Poet in the Parlour: Residency, Day 2

20/10/09

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.

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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.

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