The first post of a brand-new blog is a bit like a first step into half-mapped territory. You pack a surveyor’s scope with the T-shirts and socks. And take a back bearing — in my case, a look at Nature’s debut issue, published 145 years ago.
Reading the nine book reviews and checking out the shelf’s worth of ‘books noted’ (including archaeologist John Lubbock’s landmark Prehistoric Times), I was thrilled to sense a bracing honesty and a mix of the wry and the frank. Thrilled, because that smacked of what we strive for in today’s Nature’s Books and Arts section. And here, in B&A’s first-ever blog — A View from the Bridge — we aim to carry on the tradition.
Among the books covered in that 1869 issue were tomes on everything from lepidoptery and the “convolutions of the brain” to the ‘planet’ Pomona. The review of the Text Book of Botany is a classic. While the book’s author has failed to publish “original observations”, notes the reviewer, it’s no bad thing. After all, original observers — the formidable field biologists of the day — can be “apt to ride special hobbies too far, and to be very unfair and crotchety”. Thus, the nerds of yore.
Mining such bibliophilic delights reminds us, too, that popular science books — as distillations of research and vehicles for informed speculation — are still as important in creating the bigger science narrative as they were then. Or earlier. Mathematician and popular science doyenne Mary Somerville’s best-seller On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (see Richard Holmes’s review) pre-empted Nature’s launch by 35 years.
Sciences in flight
That narrative has been extraordinarily dynamic — then and now. In issue no. 1, zoologist and British Museum curator W. S. Dallas clocked that fact in his review of Newman’s British Moths. A “predilection for moths”, he notes, may be celebrated in the scientifically literate 1860s, yet just decades before it was seen as piteously bizarre. But there were other changes: as science itself shot up in popularity, it began to speciate — the very trend Somerville aimed to bridge in her magnum opus.
We’re in flux now too, but the trend today is to reknit scientific splits through the push for multidisciplinarity. At the same time, the “two cultures” — science and the arts — are reintegrating.
As biologist E.O. Wilson noted in this year’s The Meaning of Human Existence (see Tim Lenton’s review), the humanities are “the natural history of culture, and our most private and precious heritage”. Scientists are increasingly seeking connections with peers in that realm. The London-based Wellcome Trust, for instance, has just established the cross-disciplinary Hub Award of up to £1 million over two years. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology insists on STEAM (STEM plus arts) teaching for undergraduates. It’s a new norm.
This is, as Books and Arts’ name implies, very much home territory. B&A reviews and essays cover visual and sound art, music, the theatre, film and Q&As with crossover icons such as Michael Frayn, Ferran Adrià and Björk. A View from the Bridge will inevitably trace such cultural shifts, from the distinct vantage point between ‘sci’ and art.
As we’re time-travelling in this post, it’s worth noting that in 1869, this bridge had never really been breached. It was the heyday of Darwin, Faraday and Mendeleev, yet William Wordsworth’s line “To the solid ground of nature trusts the Mind that builds for aye” gave Nature its name. And “Darwin’s bulldog” Thomas Henry Huxley chose Goethe’s Aphorisms on Nature to head that first issue — in which the German anatomist and novelist noted, “[Nature] is ever shaping new forms… Everything is new, and yet nought but the old.”
The view from this bridge is pretty exhilarating: please join me for a look at it.