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Oxford University Alumni Interview for National Storytelling Week

For National Storytelling Week, the Oxford Alumni Magazine QUAD has interviewed me on my work on literature, science and the importance of storytelling in public understanding of science, including during the Covid-19 pandemic.

They also asked about my favourite childhood fairy-tale, and my time of Oxford, including the challenges of doing interdisciplinary research – head this way to find out more.

The article also features the lovely film made by the University of Oxford about my work on Lewis Carroll, Victorian Science books for children – and real mad tea parties – which you can watch below.

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War, sacrifice, and swallows that tell of summer: the narratives and metaphors of the Covid-19 pandemic

A line from Vera Lynn's WW2 song, also quoted by Elizabeth II during the Covid-19 pandemic, in a pub window

Since joining the University of York, I have been applying my background in communication and media science, history of science, and comparative literary studies to analyse the narratives of the Covid-19 pandemic. A preprint of my first research article ‘Over by Christmas: The impact of war-metaphors and other science-religion narratives on science communication environments during the Covid-19 crisis’ is now available. In it, I outline the prevalence, and the reasons and implications of the UK’s cultural preference for framing Covid-19 as warfare, but also explain its shortcomings in a science communication context. I have spoken about this research to German news Channel WDR.

This research touches on medical communication, history of science, theological themes. In a forthcoming book chapter ‘When words are poison: Toxic narratives in health communication‘, I explore how ill-chosen narratives in health scenarios pollute science communication environment, acting in a way analogous to polluting toxins. In a recent conference paper, I explore also what the history of science, science communication, and religion of past epidemics can teach us about the use of narrative in a public health crisis through a comparison of Covid-19 with the Victorian cholera epidemic, which also shows us what narratives and metaphors might be preferable. I have also written an article on the science communication of Christian ministers in the Victorian cholera epidemics for the Methodist Recorder. I expand on the comparison with the Victorian cholera epidemics in my contribution to a Historicising Covid-19 collection, forthcoming in 2021 with De Gruyter. If you’re pressed for time, I also wrote a shorter blog piece, which you can read here.

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‘Human Flourishing in Times of Stress’ at York Festival of Ideas

The York Festival of Ideas is happening – online! And I will be part of a very topical panel on ‘Human Flourishing in Times of Stress’ with archaeologist Penny Spikins, journalist Tim Radford and professor of Natural Philosophy Tom McLeish, as chair.  The event will be free (!) but ticketed – you can sign up for tickets here.

‘Our conversation will explore how stories, things and thinking can bring comfort in times of stress.

Franziska Kohlt asks why many of us have felt drawn to the comfort of childhood classics –often unjustly dismissed as ‘escapism’. She explores how books like Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, or The Water-Babies, were written in times of epidemics, illness and crisis, and how these works can be valuable emotional tools to carry us through crisis.

Penny Spikins asks why in times of crisis we turn to programmes like The Repair Shop to find some sense of comfort, and why cherished possessions seem to help when we feel stressed or isolated. She explores where our tendency to attach to things came from in our evolutionary past and how finding attachments to objects can compensate for missing human relationships at times of stress or isolation.

Tim Radford’s contribution comes from his recent book, The Consolation of Physics. It is both a conversation with the past and a celebration of the shared scientific tradition of generosity and co-operation that has taken human understanding, mediated by international experiment, to the edge of the solar system, to the origins of Universe and to cataclysmic star-death in distant galaxies.

Our conversation is chaired by Tom McLeish, the University of York’s first Professor of Natural Philosophy and author of The Poetry and Music of Science.’

The recording of the event is available on YouTube:

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New Job & Affiliation!

I am incredibly excited to have joined the University of York’s Department of Sociology as a Research Fellow on their “Narratives of Science and Religion” project in March, to work with Professor Tom McLeish (Physics) and Dr Amanda Rees (Sociology), who are both utterly brilliant.

This is the narrative-based branch of project of the collaborative ECLAS project, based at Durham, London and York, which brings together scientists, science historians, communication scientists, theologians and professional clergy to investigate effective ways to understand and communicate science, asking all “the Big questions”.

In a rather tumultuous start to the post, I have hit the ground running, researching religious narratives in the Covid-19 crisis in, but especially outside religious discourses, in politics and science journalism (wonder why we keep hearing baout the “sacrifice” of health workers, Covid as a “punishment for x”, from which “lessons” must be learned, and all this being a “war” in which various actors are fighting a “virtuous” fight?). I examine what happens when religious language is instrumentalised by politicians and journalists in a medical crisis, why and when they decide they do so, when they have historically done so, and what can be learned from that about the uses and pitfalls of such rhetoric.

