The 2007 BSHS Outreach and Education Committee Image Prize competition winning image

The 2007 BSHS Outreach and Education Committee Image Prize competition winning image

The 2007 BSHS Outreach and Education Committee Image Prize competition was won by Joe Cain of University College London, for his image Connecting Threads.

This picture is freely available for download and use in teaching and outreach work; if you use it, please ensure you supply an appropriate credit to Joe.


The Whitchurch Silk Mill, on the River Test in Hampshire, was built in 1800. These bobbins hold silk thread woven at the mill.

I love this photograph’s colour. And I adore its versatility. I use it as one of my recurrent images of my survey course. From it, I can launch into topics far and wide. There are direct connections to industrialisation and the British shift to manufacture. Stretch a bit, and this photo connects to ideas of export economies and globalisation, competition between biological and chemical dye industries, shipping and telecommunications, the role of scientists and engineers in studies of efficiency, and shifting patterns of work. Because it’s a photograph of silk threads, this image also lets me talk about agriculture as an industry — one firmly intertwined with science. Then, I can pivot to global transport of biological commodities and specimens — connecting to Alfred Crosby’s ‘Columbian Exchange’ and its implications. Efforts to produce silk at home gets me to Joseph Banks and Kew Gardens, then a pivot again, this time to tea and tobacco. Then it’s clear sailing through the rest of the course. I’m off and running into ‘economic natural history’.

It’s important to me that students learn to think analytically about the most commonplace items in their lives. They ought to notice their beans come from Zambia, their lamb from New Zealand and Wales, and their chocolate… where does chocolate come from? More importantly, why is it so hard to figure that out?

A few colourful silk threads give me an ideal device for continuity along so many disconnected lines. From so simple a beginning.

About the winner

Joe Cain is Senior Lecturer in History and Philosophy of Biology at University College London. Trained in the US in both zoology and the history and philosophy of science, Joe has been at UCL since 1996. He has longstanding interests in the history of evolutionary studies, the history of natural history, and science in London. Out of the latter, Joe developed a series of walking tours in London focusing on history of science themes. His favourite is a walk thorough Crystal Palace Park in Sydenham, still home to the famous ‘prehistoric monsters’. His teaching and academic research interests can be seen on his website.

Joe’s interest in photography is quite new, only a few years old. It arose from his desire to bring new locations and objects into the classroom. "I like the way photography forces me to stop and look — look closely — at things I normal simply breeze past," Joe explains. "I think photography sharpens my ability to study things — just as a painter might study a bowl of fruit or a sculptor might study a model." Probably because Joe’s red/green colourblind, much of his photography is black-and-white.