What do nuclear Armageddon, Babylonian astronomy, mathematics in music and the members of the organisation know as the British Mineralogical Society all have in common?

The answer is not to be found in the twisting plot line of the latest Da Vinci Code cash-in, but in the subject matter of the varied selection of papers at this year’s British Society for the History of Science (BSHS) postgraduate conference. In what seems a continuing theme of holding BSHS conferences in cities with magnificent cathedrals, the hosts this year were the Department of Philosophy and the Centre for the History of Medicine and Disease at Durham University.

Thursday began with a selection of papers on early medicine, touching on personal stories of both patients and practitioners, offering nineteenth century views of the eye, and showing how ‘real’ science can help the history of science. After lunch, the area of discussion switched to popular and public science, including warnings on the dangers of ‘pseudo-science’ in the hands of religious sects, and of chemistry sets in the hands of Victorian children. A wine reception at Hatfield College completed the day, although the discussion continued late into the night.

Friday was mainly concerned with studies of science, moving from ancient science to the twentieth century and everything in between. The diversity of papers covering everything from alchemy to anti-Darwinism was fascinating, as was the attention paid to the groups behind the ‘science.’ A cast of mathematicians, philosophers, merchants and theologians nicely demonstrated that science isn’t all down to ‘scientists.’ The presentations were nicely wrapped up with sessions on the collection and display of science, providing food for thought on the challenges and possibilities of presenting and preserving science in different ways.

The ideas of this last session were brought to life in an evening visit to the preserved library of Bishop Cosin, hosted by Professor David Knight. Within this magnificently decorated library, we were treated to an exhibition of early scientific works, including early editions of Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica and Newton’s Principia Mathematica, a fascinating opportunity to fully appreciate science on display. A busy Friday drew to a close with the conference dinner at Hatfield College and an address by BSHS President, Frank James.

Papers on the history of medicine took up most of the last day, of which a particular highlight was the splendidly titled session on ‘Victorian Pain, Death and Affliction,’ which proved to be an engagingly morbid couple of hours. Dispute and debate, particularly in the grey areas surrounding moral and political issues, was a theme that came out strongly across different papers, in topics such as prostitution, colonial development and vivisection. This led nicely to the closing session of the conference, which focused on the influencing of scientific frameworks and the intersection of philosophy and politics.

Reflecting back on the conference as a whole, it was interesting to see not just the diversity of the papers which were given, but the similarities that were apparent across time and subject area. Trust, whether in the government’s abilities to protect its citizens from nuclear war, in the skill of doctors in accurately diagnosing death, or in the dubious claims of the ‘science’ of religious sects, was just one of several interweaving threads. It was also gratifying to see participants not only from Britain, but from Denmark, France, Germany and Eastern Europe, adding to the mix of perspectives. Debate was further stimulated by the presence of not just card-carrying ‘historians of science,’ but by museum workers, physicists and even the occasional computer scientist.

Life as a research postgrad can sometimes be quite isolating, but meetings like this are a welcome opportunity to meet and to share with others in similar circumstances. Indeed there can be few other occasions which bring together such diverse personalities and interests and give them the space and time to connect. Thanks must certainly go to all those responsible, in particular, the conference organisers: Vicky Blake, Beth Hannon, and Sebastian Pranghofer, along with all those behind the scenes at Durham and from the BSHS.

Thomas Lean, University of Manchester

This report appeared in the June 2007 issue of Viewpoint, the newsletter of the BSHS.