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The lives of British scientists recorded in full for the first time in a new British Library oral history archive
Dennis Higton (right) and colleagues with a Gloster E.2839, Britain’s first jet aircraft, in the 1940s © Dennis Higdon.

LONDON.- A major oral history project to gather the life stories of British scientists has culminated today in the launch of a new online archive by the British Library. Voices of Science is drawn from a National Life Stories programme ‘An Oral History of British Science’, and features interviews with 100 leading UK scientists and engineers, telling the stories of some of the most remarkable scientific and engineering discoveries of the past century as well as the personal stories of each individual.

Remarkably few scientists have previously been interviewed at length about their life and work, and this archive remedies that absence while preserving their memories for posterity to be used by researchers now and in the future.

With interviews ranging across multiple disciplines, the archive seeks to represent a cross-section of scientific activity, including lesser-heard voices as well as key players in the British scientific landscape over the last century.

Over 1000 hours of unedited interviews, each lasting 10-15 hours, are being made available in full on the British Library’s Sounds website, while the Voices of Science site offers curated access to audio and video highlights from the interviews, as well as photographs, biographies and other contextual information. The project has been generously supported by the Arcadia Fund.

Examples from the archive include:

◾Joseph Farman telling the story of finding the ‘hole’ in the ozone layer using an instrument in a hut in Antarctica

◾Janet Thomson on how she became the first female scientist allowed to Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey, in 1983

◾Dan McKenzie recalling his realisation that the Earth’s crust is made up of moving rigid plates (plate tectonics)

◾Geoff Tootill, last survivor of the team that built the world's first modern computer, the 1948 Manchester 'Baby', remembers how they thought the whole world would only need a few computers

◾Mary Lee Berners-Lee recalls the importance of sellotape to programming some of the first computers

◾Professor Sir Colin Humphreys explaining how he has used his scientific mindset to investigate the events of the Bible

Dr Rob Perks, Lead Curator of Oral History at the British Library, commented, “Voices of Science provides unique insights, not only into British scientific and engineering discovery and innovation, but importantly into the lives of the scientists and engineers themselves. What makes them tick? What in their childhoods and education made them scientists? Do they think and behave differently from the rest of us? How has the everyday practice of science changed over the past 75 years? As the collection grows we hope to document every facet of British science and engineering within living memory: creating an important human resource for schools, academics and anyone interested in the world around us.”

Entrepreneur, computer scientist and philanthropist Dame Stephanie Shirley was interviewed for the project in 2010: “The length of the interviews allows you to go into some detail. Things came out that I wasn’t conscious of before and I recognise how holistic everything is. It also brought out new insights into the importance of networking. Science is like a pelaton in a cycle race: a group becomes a unity, people take turns to get in front. We do have to work together and sometimes you are privileged to be the first to know something.”

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