Posts Tagged ‘Entrevistes’

Interview to Patricia Fara by Amparo Bruño and Pedro Ruiz-Castell

Amb motiu de la seva participació al cicle de col·loquis Comunicar la Ciència: Plaers i Obstacles de la Narrativa Històrica, després de la seva xerrada a l’Institut d’Història de la Medicina i de la Ciència a València, Patricia Fara va ser entrevista per Amparo Bruño sota la supervisió de Pedro Ruiz-Castell.

Interview to Patricia Fara by Amparo Bruño[1] and Pedro Ruiz-Castell[2]

Patricia Fara is Senior Tutor and Director of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science at Clare College, and Affiliated Lecturer in the History and Philosophy of Science Department at the University of Cambridge. Some of her main publications are Pandora’s breeches: women, science and power (London: Pimlico, 2004), Sex, botany and empire: the stories of Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks (Duxford: Icon Books, 2003) and Newton: the making of genius (London: Macmillan, 2002). We talked with her about the history of science and her latest book Science : A  four thousand year history (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

You currently teach history of science at Cambridge University, but you were trained as a physicist. As far as we know, you owned a computer education company for several years. How did you end up interested and devoted to the history and philosophy of science?

My first degree was in physics and after a couple of years I decided that it was a terrible mistake. I think what happened was that when I was at school it was a time when teachers and everybody wanted to encourage women to do science; because I was a girl and I was very good at doing science, everybody immediately said: “OK, she’s got to go to University and do science”. It never occurred to me or to anyone else to think whether that was what I really wanted to do. Just because I could do it, everybody assumed that I should, and I was pushed in to that way strongly.

I ran a company that made tape slides. We were the first people in England and America to provide visual training material about computers at an elementary level. Therefore, we had no competitors. At first it was just the two of us, my husband and me. We were literally doing it on the kitchen table. Because nobody else was doing it, we were very successful. We sold the product to a lot of universities and technical colleges. Then we went to San Francisco and we did exactly the same thing in America. We did it for about 15 or 16 years, but then video started to be introduced and there was less money in education. We had to choose between stopping or becoming a big company. The whole point of doing it in the first place was that we were idealistic children of the sixties and the seventies who did not believe in big business. To set up a big company would have been completely contradictory.

While at university studying physics, despite hating all the practical work, I was really interested in the bigger ideas and the theory. When I decided to do a Masters in History and Philosophy of Science, I wanted to study philosophy, but after few months, I realized that I was more interested in history. Thus, I did a PhD in History.

Did you find any obstacles to entering such a world, both as an adult student or as a woman?

Certainly not as a woman. Neither as an adult student. History of Science is something that was largely done as postgraduate level. I chose not to think about my age too much. The only time I found a problem was when I became very friendly with some of the people on the course. There was a young woman and she was complaining to me about her mother. She said to me: “You know, these mothers are so awful…” and I thought: “I’m on the side of the mother in this case, I think the mother is right!” But I went very quiet and finally said: “Oh, mothers are absolutely awful”.

You manage to summarize in your last book a four thousand year history into four hundred pages. How did such a project come to your mind and how was it shaped?

I think it first came into my mind when I was a student doing my PhD. There was a big conference in 1991 in London called “The Big Picture problem” that Jim Secord organized. with a lot of eminent speakers. I was in the audience and I became really interested in it. I think that was when I first had the idea that I would do something like that. I didn’t know then that I would start in Babylon, but the idea of doing a sort of big history did appeal to me. It was obvious as a student (and also now that I teach other students) that there were not any books like that. When I was studying there was Charles Gillispie’s book The Edge of Objectivity: An Essay in the History of Scientific Ideas (1960), which went from Copernicus up to modern days. I found it very interesting to read, but it contradicted all the other things I was being told as a historian of science.

In fact, your book presents a big picture different from the big pictures written by other historians of science. Is it because of the influences of the social and cultural history and of the science and technology studies?

Absolutely. That was what I wanted to get across very strongly: all the research that has been done during the last 30-40 years over new ways of thinking about history. There is a view of history that publishers like to present; it is a very old fashioned world. And it is very difficult to persuade them to change their minds and do something new, because they think that people like to read and to hear what they already know. They like nice stories celebrating how we’ve reached our current understanding because that is unthreatening, entertaining and interesting.

The title of your last book, Science: A Four Thousand Year History, has been translated into Spanish as A Brief History of Science, which slightly changes the original meaning. What do you think about it?

A Brief History of Science was the title I originally intended to have. I’m not sure in Spanish, but it is a joke in English referring to Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. The one science book that everybody has bought but nobody has read is A Brief History of Time. It sits on bookshelves as a symbol of learning, rather like Newton’s Principia in the 18th century. It is such a famous book that I wanted to call mine A Brief History of Science. I liked it as well because it emphasizes that it is a book about history. With the title Science: A four thousand year history it has been converted into a science book. That is what publishers like. They want books about science more than about history. But it is very interesting that in Spain the title has been changed.

When you consider a book like this, where easy reading is combined with academic rigor… what readers do you have in mind?

Students are very important, but I also wanted to write a book for wider audiences. It seems to me that science, politics, government and commerce are very closely linked, so every decision that is made about science is, in fact, a political and a financial decision. Science is not separated from politics in any way. In England, there is a big programme encouraging people to learn more about science. I believe it focuses far too much on the content of science and it seems to me a complete waste of time to try to teach people all the complicated theories of science.: we can leave that to specialists As educated citizens in a scientific democracy, we should have some knowledge about how scientific decisions are made and about how science is conducted. I think ordinary people should have some knowledge about the political and financial forces that are affecting scientific decisions. That was a large goal I had in writing the book. And there is also a more immediate goal of enabling students who are coming in to the history of science for the first time to have some way of understanding what it is the modern historians of science are talking about at an introductory level, which I think has been completely missing. There are a few books doing it, but none of them cover the range that I do, and are all different from mine and from each other.

In the first chapter of your book you deal with the peculiarities of the number seven. The book is organized in seven sections, seven chapters each. Why did you choose such an arrangement?

