Science Festival interview with Dr Niki Vermeulen
Dr Niki Vermeulen, a Lecturer in the History and Sociology of Science, is the winner of the University’s 2018 Tam Dalyell Prize. The public engagement award is made for Curious Edinburgh, a series of virtual tours that explore the rich scientific heritage of the city. Dr Vermeulen will deliver the Tam Dalyell Prize Lecture as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival.
What was the inspiration for creating your website and app, Curious Edinburgh?
The inspiration for the website and app came from my first encounters with Edinburgh’s very rich scientific history and the fact that I wanted students to know about this too. I came to Edinburgh in 2014 and the first course I gave was on history of science. As part of my own introduction to the university and city, Professor John Henry, who was teaching the history of science course before me, was giving a tour showing the most important places related to the development of science, technology and medicine. I wanted my students to be able to see this too, but as you cannot easily take 300 students on a tour I thought an app would be the best solution. Of course this information is not only relevant for students, but for everybody interested in Edinburgh and its past.
-What do you hope that people get out of taking part in one of your tours?
We started with one tour, but soon it became clear that there are so many places, and so many ways in which Edinburgh contributed to scientific advancement, that one tour was not enough. As a consequence, Dr Bill Jenkins, with whom I have collaborated on this project, and I went on to develop tours on physics, geology, medicine, genetics and the Scottish Enlightenment too. Moreover, other people from within and outside the university also started to become interested in our tours. Dr Hannah Holtschneider of the School of Divinity developed a tour on Jewish history in Edinburgh, and we are at the moment uploading a tour on Indian connections with Professor Roger Jeffery from the Edinburgh India Institute. We also worked with John Martin from the Scottish Brewing Archive Association on a tour on beer brewing and soon we will also have a tour on industrial heritage with granton:hub, a great organisation that keeps Granton’s past alive. These tours can be found under the Community tours section on the Curious Edinburgh website.
What might people be surprised to discover about the history of scientific/medical/technical ideas in Edinburgh?
There is so much to discover! Some of the stories are more known, such as the graverobbers who provided bodies for anatomical lessons in Old Surgeons’ Hall, or the famous Enlightenment scholars, such as David Hume and Adam Smith. But other stories are much less common knowledge. For instance, it is less well known that the philosophers and scientists from the Enlightenment often dined together in the Oyster Club at Niddry Street. They probably ate oysters together, and also often invited important international guests. I would have loved to be at that table, but I’m afraid there were no women allowed. However, we also tell the story of the Edinburgh seven, the first female medical students, who were able to graduate toward the end of the 19th century and who made important contributions to medicine and to the role of women in academia and society at large. Other surprises relate to places, such as the changing uses of some of the houses featured in different tours, and so you learn about the different functions of buildings over time. For instance, Professor Peter Higgs of the School of Physics and Astronomy, who is world famous for predicting the Higgs boson particle, worked on Roxburgh Street, which used to house a successful medical practice of Jewish GPs Sam and Julius Lipetz. Professor Higgs was actually one of their patients. Also, on top of Arthur’s Seat, a mercury barometer was tested and calibrated, which was developed for estimating the depths of mines. Britain’s first successful balloon ascent, with the Grand Edinburgh Fire Balloon, was tested in the uncompleted dome of General Register House, next to Waverley Station. Finally, the brewing tour shows how Edinburgh used to be full of breweries, especially along Cowgate, and how some of these buildings are still there, for instance converted in student housing at Sugarhouse Close. Also some of the skills are still preserved, for instance at the microbrewery at Summerhall.
What would you like to gain from taking part in the Science Festival?
The Science Festival is a great opportunity to show the importance and fun of bringing the fruits of our research to a larger public and that it’s good to pay attention not only to what’s happening now, but also to the past. Edinburgh is a unique city when it comes to the development of knowledge, and the world would be a different place without Edinburgh. The Science Festival gives us the opportunity to tell these stories, not only to our students, but to everyone who attends the festival. Last year, we were present with a large installation at the Mound, called ‘Moments in Time’, which took people to different times in the past, from the Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution. I also gave the special Science Festival address in St. Giles’ cathedral at the opening of the festival, which was a fantastic experience.
What do you hope that audiences can take away from hearing your Tam Dalyell talk?
We want to tell more about our project and take the audience on a virtual tour through Edinburgh, so that they get a taster of all the different tours. Also, we are making it a collaborative presentation, as Curious Edinburgh is very much a collaborative project. Many people have contributed to it, all with a lot of expertise and enthusiasm, and so some of them will also present a bit about their work. Thereby our project emphasises the importance of collaboration in research but also in projects like this. Nobody can know everything of the past of Edinburgh, but we can bring everyone’s knowledge together, so people are able to find it in one place. Also, our website gives links to other sources, in case you want to find out more about a certain place or historical event. I hope everybody who comes to our talk, or looks at our website or app, learns something interesting. For me, working on this project has given me much more knowledge of Edinburgh as a city, and I think I now look at places in the city with different eyes, now that I know the stories behind them.