Tag Archives: Popular Science Writing

#bookaday (3): One with a blue cover

Not an easy one to choose: I’ve got far too many books, and more than enough of them dress in blue.  The hastily assembled long-list looked like this:



  • Auden’s Prose (vol.1) more for a love of the bright blue than for a love of his early book reviews
  • The Eagleton Reader because he was the one lecturer whose lectures I stuck with through my undergraduate career and into the start of my time as a postgrad.
  • The Letters of T. S. Eliot, not for a love of that volume but because reading ‘Preludes’ when I was in my O-level year (it wasn’t a set text, it was a disciplinary task — more on this another time) was a window onto something different and fascinating.
  • Timothy Clark’s Martin Heidegger in the Routledge Critical Thinkers series because it explains his relevance to literary criticism, and from that point of view is far better than Michael Inwood’s book in the Oxford Past Masters series
  • T. E. Hulme’s Collected Writings, ed. K. Csengeri, because it was my first academic book-review assignment, and I read it with so much care I could have done my own edition by the end of it.
  • James Jeans’s The Mysterious Universe (1930), the best-selling popular science book of its era, which was hugely important to my thesis as a way of countering the objection that literary authors had no way of knowing about science, even though I don’t like Jeans as much as Eddington (who does?)
  • George Levine’s collection of essay One Culture (1987), hugely helpful to me c.1990 when I was trying to find my bearings in relation to the study of literature-and-science
  • Arthur Miller’s Plays (vol.1) bought not out of any great love for his work but because students applying to Oxford often submit essays on Death of a Salesman and so I had to read it. We did The Crucible at A-level, and it seemed dry as dust alongside Hamlet and Heart of Darkness.
  • J. H. Prynne’s They That Haue Power To Hurt, the most astonishing exercise in close reading that you’ll ever find; sadly (with reference to ‘Best Bargain’) hard to obtain now.
  • Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the New Clarendon Edition ed. George Rylands: an exam text for A-level, though I also equipped myself with an Arden edition.  I like the compact size of those New Clarendons, though, and wish they still did them.
  • J. W. N. Sullivan’s Aspects of Science (1923) in the Traveller’s Library edition of 1927.  This is the one I’d like to single out, so more about it and him below.
  • Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1930), ed. Michael Herbert and Susan Sellers in the new and ongoing Cambridge Edition.  My own edition of Night and Day (1919) will be coming out in this series, sometime next year I imagine; it’s currently having to wait patiently in a queue behind Mrs Dalloway.


Sullivan (1886-1937) was a journalist by trade.  He was born in the East End of London, in Poplar, and had left school at 14 and joined a telegraph company; but he later enrolled on science courses at Northern Polytechnic Institute in London (a forerunner of London Met) and later still (around 1908) at University College, London.  He worked in America for a period between 1910 and 1913, which was where he first turned to journalism. He served in the Ambulance service in Serbia at the start of the First World War, then returned to journalism (writing for The New Witness), and was then recruited by Wellington House, the government’s Department of Information (i.e., propaganda).  It was there he met the literary journalist John Middleton Murry, and when, after the war, Murry was appointed editor of the literary journal The Athenaeum, he appointed Sullivan as his deputy.  (T. S. Eliot was also considered for the role).  For the Athenaeum Sullivan wrote both a scientific column and various literary reviews; Aspects of Science gathers together the science columns, along with some others he wrote for its successor, the merged Nation and Athenaeum.

The first Athenaeum under Murry’s editorship came out in April 1919, and this was very fortunate timing.  In May 1919 Arthur Eddington was due to carry out the observations during a solar eclipse that would confirm Einstein’s General Relativity Theory.  Sullivan recognised the significance of what was happening in physics, and many of his columns aim to explore the change in worldview, and to understand how it might change the relations of science to culture. The five columns gathered as ‘Assumptions’ in Aspects are particularly interesting from this point of view; so too ‘The Scientific Mind’ and ‘The Ideal Scientific Man’.  Sadly Aspects doesn’t gather together the five columns from May and April 1919 in which Sullivan gave a non-technical exposition of relativity theory; the focus of Aspects was more on the cultural implications.  As Sullivan put it, the papers illustrated ‘one point of view’:

That point of view may be described, perhaps as aesthetic, but rather better as humanistic. Scientific ideas have a history; they arose to satisfy certain human needs; to see them in their context is to see them as part of the general intellectual and emotional life of man.  What they exist to do they do better than does anything else, and the needs they satisfy are not peculiar to scientific specialists.

 This account only scratches at the surface of an extraordinary life, made all the more extraordinary by Sullivan’s tendency to embellish it. (He persuaded Aldous Huxley that he was Dublin-born and had studied at Maynooth with James Joyce;  David Bradshaw disentangles fact from fiction in his article ‘The Best of Companions’ (Review of English Studies); it was David, as my D.Phil. supervisor, who first pointed me in the direction of the Athenaeum and Sullivan’s work for it.)  Through his friendship with Murry, Sullivan was introduced to Lady Ottoline Morrell and her salon at Garsington (if you can have a salon in rural Oxfordshire); Virginia Woolf word-sketched him in 1921 as ‘too much of the indiarubber faced, mobile lipped, unshaven, uncombed, black, uncompromising, suspicious, powerful man of genius in Hampstead type for my taste’ (Diary, 18 December 1921).  He had a passion for Dostoevsky and a passion for Beethoven; he long projected a book on the former, but never wrote it; his book in the latter (written for the centenary in 1927) stayed in print longer than any of his other works.  If you search the internet for a photo of Sullivan, you’ll find many more of Beethoven than you will of him.