Seminar 1: Prophets of Progress?

‘Prophets of progress? Predicting the future of science and technology from H G Wells to Isaac Asimov’

The first HSMT seminar of Hilary Term will take place at 16.00 on Monday 16th January (Week 1) in the Lecture Theatre of the History Faculty on George Street, and will be delivered by Peter Bowler.

Peter Bowler is based at Queen’s University, Belfast, and is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a corresponding member of the Académie Internationale d’Histoire des Sciences. He was President of the British Society for the History of Science 2004-6. He has published extensively on the development and impact of the theory of evolution, focusing especially on the role played by theories other than Darwinian natural selection. More recently he has worked on the relationship between science and religion and on twentieth-century British popular science. His latest work is on twentieth-century speculations about the future development of science and technology, combining a long-standing interest in science fiction with his knowledge of the popular science literature.

The first half of the twentieth century saw the emergence of science fiction as a recognized genre, but popular science writers also sought to imagine what the next developments would be, especially in areas with immediate practical applications. This talk will explore a number of issues relating to how we can understand the role played by science in popular culture through these predictions. What were the interactions between popular science writing and works of fiction ranging from science fiction to the many pessimistic novels of the period? How were public expectations aroused and used to create hopes of major improvements in everyday life, or fears of war and other calamities? How were rival technologies promoted by those who hoped to benefit from their introduction? The talk concludes by taking debates about the future of aviation during the inter-war years as a case study.

We have three of Bowler’s published works in the Wellcome Unit Library, the earliest of which is The eclipse of Darwinism : anti-Darwinian evolution theories in the decades around 1900 (QH361 BOW 1983). In this work, Bowler reevaluates the influence of social forces on the scientific community and explores the broad philosophical, ideological, and social implications of scientific theories. The Mendelian revolution : the emergence of hereditarian concepts in modern science and society (QH428 BOW 1989) examines the interpretations and theories of Mendelian genetics and their role in the emergence of modern ideas and values. His 1990 work Charles Darwin : the man and his influence (QH31.D2 BOW 1990) further evaluates the biograhy and cultural history around Darwin’s work, and the motivations of its various evaluations.



Mendelian Rev

Charles Darwin












As described in the seminar title, one of the writers Bowler will focus on in his talk is H.G. Wells. We hold two copies of his scientific writings in the library, both of which contain a number of interesting illustrations. The science of life (QH309 WEL 1931), written jointly with Julian Huxley and G.P. Wells, has been called the ‘first modern textbook of biology’, and Book 1: The Living Body is an interesting read for HSMT. This section of the book is reproduced on its own in a smaller (and less unwieldy) version, The living body, H. G. Wells (QH 325/Well). Wells and his contemporaries look at the concept that ‘The Body is a Machine’, which ties with some of the themes of several of Wells’ novels, such as ‘The War of the Worlds’, ‘The Island of Doctor Moreau’ and ‘The Invisible Man’.

Body machine 2

Body machine







Isaac Asimov is another writer mentioned and we also have a copy of Inside the atom (QC778 ASI 1961). The book describes the internal structure of the atom, and the sequence of concepts described follows the sequence that these facts were discovered in. It is intended to be accessible for the less scholarly reader, and ends on the somewhat foreboding note, ‘If only we can learn to use wisely the knowledge we already have…’, echoing fears of technology that can be seen in twentieth-century literature, in particular science fiction.











The intersection of medicine and literature is an interesting subsection of the history of medicine, and works on this topic can be found most commonly in the Wellcome Unit Library at shelfmark ‘P’. Our collections in the area have particular strengths in the influence of psychology and its theories on literature. The mind of modernism : medicine, psychology, and the cultural arts in Europe and America, 1880-1940 by Mark Micale (PN56.P93 MIN 2004) explores the interplay of the aesthetic and psychological domains during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in relation to Modernism, which took shape when modern psychological disciplines were establishing their scientific foundations. William Greenslade’s Degeneration, culture and the novel, 1880-1940 (PR888.D373 G74 GRE 1994) looks at how developments in medical, biological and psychiatric sciences led many to believe that ignorance, insanity, criminality and even homosexuality were evidence of degeneration of the human race, causing disturbing social changes. Greenslade examines the impact of these degeneration theories on culture and fiction.












Please come and ask library staff if you would like any help with locating resources, or conducting further research. We also welcome further suggestions for reading not included in this post!

1. David C. Smith, H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), p. 262.