I found it difficult deciding how I was going to organize the book and how I was going to break the past up into chapters. I like the seven x seven structure because it is symmetrical and it implicitly sends a message: it is completely arbitrary to impose a pattern on the past. There is no relationship between this structure and any ideological way of thinking about the past. I like the fact that it was arbitrary, because we think in centuries or in terms of great Kings, Queens and great governments, but there are objections to all of them. Mine is a neutral system but it was very helpful for me to have that in order to think how I could organize the book or where I would put different things. When the sun was known to go around the earth, there were seven planets: the sun, the moon and five others. Therefore, it makes sense scientifically. The number seven is also interesting mathematically: if you have a torus (like a tyre’s inner tube) and you want to draw a map on the surface so that no two regions have the same colour, seven is the minimum number of colours you need (on a flat surface it would be four). Seven is also a magic number, and I intended to implicitly reinforce the idea that magic and science are quite closely related. Scientists would like to say magic has got nothing to do with science. However, I intended to combine those two ideas, that the structure was arbitrary and that science and magic are more closely linked than one might think.

In your book you reinforce the links between science, magic and a different way of understanding science. Do you think that science should be taught in schools in that sense, underlining the links with magic, or do you think that the teaching of science in schools should be completely different? What do you think about formal teaching of science?

In a way, if you want to captivate the audience, if you are a scientist doing a television show, something for young children or any other sort of audience, then you emphasize the magic things that science can do. You make things happen mysteriously and then you explain them. That would be a very good way because you could present under magic something that nobody could understand and then have the children trying to rationalize and understand it. I think it would be good because it would emphasize the process of discovery. Too often one is presented with scientific results as if they were absolute facts and something you have to learn.

Related to this, authors such as Richard Dawkins feel strongly that science and religion have completely nothing to do with each other. I think Dawkins is tending towards scientific fundamentalism. He is rather like a religious fundamentalist: he stands in his laboratory and says, basically: “I am a scientist. You, ordinary people out there cannot understand what I say. Believe me, trust me. I am a scientist, therefore I am right”. And that is exactly what religious fundamentalists say: “You have got to believe me because I am right”. I think there are important ways in which science and religion play similar roles in society. Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein are not just people who were very clever; they are seen as people who were extraordinary, only born once in five generations. People go back to the places where they lived, the places where they were born. It seems that the aura of genius is very like the aura of sanctity, so culturally is fulfilling the same function. I am not saying that a saint is a genius, nor that Einstein and Newton are geniuses, but it seems that some humans need to have these higher beings. Now we visit the house where Isaac Newton was born, or we go to the Royal Society and look at the telescope that he owned… and it seems to me that this is exactly like a saint’s relic. Again, genius and sanctity are fulfilling similar social functions, so you can think of Isaac Newton as a secular saint. In the 19th century people used to talk in English about scientists as the “priests” of science. If you go somewhere like the Natural History Museum in London or the Science Museum in Oxford, they are both built in the gothic style; they are gothic cathedrals.

In your book, you attempt avoiding a rhetoric based on great heroes and heroines. In fact you present the main actors as normal people that have to work to survive, that sometimes fail and that may even fight with some rivals. But to what extent do we need those big names in a story like the one you have written?

I think that it ties up with what I was saying about the need of figureheads such as Newton and Einstein. They are rather like saints and we do need models to look up to and admire… and it has became part of the ideology of scientific progress, as they are very appealing. I am not saying that they were not important; they were very important and clever and did a lot of things, but the history of science is about far more than just these great names. We need to look around them as well. Why is it that we usually write history in that other way? Could we write a different type of history? Could we become interested in the history of big organizations?

You are an expert in the role of women in science. In fact you wrote a book on 18th-century women who played a relevant role in science, Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment. How is that your book Science: A Four Thousand Year History deals mostly with men and only few women scientists?

I wrote one book about women in science in the 18th century, but I do not want to be characterized as a feminist historian who only writes about women. Gender is something I am very interested in, but I would rather treat it along with class and ethnicity. I felt slightly uneasy about writing a book about women because I do not want to be seen as a gender historian. Second, I am not an expert. Women and science is now something that people are very interested in, and I am often asked to give talks on it. I am interested in the role of women in science, but when I wrote the book about women in science in the 18th century I wanted to think about what it meant for the history of science more generally: Do we just want to write about big heroes like Newton, Darwin or Galileo? Or do we want to think about all the people who were teaching, who were translating or classifying specimens and those behind the scenes working as invisible assistants? All of them contributed to science. If one goes further back, one finds people who used to make pottery or jewellery and developed a lot of knowledge which later came into science — as the science of mineralogy. Or farmers who knew what the weather was going to be and their expertise became part of meteorology. Or sailors whose skills became part of astronomy. There were huge numbers of people whose knowledge contributed to what we now call science, but there is no way that one would call them scientists. By writing about women I was also trying to re-think how we think about history, using women as an example of how we might re-do the history of science. But there are not so many in this latest book because it seemed to me that to include a lot of women would distort the past. I do mention women, more than a lot of people would do, but I did not want to be overloaded with women.

Do you have any future projects related to some of the aspects that have been necessarily left out from your last book? Would you perhaps think about writing another book dealing with some of these elements?

I am very happy to go back to the 18th century. It has been quite few years since I did research into it. All the research I was doing about China and Islamic science for this book was not real research; it was all in secondary sources and I did not make any original contribution. I enjoyed writing Science: A Four Thousand Year History, but it is also very nice going back into archives and manuscripts. I am back into being a real historian and doing original research of my own.

I am working at the moment on a book about Erasmus Darwin, involving myself in the narrative in a new way. It is a different sort of project. There is a poem called “The loves of the triangles” that is a satire on Darwin’s poem “The love of the plants”. Instead of having semi-erotic plants, there are slinky triangles and parallelograms. It is a joke, but also it is a very political poem because it was printed in the journal The Anti-Jacobin, very much opposed to the French Revolution. Lots of people have mentioned the poem but no one has tried to analyze it. The basic question I am asking is: why is it that what seems to be a rather silly satirical poem was printed in the leading political journal of the day? Why is it that so many people referred to it? It must be more than just a simply parody; it must have lots of political meanings. I have read and re-read it trying to work out what those political meanings are.

Moving to the present, we have learnt that you recently had a meeting with the Prime Minister, David Cameron…

How did you find that out? [Laughs] I was invited to a dinner party to talk about how the government could support science. There were David Attenborough [natural history film-maker], Tim Berners-Lee [inventor of the World Wide Web], Steven Cowley [director of the leading nuclear fusion research centre in Britain], Mark Walport [director of the Wellcome Trust]… There were twenty-two people around an enormous table. After dinner we were asked to suggest one way in which we could improve science in Britain and one whinge. I thought I had to justify my existence as a historian, so I said: “Think about Crick, Watson and the discovery of DNA. That would be impossible now, because everybody is forced to do a PhD in three years. There is no time to think around a subject. The meaning of research is that some projects just won’t work. You can do research and set up the answer in advance, but you also have to have room for research projects that do not produce an answer.


