Two distinct but related themes have emerged in recent discussions of the relationship between the sciences and the humanities. First, there has been a sustained rejection in academic communities of the perceived dominance of the ‘two cultures’ debate that split scientific and humanist pursuits in the second half of the twentieth century. Second, and with a very different trajectory, political and institutional rhetoric has driven a wedge between the sciences and the humanities on the grounds of the utility and vitality of the former and the impractical passivity of the latter. Neither these themes, nor the positions taken, are entirely new, but their strange contemporary conjunction provides an opportunity to reconsider the long historical and present relationship between the humanities and the sciences from new perspectives.

Looking backwards to the beginning of the nineteenth century as well as to the contemporary world, this lecture will consider the role of the imagination in knotting together the sciences and the humanities. In doing so it will consider the imagination not, as may be expected, as moments of inspiration or flights of fancy, but variously as a method for practice, as a cultural product, as political cache and as a mode of communication. Giving privilege to the imagination from a viewpoint somewhat aslant reveals networks and communities, both actual and of feeling, that illuminate the reductive nature of contemporary neo-liberal discourses and the detrimental effects of these on both the humanities and the sciences.

Professor Martin Willis

Professor Martin Willis was appointed to a Chair in Literature, Science and Communication in the Department of English, Linguistics and Cultural Studies in January 2013. Trained at the University of Edinburgh, Professor Willis’s career has taken him from Scotland through Wales and into England. Primarily a Victorianist, Professor Willis’s research has focused on the relationships between literary narrative and scientific writing and practice. His work has received international acclaim; his most recent book, Vision, Science and Literature, 1870-1920: Ocular Horizons was awarded both the British Society for Literature and Science Book Prize and the European Society for the Study of English Cultural Studies Book Prize in 2011.

Professor Willis is a central figure in the field of literature and science: he was one of the original committee members who formed the British Society for Literature and Science in 2006; directed the Research Centre for Literature, Science and the Arts at the University of Glamorgan from 2006-12; founded the new Centre for Science and the Imagination at Westminster in 2013; and is editor of the Journal of Literature and Science. With his colleague, Dr Alexandra Warwick, Professor Willis has edited several volumes on Victorian cultural history and literature, and with the esteemed historian of medicine, Professor Keir Waddington, has conducted several public engagement projects focused on contemporary and historical illness. Professor Willis also enjoys a public profile beyond the academic community: writing on scientific curiosity for the THES, lecturing on the history of science at the British Science Festival, and collaborating with the British Science Association on its promotion of the wonder of British science.

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