I am a historian, specifically a historian of science who specialises in the history of the life sciences (from Victorian natural history to modern genetics). The history of science tends to be isolated from other kinds of history, and so it is sometimes seen as the province of narrow specialists (and therefore uninteresting). I hope that by writing (and when possible, broadcasting) in an accessible, interesting way, I can play a small part in integrating science into historical understandings of the modern world, both for my fellow academics but also for anyone who is interested in the story of how science has helped shape – and been shaped by – the wider world.
Plants: from roots to riches
In the summer of 2014, I was historical consultant for the BBC Radio 4 series Plants: from Roots to Riches.
- You can hear the programs and find out more about it on the Broadcasting page.
I recently finished a book about orchids that will be out in 2016. It will be a cultural history of these extraordinary, beautiful and much-mythologised flowers, ranging from their earliest history, via Charles Darwin’s work on their fertilisation, to a recent scientific study of the impact of climate change on native British orchids (like the one illustrated).
Every plant that has ever been important to humans – whether it provided food, shelter or bouquets for lovers – has acquired a rich range of complex (and often contradictory) associations. Humans seem to secrete allegories the way spiders secrete silk, so it is not surprising that particular flowers have come to symbolise everything from sentiments to nations, others feature in poetry or folk superstitions, still more feature in our mythologies, as well as in our religions, literatures and medicine. Each human culture has constructed its own set of meanings around particular types of flowers. So the fact that orchids have their own very specific set of meanings is only to be unexpected but the meanings of orchids are some of the weirdest ever to have become linked to a plant. They are sexy but deadly. Slightly kinky, luxurious and expensive. Delicate “hot house” flowers, not really adapted to the real world, but capable of killing. Mostly found in mysterious distant jungles, orchids are often feminine and delicate, which may be why larger-than-life male heroes have to be imagined as the only ones who can bring them home safely. People will commit crimes for them, even kill or die for orchids.
I talked about my orchid research in London recently when I give the annual Founder’s Day lecture at the Linnean Society of London (2 December 2014). They recorded the talk, so you can watch me in action.
- There is more about the book on the Orchid page.
I was born in Kent, an unreasonably long time ago, and such little growing up as I have done happened there and in Kenya (where my father worked for the UN Development Project). I failed A level history (actually, I failed mock A-level history; the school wouldn’t even let me sit the real exam), then went to two art schools, which I dropped out of four times in total. I worked as a graphic designer for various lost causes and then moved to Australia. I was getting profoundly bored with graphic design when an old friend introduced me to the work of Stephen Jay Gould. From there it was short step to studying history and philosophy of science.
I am married with two children and live in Sussex.