[1] Amparo Bruño has a BA  (Universitat de València) andi s currently taking an MA in History of Science and Science Communication at the Institut d’Història de la Medicina i de la Ciència “López Piñero” (Universitat de València-CSIC).

[2] Pedro Ruiz-Castell is assistant lecturer at the Institut d’Història de la Medicina i de la Ciència “López Piñero” (Universitat de València-CSIC).

Entrevista a Montserrat Cabré per Amparo Bruñó Martí

Entrevista amb motiu de la conferència  “Les dones en la Història de la Ciència: d’objecte d’estudi a subjecte que coneix”, que Montserrat Cabré va impartir a  l’Institut d’Història de la Medicina i de la Ciència López Piñero (València) en el marc del Màster d’Història de la Ciència i Comunicació Científica.

Entrevista a Montserrat Cabré

per Amparo Bruñó Martí[i] [ii]

Montserrat Cabré és Dra. En Història Medieval per la Universitat de BCN i professora titular d’Història de la Ciència a la Universitat de Cantàbria, on va dirigir l’Aula Interdisciplinar Isabel Torres d’Estudis de les Dones i el Gènere entre els anys 2004-2010. A més a més, ha estat investigadora convidada en universitats com Cambridge, Harvard i MIT. Col·labora activament amb associacions professionals de caràcter nacional i internacional com l’Associació Espanyola d’Investigació d’Història de les Dones (AEIHM), la Societat Espanyola d’Història de la Medicina o la Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship (SMFS).

– Com a historiadora, en quin moment de la teua carrera comences a interessar-te pel tema de Ciència i Gènere?

Quan estudiava història a la Universitat del Barcelona a la dècada dels 1980s una professora de la Facultat, Milagros Rivera, en una assignatura obligatòria per a l’alumnat que volia especialitzar-se en l’època medieval, ens va impartir tot un mòdul dedicat a la història de les dones. Aquella perspectiva nova del passat i les reflexions a partir de les lectures més teòriques que ens va proposar em van impactar molt, i vaig decidir-me a treballar en aquest àmbit de recerca. Vaig fer una tesi de llicenciatura sobre monaquisme femení altomedieval; un tema clàssic d’història de les dones i un dels primers que la historiografia feminista va revisitar. Era un moment molt creatiu del feminisme a l’estat espanyol. A nivell acadèmic s’emmirallava amb els estudis de les dones i de gènere que s’estaven desenvolupant amb prou força al món anglosaxó. Vaig anar als Estats Units, on ja era molt visible tota una generació d’universitàries especialitzades, que s’hi dedicaven fent-ne el centre de la seva carrera. Poc després un historiador de la medicina valencià, Luís García Ballester, em va proposar fer una tesi en el marc de la medicina medieval i a partir de llavors vaig endinsar-me en la disciplina de la història de la medicina i de la ciència. Una disciplina que havia estat molt important -i encara ho és- en el marc dels estudis de les dones i de gènere, perquè treballa dos temes fonamentals: d’una banda el cos, el lloc d’expressió de la diferència sexual; i de l’altra, la ciència, que ha tingut un paper central en la construcció del saber androcèntric i la seva legitimació com a saber universal.

-Quina és la principal dificultat a l’hora d’estudiar el paper que han tingut les dones en la Història de la Ciència?

Quan començava a fer recerca, ara fa vint-i-cinc anys, potser t’hagués respost: la manca de fonts. Però avui per avui, penso que la dificultat més important són els prejudicis, és a dir, els criteris previs amb els que dirigim la nostra mirada al passat i a partir dels quals li formulem preguntes. Ha estat el canvi de perspectiva el que està canviant la història de la ciència. A la història de la ciència clàssica no li interessava la activitat científica femenina. S’interessava per escriure la història de les institucions científiques -les universitats, les acadèmies…-, precisament els espais on la presència femenina era més minsa.  I també s’interessava per la història de tots aquells que contribuïren més visiblement a les fites reconegudes de cada disciplina científica, una història en la que tampoc les dones apareixien. Però avui sabem bé que la visibilitat no és un fenomen “naturalment” relacionat amb la rellevància intrínseca d’una recerca o d’una teoria, sinó un fenomen que ha de ser explicat en termes històrics. l també sabem que en espais menys formalitzats o marginals a les acadèmies i universitats, l’activitat científica de les dones ha estat força significativa. En espais inesperats segons la nostra visió actual de l’activitat científica, com per exemple els monestirs femenins medievals o els salons particulars que les dames obrien al debat científic i que van tenir un paper importantíssim en el desenvolupament de l’anomenada revolució científica.

Amb això no vull dir que sigui fàcil documentar l’activitat científica de les dones: habitualment no ho és, per la invisibilitat i també per la vulnerabilitat històrica de la seva feina. Pensem, per exemple, amb Mileva Maric, la primera esposa d’Albert Einstein. S’ha investigat amb cura la seva participació en la recerca que va portar a la formulació de la teoria de la relativitat, i la importància de la seva aportació es pot sostenir d’una manera plausible, encara que no es poden adduir proves irrefutables i serà difícil que mai ho podem fer. Però ara podem posar el seu cas en un context històric i biogràfic ampli, que té present la vulnerabilitat de l’activitat científica femenina i es pregunta sobre els agents d’aquesta invisibilitat, que no és “natural” sinó històrica.

– Els estudis de Ciència i Gènere naixen lligats al moviment feminista i, moltes de les autores que impulsen aquests estudis inicialment, en són activistes d’aquests. Creus que encara  hi ha connexió entre l’anàlisi feminista de la ciència i aquests grups polítics? Com valores aquesta situació?

La connexió genèrica sí que existeix, però el feminisme ha canviat molt des de la dècada dels 1970s. La presència del feminisme al carrer és menor, però s’han desenvolupat les associacions i els moviments de dones de tipus sectorial, també de dones científiques. Paral·lelament, s’ha anat implantant el feminisme d’estat, la constitució d’organismes públics que vetllen per la superació de les desigualtats entre homes i dones, òrgans administratius que formen part de les estructures estatals. Aquestes polítiques públiques, d’intensitats molt desiguals, estan arribant també a les universitats. El feminisme acadèmic manté vincles oberts amb tots aquests fenòmens, ha contribuït a produir-los i n’és part activa. Però en canvi, la contribució del feminisme acadèmic a l’anàlisi de l’androcentrisme de la ciència, en general, és menys present a la societat. La  recerca sobre les desigualtats entre homes i dones en la pràctica científica és coneguda, i també es reconeixen els factors que frenen l’activitat de les dones; els mitjans de comunicació se’n fan ressò periòdicament.  Però penso que, malauradament, la feina que s’ha fet sobre el caràcter androcèntric de la ciència, sobre com les disciplines científiques s’aproximen als seus objectes d’estudi excloent les experiències de les dones i desvaloritzant-les, és molt  menys conegut. I no massa acceptat dins les institucions científiques.

