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A Manifesto Against Specialization: Experiment (1928-31)

2 August 2021

Rachel Fountain Eames, University of Birmingham

We at Cambridge, at that time, thought of physics as an activity as natural as breathing or writing poetry.[1]

The intellectual atmosphere of 1920s Cambridge was under the constant impress of science. The British poet and critic Kathleen Raine describes how she and her peers were ‘under the spell of the new scientific universe’, feeling an impetus to integrate and respond to the developing scientific landscape.[2] The same was true of the faculty, with I. A. Richards’s scientifically-inflected formalisation of literary criticism shaping the English department.[3] The Cavendish Laboratory boasted some of the period’s most influential physicists and science popularizers, including J. J. Thompson and Ernest Rutherford, and students of all stripes enjoyed regular guest lectures from eminent scientists like Paul Dirac, J. B. S. Haldane, Arthur Eddington, and Albert Einstein.[4] For some, their breathtaking discoveries gestured to new applications; for Raine and her contemporaries, they inspired the ‘excitement, illumination, or whatever that quickening of the pulse may be that tells the poet here is the matter for poetry’.[5]‘The scientists of the Cavendish Laboratory’ she says, ‘had set the problem the poets must resolve as best they could: to discover the qualitative implications of their new modelled universe.’[6] In November 1928, those poets responded with a wave of experimental writing to fill the pages of a new student-run magazine: Experiment.

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