Research and Radio: the Humanities outside Academia

There are two striking things in Iggy McGovern’s physics lab at Trinity College Dublin. The first is a piece of equipment, industrial and steampunkish in appearance, called a vacuum chamber. This apparatus is used for experiments on surfaces: when a sample of material is placed inside the chamber, a pump extracts the air surrounding it, leaving a sample free from air and other impurities—a surface, in Iggy’s words, which is ‘clean at an atomic level’. The second striking feature of the lab are the piles of volumes of poetry, and the box files labelled ‘poetry’, spread around it.

2014 Iggy McGovern vacuum chamber 2

The vacuum chamber in Iggy McGovern’s lab.

I met Iggy McGovern while recording a documentary, ‘The Poetry of Science’, to be broadcast as part of BBC Radio 3’s Sunday Feature on Sunday 2 November, at 6:45pm. ‘The Poetry of Science’ asks why scientists engaged in experimental work might also choose to write verse, and it considers how scientists’ poetry relates to their scientific thinking. The documentary grew out of my research interest in poetry and science in the nineteenth century, and so interviewing contemporary scientist-poets such as Iggy McGovern and Mario Petrucci was a step outside my research comfort zone. I’m glad I took the step, though, because it helped me to place my nineteenth-century research in a new context: ‘The Poetry of Science’ identifies some important differences, but also some surprising similarities, between scientists’ poetic practice in the nineteenth century and today. The documentary combines the text-based scholarship that typifies English Literature as a subject with other forms of research. Some of it was recorded at the Royal Institution in London, where I studied the poetry manuscripts of nineteenth-century figures such as Humphry Davy and John Tyndall. Visiting the lab at Trinity College Dublin offered a different perspective on the subject, one not available for research on the nineteenth century: I was able to ask Iggy specific questions about his verse, and also to see directly how poetry related to his working life as a scientist.

The opportunity to make ‘The Poetry of Science’ arose out of my work as one of the ten AHRC/BBC New Generation Thinkers for 2013. The New Generation Thinkers scheme is designed to give arts and humanities researchers a chance to share their work with non-academic audiences: the 2014 class of New Generation Thinkers will be speaking at the BBC’s annual Free Thinking Festival in Gateshead this weekend. Public engagement, as the UK’s research councils term it, is increasingly expected to be a prominent part of the work of humanities scholars, but it isn’t necessarily an easy task for researchers trained in the very precise methods and procedures of academic scholarship.  In 2013, when I was named as one of the New Generation Thinkers, I wrote a blog about some of the challenges involved in putting humanities research on the radio. I think I still agree with most of what I wrote, particularly about the difficulty of finding the right balance between the big ideas in which broadcasters tend to be interested and the complex details on which academic research largely depends. This was a significant issue when making ‘The Poetry of Science’, a programme which is only 21 and a half minutes long; not a lot of time to go into all the complexities of the relations between poetry and science in the nineteenth century and now. Nonetheless, the programme gave me a chance to introduce the key themes of my research on science and poetry to a wide audience. And it still finds time for close readings of particular poems.

In addition to their challenges, then, initiatives such as the New Generation Thinkers scheme offer tremendous opportunities to humanities researchers. Like blogging, tweeting, and to some extent teaching, radio broadcasting enables (and compels) academics to communicate the findings of their research, clearly and concisely, to audiences outside their research specialism. More than that, by introducing these audiences to the complex questions underpinning their research, academics can use the media (social, print, and broadcast) to foster debates which in turn help to publicise the central relevance of the humanities to education and to society.

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