To view the effect of such communication not only in a theoretical framework, but to also understand its dynamics in action, I examine this not only in a Science Communication framework, but also through responses to epidemics in the past. The Reverend Charles Kingsley, for instance, harnessed rousing Biblical imagery to communicate the findings of modern population health sciences – but also to hold governments and institutions to account – during the nineteenth-century cholera crises, to draw equally substantial audiences to his “Cholera sermons” at Westminster Abbey, his lectures at Cambridge University or at the Ladies’ Sanitary Association (which went by such attention-grabbing tiles as “The Pharaoh’s Heart” or “The Massacre of the Innocents”).

I am looking forward to draw on my experience with effective science communication in media and museums, and my previous academic work on the role imaginative and fantastic literatures played in digesting, contextualising and communicating new scientific findings, and their practical societal and epistemological implications (Lewis Carroll, George MacDonald, and indeed Kinsgley were all critical and unconventional clerics – and science communicators).

Watch this space for upcoming conference and journal papers, as well as some shorter public pieces, which are already in the works (and soon hopefully even more thrilling stuff, when we move on to the environment, AI, genetic engineering – and more)!

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Have I Got News For You about the history of AI!

After a long hiatus from this website, I am going to catch up with it all by posting only some of the things I have been up to recently!

In December I was invited to one of the most fascinating events that I have ever taken part in, on AI and Humour, organised by some of the writers of Have I Got News for You. Contributors ranged from HIGNFY’s own Jimmy Carr, to neuroscientist Sophie Scott, Piotr Mikowski, AI researcher and stand-up Comedian who performs alongside AI, as, well, myself.

I spoke about Lewis Carroll’s early ideas about AI and Comedy – as he saw making someone laugh as a divine gift, the prerequisite was to understand the workings of the soul (the “psyche”, or indeed the mind) – a process that could, he, as a mathematician, believed, fundamentally be understood in mathematical terms, and thus eventually be mechanically reconstructed (he was keen on Babbage’s experiments in doing so, and even visited the man). In the absence of this being a scientific possibility at his time (or, even now) machinated attempts at producing any form of entertainment, literature, on indeed entertaining, comedic literature, were represented in his works, as the object inducing laughter.

Much to my excitement, I not only got to talk to brilliant experts about the history of AI and automata, but also the experts of tomorrow at Canterbury’s Simon Langton School for boys. Upon the kind invitation by Dr Liz Askey, I was honoured to present the Hol Lecture, entitled “The Alice in Wonderland World of Artificial Intelligence”. Much to the intrigue of the present students, for whom the connection of literature and science at first seemed a stretch, I began the lecture with soon-to-be face of the £50 note Alan Turing’s school library record, which indicated he borrowed the collected works of Lewis Carroll, both Alice novels: Wonderland with its confusions of reality and and dream, and Looking-Glass, with its mirror worlds – but notably also the Game of Logic, not once, but three times, before he went on to compose his own “Imitation Game”. In a lively two hour workshop, student began to design the AI projects of tomorrow, from a multidisciplinary perspective of Biology, Linguistics, Philosophy, and of course Computing — a rousing, and intellectually stimulating day of which the students and their teachers kindly provided a lovely write-up, concluding “It was incredible! Two hours was not enough to discover the whole new world of Artificial Intelligence!”.

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American McGee’s ‘Alice: Madness Returns’ Special Issue of the Lewis Carroll Review now available online

By popular demand the Lewis Carroll Review Special Issue on American McGee’s Alice: Madness Returns from 2011 has been made available online (all free and open access!). I hope it will be of use to researchers and enthusiasts alike!

The issue contains not only a review of the game and accompanying art book, but also an exclusive 8-page long interview (conducted by me, over curry, in London 2011), in which McGee provides some great insights into the creative process of the game design and artwork. and touches on Neo-Victorianism, Post-Colonialism, Fashion Design, History of Psychology – so I hope the text be of interest to researchers in video game studies, digital storytelling, the Gothic, Horror, and Fantasy, and of course scholars of Lewis Carroll’s Alice – and its afterlife. 