– Separar el context acadèmic del context polític fins a quin punt és negatiu o positiu?

Penso que l’activitat intel·lectual responsable ha de mantenir un compromís polític, entenent la política en el sentit d’acció cívica, en el què Hannah Arendt definia la política. Penso que separar-se d’aquest compromís és negatiu, és el vincle que ens permet entrar en diàleg per anar construint el món com un projecte que ha de ser necessàriament col·lectiu. És clar que la recerca serveix a la societat, en forma part. Però en canvi, penso que és molt important que això no es confongui amb un cert servilisme o utilitarisme, en el sentit de demanar a la recerca justificacions o respostes immediates a determinades polítiques públiques. Ho dic perquè darrerament estem veient aquesta confusió en molts àmbits, i els estudis de les dones i de gènere ho estan patint especialment, perquè hi ha una imatge bastant estesa que els identifica automàticament amb les polítiques públiques de promoció de les dones, més que no pas amb la construcció d’una ciència no androcèntrica.

– I, si els desvinculem totalment estaríem empobrint l’anàlisi històrica?

Sens dubte. Però en el cas dels estudis de les dones i de gènere, això no és més veritat que en d’altres àmbits de la recerca i en d’altres moviments socials. Ho assenyalo perquè penso que avui dia existeix una sobreidentificació dels estudis de les dones i de gènere amb la política, o més ben dit, amb les contingències polítiques. Aquesta imatge sobrepolititzada, paradoxalment, esborrona part de la feina que fem.

– Pel que fa als impediments que al llarg de la Història han trobat les dones per a exercir l’activitat científica, l’aparició de la Universitat Medieval en suposa un més pel fet de que les dones no hi poden accedir?

Efectivament. Però no va ser només “un” més, sinó un de fonamental.  Hem de pensar que les universitats han estat -i són-  institucions importantíssimes en el desenvolupament científic. I a més d’impedir la presència de les dones, les universitats també van tenir un paper fonamental en l’elaboració i legitimació de ciència misògina i androcèntrica. No hem d’oblidar relacionar aquests dos fenòmens. Històricament, les conseqüències de l’exclusió d’un grup social en l’elaboració de coneixement tenen efectes directes en la naturalesa i en la qualitat del coneixement que es produeix, en la ciència que s’elabora. I d’altra banda, també hem de recordar que els estudis de les dones i de gènere i les seves crítiques al saber acadèmic hegemònic es produeixen en un context de feminització de la universitat durant el segle XX.

– Però, en canvi, coneixem que les dones exercien en espais “alternatius”, com el cas de Jacoba de Felicié. En el teu llibre “Sanadoras, matronas y médicas en Europa”, ens expliques que va ser acusada de practicar activitat mèdica sense llicència.

Sí, amb el meu col·lega Fernando Salmón vam analitzar el cas que menciones de Jacoba Félicié, un cas molt interessant perquè es conserva una documentació força detallada del judici a què va ser sotmesa. Ella va ser acusada per la Facultat de Medicina de la Universitat de París, i vam voler estudiar amb detall com es justificava la seva acusació, i què ens deien les fonts sobre la seva manera de treballar. El que vàrem trobar va ser que l’acusació no era de mala pràctica; de fet era molt eficient en la seva feina segons expliquen els malalts a qui havia tractat. L’acusaven de practicar il·legalment la medicina i d’imitar allò que era propi dels metges universitaris. Però realment, allò que la medicina universitària va definir com a propi en exclusiva, havia estat un patrimoni comú a moltes altres persones. Amb el poder de la llei, la medicina universitària se n’apropia.

-Acusacions com aquesta podem interpretar-les com un intent d’acabar amb aquests espais “alternatius”?

Exacte. En el cas de la medicina, la fundació de les universitats posa en marxa la formació d’un monopoli de pràctica legal, en el que ja no es pot escollir en funció de l’eficiència sinó en funció de tenir o no un títol universitari o una llicència legal per a fer-ho.

– No resulta contradictori que sovint es caracteritze l’activitat científica com una tasca cooperativa i que després, la Història de la Ciència haja ressaltat figures masculines individuals en detriment del mèrit assignat a les seues parelles femenines, aquelles que sabem que sovint foren cooperants essencials en l’elaboració de nous coneixements?  Pense en casos com el de Marie-Anne Paulze…

Tens raó, efectivament és contradictori. De fet, és relativament recent que la història de la ciència hagi reconegut el caràcter cooperatiu de l’activitat científica. A la història de la ciència clàssica li agradaven les hagiografies dels grans descobridors, que sovint presentava com a herois aïllats, aliens a qualsevol condicionant i moguts exclusivament per la seva tenacitat i la seva passió per la recerca. Avui sabem que aquesta imatge és del tot incorrecta i sabem també que ha contribuït molt a mantenir en la invisibilitat les pràctiques científiques de les dones, ja fossin parelles, filles o col·laboradores, desvaloritzant feines importantíssimes.

– Com es podria recuperar el paper que han tingut?

Sens dubte, fent recerca amb metodologies apropiades. Revisant els relats històrics clàssics buscant reconstruir el teixit de factors i de relacions que han produït noves maneres d’entendre, d’explicar i d’intervenir en la naturalesa. I llavors, van apareixent sorpreses. De vegades, fins i tot, amb les mateixes fonts aconseguim relats molt diferents. Però sovint, quan obrim la mirada a nous contexts apareixen noves fonts. Això és el que ha fet amb èxit la historiografia feminista de la ciència els darrers trenta anys: construir contexts de plausibilitat. I han aparegut dones significatives … fins i tot, a les universitats!

Al 2010 es commemora el 100 Aniversari de la lliure matrícula de les dones a la Universitat.

-Quins fets són els que potencien aquesta incorporació?

