On Growth and Form
Running the University’s museum service is always a busy job, but this year things have really gone into overdrive as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of arguably the most important book ever written in Dundee. D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form was published in 1917, but he first started thinking about the radical idea of explaining organic growth using mathematics back in 1889, just four years after he took up his post as Professor of Biology at what was then University College, Dundee.
At the time, the book was controversial, apparently contradicting the prevailing evolutionary theory. But it has gone on to have a greater impact than D’Arcy could possibly have imagined. It is seen as the founding text of mathematical biology (now a leading area of research for the University of Dundee and many other institutions around the world) and was described by Stephen Jay Gould as “the greatest work of prose in twentieth century science”. Richard Dawkins recently nominated D’Arcy as possibly “the most learned polymath of all time”.
One of the most extraordinary things about the book is that its influence has spread far beyond biology. Among the many thinkers and creators who have been inspired by it are Alan Turing, Claude Lévi Strauss, Norbert Wiener, Henry Moore, Salvador Dali and Mies van der Rohe. It has had a profound influence in art, architecture, anthropology, geography, cybernetics and many other fields.
It’s no wonder, then, that there are celebrations going on all over the world to mark its centenary, and I’ve been working hard to ensure that the University of Dundee is at the forefront of these. Already this year I’ve taken part in talks, discussions and radio broadcasts in New York, Amsterdam, London, Plymouth, Edinburgh and (of course) Dundee. With colleagues at the University of St Andrews I’ve set up the website www.ongrowthandform.org to co-ordinate all the various activities happening around the world, and I’m currently organising a major interdisciplinary conference to take place here in October, when I’ll also be launching a new exhibition in the Lamb Gallery exploring the book and its impact. My colleagues at LifeSpace are also organising an exhibition and there will be events at NEoN digital arts festival and Dundee Literary Festival. Oh, and there will be both a D’Arcy comic and a colouring book coming out too! Certainly enough to keep me occupied until 2018 and beyond…