Download a copy here, on my Publications page, or via my profile – and if you’re interested in American’s new work on the Alice: Asylum franchise, make sure you follow his Patreon, too!

alice madness returns review special issue

Lewis Carroll Review Special Issue on American McGee’s Alice: Madness Returns

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New TV series on famous books & their stories

A new series of TV documentaries on famous books and their origins, manuscripts and authors will be hitting the screens in early 2020 – and last week we started filming for the first episode in Oxford, which is about the origins of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – and some, perhaps unexpected, links and sources (including what the University of Oxford’s crest has to do with Alice’s dream)! I am extremely honoured to appear on it as expert alongside collector and Carroll scholar extraordinaire Edward Wakeling.

The documentary will be available on French and German Television, and online after it’s aired, for those elsewhere! I will keep you posted on broadcast dates, and where to catch up with the programme, once I know more – stay tuned!

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Children’s Literature & Ecology panel at ‘Extinctions & Rebellions’ Symposium

Just in time for the start of Extinction Rebellion’s Autumn Rebellion, our panel on Children’s Literature and Ecology has been accepted for the “Extinctions and Rebellions” Symposium at the University of Liverpool on the 16th of November.

The panel will fathom the multi-faceted role of Children’s and Young Adult Literature in addressing, digesting and communicating climate crisis across a range of periods and texts.

I will be presenting a paper entitled ‘Of Moths, Chimney-Sweepers and Silent Springs’, in which I will engage with how narrative forms for, or associated with, children have been used to articulate aspects of climate crisis and biodiversity loss, focusing on the example of insects, from the Victorian age to today. Framing this through Environmental Psychology, I will then examine their effectiveness in changing individual and social outlooks on crisis, but also their shortcomings, to show how we can harness their techniques in communicating better in our current moment of crisis.

I will speak alongside Dr Emily Alder (Edinburgh Napier) and Dr Chloe Buckley (Manchester Metropolitan), who will explore ‘Environmental crisis and children’s picture books’ and ‘Weird Ecologies, Precarity and Care in Young Adult Fiction’ respectively. We will be representing part of the ongoing work of the Edinburgh Napier-based Children’s Literature and Science research group.

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Gothic & Fantasy ECR Writing Buddy Group

A new writing group for Gothic & Fantasy ECR scholars & writers has been summoned into life by Dr Karen Graham & myself this week to bring together those of us who in the flurry of daily Stuff™ sometimes find it hard to find the space/time to write, which can also be a rather isolated/isolating exercise.

How’s this going to work? The idea is to post in the group & pair up with one or more buddy, and find a regular time-slot (anything from an hour, an hour-and a half or a writing day) to come together to write (and work on anything writing-related: be it an article, a journalistic piece, or a book). Next, arrange a quick meeting (in person, or via Skype) at the beginning, in which you set out writing goals, have your writing slot (60-90 mins), followed by, a) a quick break, and another session, or b) quick debrief at the end, where you reflect on, and evaluate progress, and set new goals – or even arrange for a subsequent swap-work-and-give-feedback session before your next writing session. I will also provide some guidance for structuring writing sessions or organise longer writing events, such as a writing retreat.

So, join, post in the group, say what you’re working on, and what sort of time-slot/regularity you’re after, connect with a buddy – and off you go! And please share!


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‘Timeless Alice’ – Free Public Lecture at Bodleian Library, Oxford

If you knew Time as well as I do,’ said the Hatter, `you wouldn’t talk about wasting IT!

I am thrilled to have been invited to give a free lecture at Oxford’s Bodleian Library entitled “Timeless Alice: From the fourth dimension to climate change” on the 6th of July.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland remains popular, indeed “timeless” – but what does this really mean? Follow Alice on a journey through Lewis Carroll’s contemplation of time, in an age of railways and theories of the fourth dimensions, and find out why that, to this day makes Carroll’s most famous novel the perfect vehicle for modern scientists to explain complex phenomena such as quantum physics, climate change and the unconscious.


I will be joining three fantastic speakers on the day:

  • 10am: Alice’s Nightmare in Wonderland: an innovative adventure gamebook with a dangerous twist – Jon Green
  • 11am: Alice in Guinness-time: a 1960s’ advertising campaign using Lewis Carroll’s characters – Brian Sibley
  • 1pm: Alice in Fashion-land: over a century of changing trends and designs inspired by Wonderland  – Kiera Vaclavik
  • 2pm: Timeless Alice: From the fourth dimension to climate change – Franziska Kohlt

The talks are free, and will take place at the Lecture Hall of the Weston Library – seats are limited, though, so better arrive in time!


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