El motor central, va ser l’interés sostingut i la tenacitat de les noies en sol·licitar matrícula universitària. Hem de pensar que a Espanya, la llei es promulga el 1910, quatre dècades després que les dones iniciessin un procés sistemàtic de demanda d’educació universitària. La primera, Elena Maseras, va aconseguir permís per matricular-se el 1872 i des de llavors, any rere any hi havia sol·licituds. Evidentment, les traves legals i burocràtiques van anar caient perquè el seu interès va ser promogut i acollit. Elles van provocar un debat social sobre la conveniència de l’educació superior de les dones i un sector important de la societat s’hi va oposar, però un altre va donar-los suport. A més, encara que hi ha diferències importants segons els països, va ser un fenomen internacional, que coincideix -no per casualitat- amb el sufragisme i el que s’ha anomenat com a primera onada del moviment feminista.

– Es tracta d’un canvi molt significatiu?

Depèn de qui el valori. Per a mi, és un canvi fonamental a la història de les universitats. Després de sis segles d’exclusió, marca un punt d’inflexió assegurant l’accés de tota la població en igualtat de condicions. Si no el valorem -i obliden fer-ho molts manuals d’història- estem invisibilitzant l’experiència de les dones universitàries i el procés de feminització de la universitat.

-Però el lliure accés a la Universitat és una cosa i,  la igualtat en ciència és una altra. Després de 100 anys encara parlem de dificultats addicionals en la professionalització  de les dones, o de sostres de cristall en ciència. Com veus i com valores el paper actual de les dones en Ciència?

La feminització de la universitat i de les pràctiques científiques no s’han produït en tots els sectors i en tots els nivells d’una manera equilibrada: la sociologia ho resumeix descrivint els fenòmens de la segregació horitzontal i la segregació vertical. La competència i l’excel·lència de les dones estan avui ben demostrades, però necessitem transformar les estructures d’organització i de gestió de la ciència i fer-les més amables a les dones. De la mateixa manera, cal revaloritzar els àmbits no professionals de la vida, i no em refereixo només a l’oci sinó a l’esfera domèstica i íntima, perquè sigui també un espai més atractiu per als homes -científics o no.

– Autores com Evelyn Fox Keller plantegen que podria existir una ciència femenina.

La seva obra en aquest sentit, de finals dels 70s i els 80s va ser molt important. També va ser molt polèmica, com és ben sabut. Tal com jo ho veig avui, el que va mostrar és que no hi havia només ‘una’ manera de fer ciència sinó formes diverses. Els paràmetres hegemònics de dedicació a l’activitat científica històricament han estat definit pels homes, però no són els únics amb els quals és possible plantejar i desenvolupar amb èxit projectes de recerca, o fins i tot desenvolupar-se professionalment en l’àmbit científic. Ella va mostrar com algunes dones -concretament Bàrbara McClintock- no només havien patit la discriminació de les institucions científiques a l’hora de tirar endavant programes de recerca, sinó que havien construït camins alternatius per fer-los efectius, d’una manera, diguem-ne, no convencional, tant en la vessant de la carrera professional com en la forma original d’aproximar-se al subjecte de la ciència. En la mesura en què aquesta fugida de l’hegemonia de la convenció era protagonitzada per dones, la pregunta era si això volia dir que hi havia una forma ‘femenina’ de fer ciència, no només una forma femenina de practicar la ciència i composar una carrera científica. Aquí, el que plantejava dificultats -i les segueix plantejant- és l’adjectiu ‘femení’, perquè hem de definir què entenem per ‘femení’: si entenem que és allò que el patriarcat diu que és propi de les dones (l’etern femení, l’essència femenina, etc.), o si entenem que és allò que les dones defineixen com a propi. Evidentment el feminisme rebutja de ple qualsevol atribució patriarcal sobre el que han de ser o no han de ser les dones, però dissenteix amb força sobre si les dones hem de buscar valorar i  desenvolupar, o no, allò que ens seria propi, i sobre quin seria el seu caràcter. Per a algunes, es tractaria d’un determinant estrictament històric, construït culturalment; per a d’altres ho seria només parcialment, etc. El que vull dir amb tot això és que el conflicte de base en aquest debat no estava en la ciència, sinó en el feminisme, en la manera d’entendre la constitució de les dones com a subjecte polític.

– Què opines de la qüestió de que la Ciència haja sigut qualificada de masculina pel seu ideal  d’ objectivitat o per la imatge heroica que se n’ha donat?

Aquesta és una qüestió que es desenvolupa a partir de les aportacions del debat anterior, que va assenyalar el caràcter no universal sinó parcial de la ciència moderna. Una ciència que es desenvolupà paral·lelament a la configuració d’un subjecte polític (la ciutadania) també aparentment neutre i universal, però que avui reconeixem androcèntric i sostingut en l’exclusió de les dones.

Encara que emergeix del debat anterior, la qüestió de l’adscripció a la ciència de valors de gènere masculí, penso que ha tingut una certa vida independent i ha estat prou ben acollit en el marc de la història de la ciència i dels estudis socials de la ciència. En la mesura en què han estat homes els qui han definit històricament la identitat de la ciència i les pràctiques científiques, és inqüestionable l’atribució al gènere masculí de l’elaboració dels valors i de les representacions de la ciència hegemònica. I s’ha analitzat com aquests valors i aquestes representacions atribuïdes a la ciència, coincideixen amb models culturals dominants i estereotipats d’allò que a Occident s’ha entès com a propi dels homes, és a dir, com a masculí.

– Creus que hi ha una “ciència femenina” alternativa?

No crec que hi hagi una ciència femenina alternativa. Sí que penso que històricament, les dones han desenvolupat formes de pràctica científica dissidents, parcial o totalment alternatives a la ciència hegemònica. I algunes ho fan també avui. Crec que enriquiria molt la ciència que les experiències de les dones s’incorporin tant en les formes d’interrogar la naturalesa com en les formes d’organitzar i gestionar la pràctica científica. En algunes disciplines, es comença a fer. Però penso que aquestes aportacions de les dones no fan la ciència ‘femenina’ sinó que la modelen i l’obren a noves perspectives, que poden animar nous camins de recerca d’homes i dones. D’altra banda, estem en una època de clara transformació de les identitats de gènere. Estem construint noves formes de ser home i de ser dona i per tant, reconsiderant el que és propi d’uns i d’altres.

– I, en l’actualitat, quins reptes se’ns presenten, o on caldria fer més èmfasi en matèria de gènere dins la Ciència?

