ships and the attempt to capture plant spores over one trans-Atlantic voyage. It made for a sometimes amusing, sometimes tragic, always interesting story.

Then on to the Victorian Parlour, to begin my residency!

About twenty people came through the Parlour and a handful looked at the books I’ve brought in, including:

Dark Matter: Poems of Space, a few copies of Darwin’s Microscope, Human Cartography by James Gurley, River Turning Tidal by Mick Delap, and a copy of a favourite which I’m currently reading, Angels & Insects by A.S. Byatt. All but the latter are poetry books, but I also have a copy of The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, an amazing non-fiction book, so there is variety.

Not wishing to accost people, I read and wrote, but realised that most people assume I am a docent and had a few questions about museum items.

I did have an excellent discussion, for twenty or thirty minutes, with a lady and a young man, probably her son, who was about my age—they were delightful; she a science fiction writer and he an actor! I should have asked their names and wish I had. They’d read about the ‘Poet in the Parlour’ on the Whipple website, so it’s good to know that is helping get the word out.

We had a great discussion about what it means to be a ‘Renaissance’ man or woman, the ‘two cultures’ divide, science and literature in general, agents and publishing…I told them a little about my projects…it was delightful and they were so pleasant.

I’ve decided that tomorrow I will put up a small sign saying ‘The Poet is in the Parlour: come have a chat about literature & science, browse the books or ask questions.’ I need a bit of an ice-breaker. I’m here to be informative, and hopefully approachable, hopefully adding an interesting new element to the parlour, but I don’t want to rush up to museum guests with my book.

One thing I love about museums, especially small ones like the Whipple, is the serene, thought-provoking space they offer. Talking sometimes disturbs that, so I want to talk if guests are interested, but I don’t want to disturb them if they don’t. It is a pleasant mix for me—I enjoy a good conversation and I spend a lot of time in (what I hope is) productive contemplation.

If only the heating worked, this would be quite a cozy little Victorian Parlour. Fortunately they’re working on fixing that problem…

Science Mag & Astronomy Poetry at the NMM

Pick this up!
Pick this up!

If you can, please buy a copy of the current issue of Science Magazine (out 2nd Oct)! For one, it’s the ‘Ardi’ issue: groundbreaking. For another, it has poems from the panel at the Cambridge Darwin Festival, including one by myself, one by John Barnie, and one by Ruth Padel– hooray!

On a slightly different note, I thoroughly encourage anyone and everyone to attend this upcoming event at the National Maritime Museum. ‘Dark Matter’ is a fantastic poetry anthology including work from poets and astronomers collaborating to create new writing.

Public talk: Poems of Space10th November, 19:00-20:45, National Maritime Museum Lecture Theatre, £8

Renowned astronomer Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell explores the connections between poetry and science and her experience of compiling Dark Matter, an anthology of poems inspired by astronomy. Followed by a discussion with poet Kelley Swain (Darwin’s Microscope) and astronomer/writer Dr Pippa Goldschmidt.*/changeNav/false/from/2856

Tickets from the NMM Bookings Office: 020 8312 6608,

Lovely sci-poetry anthology
Lovely sci-poetry anthology