Guest post by Heather McKenna: 

For the past two weeks I’ve had the very exciting opportunity of wandering around the library and archives here at the Centre for History of Science. As the Society has been around since 1660 (and the library since 1661), understandably there is a lot of material for exploration.

With a background in astrophysics, an interest in science fiction, and a future (hopefully) in books, I was intrigued to find a leaflet entitled ‘Science fiction and the true way to save British science’. Unfortunately on closer examination it had little to do with fiction, more a look at the funding issues of British science in the 1980s, with international comparisons.

Wandering back into the library, in the Fellows in Fiction section (see ‘A novel approach to our Fellows’) I stumbled across ‘The Black Cloud’ by Sir Fred Hoyle FRS. I am ashamed to say I have not read this (yet), although it is widely considered a classic, with Richard Dawkins FRS describing it as ‘one of the greatest works of science fiction ever written’. The book itself is about a black cloud heading to the solar system, which threatens to block the sun’s rays and wipe out all life!

Sir Fred Hoyle

Sir Fred, aside from being a science fiction writer, was a preeminent astrophysicist and a consistent science communicator. During his career he collaborated with many people, including: Raymond Lyttleton FRS on works of stellar evolution and accretion; Sir Hermann Bondi FRS and Thomas Gold FRS regarding steady-state cosmology (initially dismissing the Big Bang Theory); and with William A. Fowler, Margaret Burbidge FRS and Geoffrey Burbidge FRS, whose work on stellar nucleosynthesis had particular relevance to my own stellar work.  

This is only the tip of a very large iceberg of scientists who either write science fiction, e.g. Ian Stewart FRS, or whose work may have been considered such at the time, e.g. Copernicus. There are so many exciting things to discover at the Centre, two weeks is really not enough.

[Edited 03/02/11 to add: I have since read The Black Cloud and can happily add that I thoroughly enjoyed it. Hoyle manages to produce an exciting story, whilst simultaneously educating the reader with a range of scientific ideas.]

Heather is studying for an MA in Library and Information Studies at UCL. Prior to libraries, she studied astrophysics at the University of Leicester, then completed a PhD in ‘Studies of the chemical composition of B-type post AGB stars’ at Queen’s University Belfast.

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