En els darrers anys, s’està abordant com un problema la qüestió de la segregació vertical de les dones -fins i tot és objecte de polítiques públiques de caire nacional i també hi han nombroses iniciatives endegades per institucions individuals. Es denuncia el sostre de vidre o el sòl enganxós; en una altra metàfora més recent (i al meu parer menys afortunada), es parla del sistema científic com la “canonada que goteja” (the pipe that leaks), en referència a la pèrdua de dones. El que vull dir és que la qüestió de la presència equilibrada de les dones en tots els àmbits de la ciència, preocupa. Però hi ha una altra qüestió que no està en el centre dels debats públics i que jo valoro com un repte molt important: reconèixer la subjectivitat d’homes i dones -l’experiència d’unes i altres- i fer-la treballar a favor de la ciència, incorporant la perspectiva de gènere a totes les facetes de la pràctica científica.

-Finalment, com a historiadora, quin episodi històric o quin espai alternatiu on s’exercia l’activitat científica trobes més rellevant i del que podríem aprendre més per a solucionar alguns dels problemes actuals?

Uf, no m’atreveixo pas a donar solucions… Però sí que hi ha un fenomen històric, un episodi de la història de la ciència que em resulta molt atractiu: els salons parisencs dels segles XVI i XVII, on es va desenvolupar allò que Benedetta Craveri ha anomenat com “la cultura de la conversa”. Eren reunions que es celebraven en els salons de cases privades -d’aquí el seu nom-, on s’aplegaven periòdicament persones amb forts interessos científics, per compartir recerques i discutir noves línies de pensament.  Les dones van tenir-hi un paper molt actiu, no només participant en les reunions sinó també com a amfitriones, decidint sobre qui convidaven i qui no, sobre l’impuls a determinades perspectives… és a dir, actuant com a mecenes. Aquests ambients van estimular a Marie de Gournay, Émilie du Châtelet… Van ser espais molt creatius, fora de les institucions i autoregulats, que competien entre sí per guanyar-se el reconeixement i el prestigi. D’alguna manera, ens mostren com la cultura científica s’enriqueix amb la participació d’agents diversos; ens mostren les possibilitats que ofereix una comunitat científica porosa, oberta a diferents perspectives que dialoguen entre sí.


[i] Amparo Bruñó Martí és Llic. Biologia i actualment cursa el Màster d’Història de la Ciència i Comunicació Científica (Universitat de València)

[ii] Vull donar les gràcies  a Ximo Guillem-Llobat pels seus consells i la seua ajuda en la preparació i elaboració d’aquesta entrevista.

Interview to Katherine Watson by Mar Cuenca Lorente

Amb motiu de la participació de Katherine Watson en el Col·loqui The history of forensic medicine in the West: overview and prospect, celebrat el 13 d’abril a l’Institut d’ Història de la Medicina i de la Ciència López Piñero de València,  va ser entrevistada per Mar Cuenca Llorente, entrevista que transcrivim a continuació.

Interview to Katherine Watson*

by Mar Cuenca Lorente

Katherine D. Watson is a senior lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Her work has focused on the history of crime in England, and especially poisoning crimes. She is the author of Poisoned lives: English poisoners and their victims (Hambledon&London, 2004), Crime Archive: Dr. Crippen (The National Archives, 2007), and her most recent book is Forensic Medicine in Western Society: A History (Routledge, 2011).

Legal medicine has been one of the fields in which numerous studies about the definition and role of experts in modern western societies have been carried out. In this sense, we can observe the creation of networks and conferences focusing on legal medicine, such as Legal Medicine in History, which was organized by you. Which is the academic context in which these studies are taking place?

Generally, it is within the context of history of medicine and science. There are legal historians who touch upon issues that are completely relevant to legal medicine and science but they tend to ignore those elements. Also, there is a massive amount of literature on criminal justice history in many different European countries and North America, and again they tend to ignore the forensic elements, in favor of counting numbers of criminals, number of offences and the use of different types of punishments. Scholars doing the same sort of work as I am doing are generally historians of medicine and science, and occasionally people who are deeply embedded in law departments and social historians; but certainly in the English speaking world and from what I know of Spain, it is history of medicine and science. It is a bit more difficult to generalize in other countries but that is probably because there aren’t many people doing this kind of work.

How does legal medicine contribute to this historiography on experts? What can it show us?

If someone is called an expert I would like to know more about what they are actually doing to prove their expertise, and what they may be writing in books that I don’t know how many people are actually going to be reading. The bigger literature on expertise is much more philosophical and sociological in its orientation, and it is often written by sociologists. When talking of forensic medicine, we are referring to people who are experts because they have medical and scientific knowledge that other people don’t have, but may not necessarily be an expert witness, because that is more a Nineteenth and Twentieth century status. So if we look at the history of legal medicine over a long period we can certainly begin to see how the notion of the expert witness evolves and I think that is what sociologists don’t do. They simply assume that there is this thing called expertise and this thing called the expert witness, which is very problematic in many respects, but they make little effort to look at the longer history, to understand how we got where we are. So, in general, history is always useful to understand how things are today, especially because expert witnesses are very controversial figures in the courts of law today.

In your book, Poisoned lives. English Poisoners and their Victims, you analyze more than 500 poisoning cases that took place between the mid-Eighteenth-century and the beginning of the Twentieth century (1750-1914), instead of focusing on just one particular case, as you do later in the case of Dr.Crippen. Why did you decide to follow this approach?

In fact, that is the approach I always take. The Dr. Crippen book was slightly unusual in being a single case focus. You cannot really understand criminal justice history or even the history of forensic medicine if you don’t know what was normal, if you don’t know how people normally dealt with crime or what was normally the case when someone was found dead or injured in suspicious circumstances. I began to identify the parts of history that needed to be further explored, and, in my opinion, looking over a longue durée and at as many different cases as it is possible to find in the archives, is the only way to establish who was doing the forensic work, because generally they weren’t the same people writing the textbooks. Certainly in Britain, there were people who wrote excellent textbooks who never went to the courts of law or autopsied a dead murder victim. You need to know who they were, what they were doing and then, how this was actually received either at a coroner’s inquest or a magistrate’s investigation or in an actual criminal court by a judge and jury. You need to understand what normal practice was and to get as much of a national view of that as possible. If you can do it over a long period of time, then it begins to show you how things are changing, and generally you can find out why they were changing over time and that is possible to do in almost any country if the archival resources are there.

Your newest book, Forensic Medicine in Western Society: A History, provides us with a very wide international perspective of the status of legal medicine from the middle Ages to the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries, and you focus on many different aspects such as institutions or the relationship between medicine, law and society. What are the advantages of establishing a comparative study (versus a case study) in the case of legal medicine?

