Oral history of British science

Humphrey, Nicholas (2 of 13).  An Oral History of British Science

  • Add a note
    Log in to add a note at the bottom of this page.
  • All notes
  • My notes
  • Hide notes
Please click to leave a note

The British Library Board acknowledges the intellectual property rights of those named as contributors to this recording and the rights of those not identified.
Legal and ethical usage »

Tags (top 25):
(No tags found for this item)
  • Type


  • Duration


  • Shelf mark


  • Subjects

    Science and Religion

  • Recording date

    2016-05-24, 2016-05-31, 2016-06-02, 2016-07-05

  • Recording locations

    The British Library and interviewees' home, Cambridge

  • Interviewees

    Humphrey, Nicholas, 1943- (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Merchant, Paul (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Part 2: Comments on childhood reading; childhood experiences related to recent end of WW2; [Section closed from 2:26 to 3:40] importance of reminders of home at boarding school (including 'own jam' and particular books, including 'The Seven Stars of Peace' [subtitle 'An Anthology for the Times']). Mentions own anthology 'In a Dark Time' [1986]; books read by headmaster; own reading of 'The Children's Newspaper' and 'Eagle'. [6:42] Detailed comments on Cumnor House School [CHS], attended as boarder from age 8, including very positive view/experience of its headmaster, performance in Shakespeare and other plays, experience of homesickness, use of corporal punishment by headmaster (with story of particular punishment of others for smoking), sexual relations between boys and between boys and masters (with story of supply teacher). Detailed comments on view, then and now, of sexual relations between masters and children here and later at Westminster School, with related stories. [15:04] Positive comments on teaching and learning at CHS, including mathematics, writing, memorising of quotations (with story of keeping 'commonplace book'). Comments on use of quotations in own writing; learning of poetry by heart. Story of winning poetry prize with parody of modern poetry written by self and John Barrell. [18:43] Detailed comments on/discussion of reasons why brother did not, like self, go to boarding school; tendency to experience homesickness through life when separated from loved ones, with stories of first wife's (Caroline Waddington) absence from home when engaged in anthropological fieldwork, and long distance relationship with second wife (Ayla Kohn), met in New York. [25:40] Comments on lack of science teaching at CHS. Mentions lack of biology teaching through school career. Comments on experience of natural history in Boy Scouts; church attendance at CHS. Story/discussion of experience of being teased because it was not possible for self to be confirmed, as not baptised. Mentions experience of bell-ringing. Comments on majority of non-religious masters at CHS; lack of discussion of religion between boys at CHS or Westminster, with assumption that it was not necessary to take it seriously. [31:48] Discussion of positive view, then and now, of headmaster of CHS, with related stories. Comments on beauty of the school and its setting. [35:03] Comments on experience of wide range of strong emotions through experience of boarding school, with related story; view - developed later in own work on evolution of humans as 'natural psychologists' - of social usefulness of this range of experience. [37:29] Story of declining particular scholarship to Westminster School [WS] to avoid full boarding. Comments on wearing of a scholar's gown at WS; teaching and learning at WS; reading in school library (including Bertrand Russell's 'A History of Western Philosophy' [1945]); link between reading and own sense of wish to remain in elite intellectual world of childhood. Stories of escaping school and exploring London at night, including climbing of/into Westminster Abbey and exploring Soho. Comments on experience of competing with other boys at WS, especially in mathematics with particular boy; realisation of privilege of education at WS; tendency of WS pupils to regard themselves as privileged without regarding others as inferior (in contrast to view of effects of public school education in the present); negative effect of Thatcherism on conception of social and economic differences between people. [47:01] Story of work experience as laboratory assistant at the Marine Biological Association, Plymouth between school and degree, including attempt to join local communist party cell. [48:24] Discussion of feelings of wanting to secure future as scientist by working hard. Comments on benefits of single sex schooling from point of view of focus on academic work, in relation to view of own children's lives. Positive comments on Bertrand Russell. [52:35] Comments on view of character of self in relation to that of other boys at WS. Discussion of fellow pupil, Dan McKenzie. Comments on teacher of mathematics at WS; experience of Boy Scouts at WS (with story of psychology badge); physics teacher at WS. [59:09] Comments on especially engaging experiences of teaching and learning at WS, including differential calculus, 'dynamics and statics', preference for physics over chemistry (with story of measuring speed of light). Mentions lack of involvement in drama at WS. Comments on view that absence of relations with girls at WS was not significant/influential on self later. [1:03:49] Comments on memory of no/limited discussion of relations between science and religion at WS; memory of discussion of religion as "an oppressive force". Story of reading anti-religious text as the lesson at daily service, with master's response. Comments on contrast between own and Richard Dawkins' experience of Christianity as a child, with own leading to no positive or negative feelings. [1:06:45] Comments on intention - while still at school - to pursue career in science; own essay 'Scientific Shakespeare' written much later (1987) on differences between scientific creativity and the uniqueness of artistic creativity; own career in scientific research, including discovery of 'blindsight', own theory of 'social function of intellect' (including influence of paper of that name published 1976); possibility - explored by Bernard Dixon in 'Classic Writings in Science' [1989] - that the particular way in which scientific essays are written may be a feature of their influence/importance.

  • Description

    Life story interview with Professor of Psychology Dr Nicholas Humphrey

  • Metadata record:

    View full metadata for this item