Page last updated at 12:04 GMT, Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Online archive of UK science launches

Alan Turing, NPL
The British Library has no sound recordings of computer pioneer Alan Turing

The British Library has begun a project to create a vast, online oral history and archive of British science.

The three-year project will see 200 British scientists interviewed and their recollections recorded for the audio library.

An advisory board will help the project pick key technological innovators and scientists for the archive.

The interviews will be put online to form a permanent record of the way British science has been practiced.

Eureka moment

"We have long been painfully aware that there's a marked absence of significant recordings of scientists," said Dr Rob Perks, curator of oral history at the British Library.

For instance, said Dr Perks, in the current sound archives there are only two recordings of Ernest Rutherford, none of computer pioneer Alan Turing, hovercraft inventor Christopher Cockerell or AV Hill, a physiologist and Nobel laureate.

A study carried out prior to the project being started found that in the last ten years, 30 leading British scientists including 9 Nobel winners have died leaving little or no archive of their work.

The oral history project will try to stem this loss of information, said Dr Perks, and encourage working scientists to consider how to preserve their work.

The project will look into what was behind the key breakthroughs but would not solely focus on the "eureka moments", he added.

Manchester Mark I, University of Manchester
The first interview is with Geoff Tootill who co-created the Manchester Mark I

As well, subjects will be asked about their childhood, education, influences, relationships and frustrations to build up a picture of how science has been practised.

"It's about building up the profile of 20th Century British science from the ground up," said Dr Katrina Dean, curator of the history of science at the British Library.

The oral history project will be run by the British Library, charity National Life Stories and the science museum.

The first scientist to be interviewed is Geoff Tootill, one of the creators of the world's first programmable computer - the Manchester Small Scale Experimental machine, first turned on in 1948.

"This project is the largest, the most ambitious, the most exciting and arguably the most important project we have undertaken," said Sir Nicholas Goodison, chairman of National Life Stories.

"This is going to be enormously valuable to future historians because people no longer write letters or prepare archives," he said. "E-mail is very difficult to archive and is mostly deleted by the people that write them."

The archive will be arranged around four themes that look at British inventions, climate change, biomedicine and cosmology. Cash to fund interviews for two themes has been secured and money for the rest is being sought.

Said science writer Georgina Ferry: "It's fantastic to have the oral history but they are not enough on their own.

"What you want to do as a biographer it to put together and synthesise what you get out of the oral history with material produced at the time."

Comparing and contrasting memories with notes and letters was necessary to build a "rounded" picture of the scientist concerned, she said.

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