The fact is that it is too much of a small story to tell if you look at it in the national context and it is also an incomplete story. So the advantages are to enable the reader, the student or the scholar to understand that medicine and science travels and crosses borders, it doesn’t stay in one place unchanged for centuries. Information and ideas are exchanged and people change their practices as a result, so to understand the growth of an entire section within medicine or really a whole discipline, you can’t do that in a national context, and do it well, because you will be missing important parts of the story. The only way to do it as well as possible is to take account of the fact that people are doing similar types of work with similar goals, perhaps within different legal systems but all working towards the same kind of conclusion or outcome. And if you begin to accept that ideas cross borders and people, even if they are not consciously aware of this, are affected by it, you can begin to paint a better historical picture, and for this kind of history it is very important because the discipline is relatively small. So international collaborations and exchanges of ideas are all more important, and perhaps more practically speaking it is still possible to do it because it’s a relatively small discipline. It may be impossible to do this for something that is much bigger, or a broader area of medical practice but it is still a better way of approaching historical methodology because then you don’t deliberately exclude some part of the story.

With the development of toxicological analysis and the use of methods for the detection of poisons, they were soon introduced as another type of proof in trials. But how is knowledge transferred from the laboratory to the courtroom? How does the incorporation of a scientific expert from the laboratory take place?

In the Anglo-American context and certainly in the Nineteenth-Century, experts know that they have to make things understandable to juries even though it maybe varies from one expert to the other. They cannot use complicated scientific and medical terminology because juries don’t understand it, and perhaps then will reach wrong conclusions, so they tend to bring samples into court, an actual part of their results of doing chemical tests on things. If something is supposed to be blue, then they have a blue sample, they bring it and they show the jury. If they are trying to explain the size of the sample that they have tested, they always put it in terms that the lay person can understand. They will use examples such as: “I’ve tested a sample the size of a walnut or the size of an orange”, because instantly the jury knows how big that is, or something like “it was enough arsenic to fit on the tip of a knife”, instead of explaining it like: “I’ve tested something that weighed 10 grams” in which the juror doesn’t know how much that is. Experts had to paint a picture that a juror could understand, so they could understand the information given. But in a continental court, everything is on paper, and the judges themselves must be able to understand. A medico-legal expert like Orfila has to be able to explain things in a way that a judge can understand and that also means actually bringing physical things into the court to show the judge. So in terms of toxicology, where it was perhaps more easy to do this than in some other types of medicine, they had to actually use physical samples and use very descriptive language so everything was always clear. The problem of the poisoning case was that if the jury didn’t understand, they would always find the accused person not guilty because the danger of making the wrong decision in a jury’s mind was just too great. You cannot hang someone on the strength of evidence that you yourself don’t understand; if it is not clear, then you can’t convict.

What role does the public play in the shaping of Nineteenth-century toxicology, or even more in the importance of toxicology in the courtroom?

In the Anglo-American sphere, the public are the jurors. They are the people who are reading the newspapers and talking about the case and they tend to make assumptions about the status of an expert. If an expert has a public reputation, that is very important because it means that his evidence may be, and often will be seen, as more trustworthy than the evidence of someone that the general public doesn’t know, and that is still an issue today. It has too much to do with qualifications, and personal reputation; that is often what makes an expert witness, as much as the quality of the work he, and now she, is actually able to do.

Now, we will focus on the sources. What kind of sources have you used? How new methods, such as the digitalization of Old Bailey, have been useful for studies like the one you have carried out?

For me the best sources are the sources left by the legal system: criminal depositions. In England, only the Old Bailey has a full or mostly full record of actual trial accounts and that is not always complete. No other region in the country has that kind of resource, but they have the depositions, the testimony given by witnesses before the actual criminal trial, either at an inquest or in front of a magistrate who was deciding if there should be a trial or not. These records include the testimony given by all the witnesses, including doctors and scientists, but also neighbors, family members and people who worked with the victims. All of that provides a complete picture of the crime, even if it is a picture found only from the prosecution’s point of view; it still gives more evidence than you can get from any other source, for instance textbooks of forensic medicine and toxicology. They are excellent for how things should be done but I want to know how things really were done and the best way to find that out is to read the depositions where the doctor actually says how he did the autopsy, what he studied, what techniques he used and how he drew his conclusions. Then you can also see whether these conclusions are persuasive to the coroner’s jury or to the magistrate. Again there is some bias because all the evidence is geared towards the prosecution case, but as we get towards the end of the Nineteenth century there are some defense testimonies as well, and that is very interesting. To sum up, there are trial records, which apart from London, are not that common, there are newspaper accounts of trials and various types of hearings which are not always complete because of journalists’ interests, and often they are not interested in science; there are the archival records from the criminal justice system, there are also records to do with the cost of things, because if you know how much it cost to organize a trial you can see whether there was a doctor present, as he had to be paid, and if he was paid how much he was paid; textbooks are very useful, and finally there are also published articles by doctors and scientists in medical and scientific journals.

What different sources have you found when confronting different centuries?

For the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries the sources mentioned above are probably the most important. In the Twentieth century you have a whole additional level of material available because of the growth of radio and television. It is interesting to see these people give interviews and things like that and to even read their own memoirs. Usually, memoirs are only useful to give me an idea of what kinds of cases an individual was involved with, but I tend not to trust them too much, except if it gives information about a case I could then track and find in the criminal justice system.

What about other countries? Do they have the same resources?

The types of sources that exist in other countries depend on the state of the legal system, what kinds of records are generated and how they survived. In France, each case has a dossier, from start to finish, they’re all the papers just put together in a sac, literally, from the Seventeenth Century to the Revolution. In the Nineteenth century I am not sure what they look like but in the Eighteenth century you just get lots and lots of papers from the beginning of the case right through the decision of the court and that’s pretty much like the sort of material we have in England except that you don’t have to go somewhere else to find the court’s decision. I am not sure what that was like in the Nineteenth century, and I haven’t done any research in other countries so I am not really sure about what kinds of sources exist, but those are the sort of things I really look at. I want to know what people were really doing and saying and if they have given testimony to some sort of court which was writing down their testimony. Generally that to me is always the first place to begin.


* I would like to thank Ximo Guillem-Llobat who has been really helpful in the preparation of this interview. I would also like to thank CSIC who granted me with a JAE-predoc scholarship at the Instituto de Historia de la Medicina y de la Ciencia “López Piñero”. Photos courtesy of Mètode. This interview took place in Valencia, on April 13th 2011.

