Skip to main content

Patricia Fara - Four Way Interview

Patricia Fara lectures in the history of science at Cambridge University, where she is a Fellow of Clare College. She was the President of the British Society for the History of Science (2016-18) and her prize-winning book, Science: A Four Thousand Year History (OUP, 2009), has been translated into nine languages. An experienced public lecturer, Patricia Fara appears regularly in TV documentaries and radio programmes. She also contributes articles and reviews to many popular magazines and journals, including History Today, BBC History, New Scientist, Nature and the Times Literary SupplementHer new book is Erasmus Darwin.

Why history of science?
I read physics at university, but half-way through the course I realised that had been a big mistake. Although I relished the intellectual challenge, I was bored by the long hours spent lining up recalcitrant instruments in dusty laboratories. Why was nobody encouraging us to think about the big questions – What is gravity? Does quantum mechanics match reality? Can time run backwards? After three years, I escaped into a career in computing and educational publishing, determined to leave academia for ever.

Twenty years later, I was back in college, still pursuing the mysteries of the cosmos. Gradually I came to reverse my earlier views, and feel that it was more important to study people than invisible atoms and mathematical laws. Now I had some new Big Questions – How has western science come to dominate the world during the last few hundred years? Is science always right? Which is more important – travelling to Mars or building new hospitals in Africa?

Finding some answers involved thinking about politics, economics, literature, religion…And that is what makes history of science so rewarding and fascinating – it’s the history of everything.

Why this book?
I love historical research and wanted readers to share the thrill of pursuing a detective trail to search for new pieces of evidence. So many books are written as if the author were omniscient, an objective observer who knows the story already and only needs to find the best way of telling it. But for me, one of the wonderful aspects of history is that there are so many tales to tell – different writers attach significance to different snippets of information.

When I started looking into Erasmus Darwin, I knew very little about him except that he was a provincial doctor, a driving force in British industrialisation, an expert on botany, and a prolific but very clunky poet. I soon discovered that however stiff and pompous he may look in his portraits, in reality he was a loving man (in both senses – both compassionate and sexy) who held radical political views and was unusually enlightened about women’s education.

During my search for my own version of Darwin, I allowed myself to be guided by serendipity – I took advantage of unexpected discoveries and travelled down side-tracks to see where they took me. Some of them turned out to be dead ends, but others led me to a dramatically new vision of someone often mentioned only as the grandfather of Charles.

Erasmus Darwin died in obscurity, his most scandalous work consigned to the Vatican’s banned list. His famous grandson inherited not only his stammer and aversion to alcohol, but also his determination to end slavery and his conviction that nature is red in tooth and claw. Long before the Victorian era, Erasmus Darwin had already formulated an influential theory of evolution – and this book describes my journey to that conclusion.

What’s next?
I’m very enthusiastic about my next book, Life after Gravity: Isaac Newton’s London Career, which is coming out in February 2021. Unlike other biographies of science’s greatest iconic figurehead, mine focuses on a neglected period – the three decades he spent in London running the Royal Mint. Moving in elite metropolitan circles, Newton accumulated wealth on the back of the international slave trade and exerted a long-lasting influence on the British economy. 
Enmeshed in Enlightenment politics and social events, Newton engaged in the linked spheres of early science and imperialist capitalism. Instead of the quiet cloisters and dark libraries of Cambridge’s all-male world, he now participated in fashionable London society, characterised by patronage relationships, raw ambition and sexual intrigues. An eminent Enlightenment figure, he served as an MP, entertained international visitors and mingled with Hanoverian royalty and aristocracy. 

Knighted by Queen Anne, a close ally of the influential Earl of Halifax, Newton occupied a powerful position as President of London’s Royal Society. He also became Master of the Mint, responsible for the nation’s money at a time of financial crisis. A major investor in the East India Company, Newton monitored the imported gold that was melted down for English guineas, and profited from the revenue generated by selling African captives to wealthy plantation owners in the Americas. 

The Enlightenment is celebrated as the Age of Reason, but the exploitation and disparity it fostered lie at the heart of modern democracy.

What’s exciting you at the moment?
I’ve always been passionate about communicating history of science, and recently I’ve teamed up with a wonderful singer/composer, Frances M Lynch, who shares my ambitions to break down conventional art-science boundaries. For several years, she has been running her extraordinary Scientific Minerva project, in which female composers create music to celebrate female scientists, both past and present. 

Thanks to her, I’ve been carrying out research into some fascinating women I would never have heard of otherwise. Their science and their tailor-made music are all described on the website, but they include the first black woman in aircraft engineering during the Second World War, the eighteenth-century mother of two who ran a school in Margate and invented Victorian England’s most popular astronomical board game, the first woman botanist to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and the intrepid aviatrixes (the posh word for female pilot) who performed aerobatics in the world’s first all-female flying show in Northamptonshire in 1931.

Once lockdown is over, I’m looking forward to performing again with her at the Science Museum. But the event I’d most like to repeat is our visit to a primary school in a deprived part of London. After talks from me and a crab expert at the Natural History Museum, the children wrote their own words and music for an evening concert commemorating local women. It was an extremely moving occasion, and I’m enormously excited about joining Frances for her similar ventures in the future. 


Popular posts from this blog

The Idea of the Brain: Matthew Cobb *****

Matthew Cobb is one of those people that you can’t help but admire but also secretly hate just a little bit for being so awesome. He is professor for zoology at the University of Manchester with a sizable teaching load that he apparently masters with consummate skill. He’s a scientific researcher, who researches the sense of smell of fruit fly maggots; I kid you not!  He’s also an attentive and loving family father but he still finds time and energy to write brilliant history of science books, three to date. His first, The Egg and Sperm Race, describes the search for the secret of human reproduction in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and is one of my favourite history of science books, on the period. His second, Life’s Greatest Secret is a monster, both in scope and detail, description of the hunt to decipher the structure and function of DNA that along the way demolishes a whole boatload of modern history of science myths. The most recent, and the subject of this review, is

The Search for Life on Mars - Elizabeth Howell and Nicholas Booth ***

From the book’s enticing subtitle, ‘The Greatest Scientific Detective Story of All Time’, I was expecting something rather different. I thought the authors would kick off by introducing the suspects (the various forms life might take on Mars, either now or in the past) and the kind of telltale traces they might leave, followed by a chronological account of the detectives (i.e. scientists) searching for those traces, ruling out certain suspects and focusing on others, turning up unexpected new clues, and so on. But the book is nothing like that. Continuing with the fiction analogy, this isn’t a novel so much as a collection of short stories – eleven self-contained chapters, each with its own set of protagonists, suspects and clues.

Some of the chapters work better than others. I found the first three – which despite their early placement cover NASA’s most recent Mars missions – the most irritating. For one thing, they unfold in a way that’s at odds with the cerebral ‘detective story’ na…