Interview to Patricia Fara by J. Agustín López Martínez

Amb motiu de la participació de Patricia Fara en el Col·loqui de la sèrie Plaers i Obstacles, va ser entrevistada per J. Agustín López Martínez, entrevista que transcrivim a continuació.

Interview to Patricia Fara*

By J. Agustín López Martínez

How Newton is seen depends on us just as much as on Newton himself”

Patricia Fara studied physics but she realized that she didn’t like the subject and specially the laboratory practicals. Then she set up a company of educational programming with successful programs like ‘Introduction to computing’. In the late eighties she took a PhD in History of Science at Imperial College, London. Her thesis, on magnetism in eighteenth-century England was supervised by James Secord. Since then she has written numerous popular books on the history of science and is a Fellow of Clare College at the University of Cambridge. We talked about her latest book ‘Science: A Four Thousand Year History’ (2009) and the history of science.

How does your diverse background affect your approach to history of science?

Designing educative programs we realized that with each image we should only have one intellectual idea. This forced me to concentrate what I was saying into very simple statements, each one illustrated by an image. It influenced the way I lecture and also the way I write. On the other hand, because I have had an irregular career I am not employed as a university lecturer and I am not constrained by the Academic Research Assessment. I can write whatever I like. If I was a university lecturer, I would be obliged to produce so many academic books and articles and I would be under pressure from my department to do that. I wouldn’t be able to write a book like ‘Four Thousand Years’.

How did you decide to write such an ambitious book?

When I was doing my PhD I went to a conference in 1992 organized by my supervisor Jim Secord which was called the ‘Big Picture’. It discussed the problem of linking together all these microstudies we have and I was sitting in the audience thinking “I want to write a book like that”. What I have tried to do is be aware of the case studies and put them into a roughly chronological sequence, but without attributing the inevitable success of science as a causal factor linking them. The traditional history books are very triumphalist about science and I have tried to write a book that does cover the whole period of science but is critical and doesn’t assume that science always reaches the right answer. That is a message that lots of scientists don’t want to hear.

Why seven parts with seven chapters?

That was a really important step in doing the book. When I had the idea of seven on seven all started falling into place, it was a key moment. The fact of having a completely artificial structure meant that I wasn’t constrained by things like scientific revolution or centuries… This magical connotation is also a message about the relationship between science and religion and about the arbitrary nature of making any sort of division in history at all. That made it easier to leave things out.

Is it possible to appeal readers with a history without heroes?

That’s a problem. Most of the books tend to be about heroes or famous names like Newton or Darwin. And the publishers like heroes as well. That is their idea of what people want. Once I wanted to write a book about how in the eighteenth century, the Royal Society began to influence science policy in Britain, but I knew the publishers wouldn’t be interested. Instead, I proposed the title ‘Sex, Botany and Empire’ and they loved it. Last year was Darwin’s anniversary and a lot of academics in Cambridge were involved in the anniversary. On the one hand, they were absolutely thrilled that Darwin got so much publicity. On the other hand they felt that they were contributing to something they don’t really approve.

“That science doesn’t always reach the right answer is a message that lots of scientists don’t want to hear”

Is there a danger of going to the other extreme, to a history of antiheroes?

There was one year when we did the introduction course to the eighteenth century and we realized that we had left Newton out. You teach students that history is not about picking heroes, but if you give an introductory course you have to have the familiar signposts: you do have to have Newton and Darwin.

Don’t you think there is a gap between historians of science and the public?

I think it is not so much between academic and public, I think it is more a gap between academics of history of science and academics of other subjects. A lot of academics beyond history of science still think of science as being special. I see that in general history, literature and things like that. There is still this tendency to see science as something separate and different.

How could we reduce this gap?

Speaking to people, writing in other people’s journals. Those other disciplines regard science as different and they never think to go to the history of science literature and incorporate that in their own studies. We should go and give more talks in departments like for example English literature. They never think of inviting us because they think “Oh no! They are going to talk about science and I’m not going to understand a word of what they say”, which is not true.

And what about scientists?

We should try to persuade scientists about the validity of what we are saying. If you teach about Isaac Newton, I see that nowadays our main interest is in Newton as an alchemist, but if you get back to the nineteenth century he is seen as a great genius, if you go to the eighteenth century you can look for instance at that famous statue of Trinity College which depicts him as an Enlightenment orator… Showing different pictures of Newton through the centuries is one way to convey that how Newton is seen depends on us just as much as on Newton himself. Any history is based on personal interpretation.

Do students learn about new ways of doing history?

In England this is changing a bit, because in the history curriculum now some history of medicine is taught, but again there is no science. Science is not seen as part of the history syllabus and that’s a pity. History is changing so much, it used to be just wars, dates and monarchs, but now it focuses on social history. Even so, history of science changes aren’t included.

“It is kind of a paradox that we are writing about the importance of the history of the book and the material objects but we are going always to the web”

And what about the schools?

Nowadays there is a debate in England about history. Margaret Thatcher wanted all the children to learn about English history: the Trafalgar battle and all those great things. All the social historians said that we had to learn about the history of women, history of the lower classes and international history. Now you go to the schools and one term you are doing the Incas, another term you are doing Henry VIII, the other the Vietnam War… The children are completely lost and have lost the sense of continuity. There is a movement among some historians that we want to move back, not to Ms Thatcher but let’s go back to traditional history where you learn the great British events and get some sense of British identity, particularly because we have got a lot of immigration and it is seen as good to have some sense of British history.

Could you give a piece of advice about the art of writing?

When you start writing you realize what you don’t understand and you have to continue researching and getting better. So you have to rewrite a lot and every time you rewrite it gets better. Another important thing is that you really have to go back to the original versions if you want to understand for instance how Darwin’s readers received and understood his work; you have to go to the material physical object. Which is kind of a paradox, because we are writing about the importance of the history of the book and the material objects but we are going always to the web. I know people that finish their whole PhD without going to the library!

What is your next project?

I am writing a book about Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather. What I am trying to do is write about the process of research. A book like ‘4000 years’ gives the impression that I knew everything and just sat down one day and wrote it out. Of course it wasn’t like that. I am trying to convey to the reader what it is like to wander around, not understanding things and trying to fix things together. It’s quite experimental.

J. Agustín López Martínez has a BA in journalism and an MA in Scientific, Medical and Environmental Communication. He is currently an MA student in History of science at the CEHIC, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

* I would like to thank Oliver Hochadel for his help in the preparation of this interview.