Tom McLeish

Tom McLeish
  • University of York
  • Professor
  • Affiliation During NDIAS Fellowship: Durham University
  • Academic Concentration: Soft Matter Physics and Natural Philosophy
  • Director's Fellow (2017-2018)
  • "The Poetry and Music of Science: A Comparison of Creativity in the Arts and Sciences"

Tom McLeish, FRS, is Professor of Natural Philosophy in the Department of Physics and also a member of both the Centre for Medieval Studies and the Humanities Research Centre at the University of York, England. He was here at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study in fall 2017 as a Director’s Fellow with his proposal, "The Poetry and Music of Science: A Comparison of Creativity in the Arts and Sciences," which is also the title of a book to be published in 2018 with Oxford University Press. His scientific research has contributed to the new field of "soft matter physics," in which he works with chemists, engineers, and biologists to study relationships between molecular structure and emergent material properties. This work has also included biologists, with whom Professor McLeish developed statistical mechanical theories for the self-assembly of biomolecular fibrils and thermal mechanisms for signaling in protein binding ("allosteric" signaling).

Professor McLeish’s recent research includes physics-inspired models of evolution, and he is currently the principal investigator of the United Kingdom "Physics of Life" network, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). He has also served as the leader for large academic-industrial collaborations, which Professor McLeish argues enrich fundamental science as well as generate commercial value. His other academic interests include the framing of science, society, and science policy, including his recent collaborative study of narratives about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). In the history of science, he has co-conceived and led over the last decade a large interdisciplinary project re-examining scientific treatises from the 13th century, focusing in particular on the works of the English polymath Robert Grosseteste.

Professor McLeish is the author of Faith and Wisdom in Science (2014) and Let There Be Science (with David Hutchings, 2017), works that articulate a theological narrative for the debates in science and theology inspired by his work in science policy and public science. From 2008 to 2014 he served as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at Durham University and currently serves as Chair of the Royal Society’s Education Committee; the Society elected him a Fellow in 2011. He is currently a trustee of the John Templeton Foundation.


  • The Poetry and Music of Science: Comparing Creativity in Science and Art

    Oxford University Press, 2019

    Tom McLeish

    Poetry Music Science Mcleish

    What human qualities are needed to make scientific discoveries, and which to make great art? Many would point to ‘imagination’ and ‘creativity’ in the second case but not the first. This book challenges the assumption that doing science is in any sense less creative than art, music or fictional writing and poetry, and treads a historical and contemporary path through common territories of the creative process. The methodological process called the ‘scientific method’ tells us how to test ideas when we have had them, but not how to arrive at hypotheses in the first place. Hearing the stories that scientists and artists tell about their projects reveals commonalities: the desire for a goal, the experience of frustration and failure, the incubation of the problem, moments of sudden insight, and the experience of the beautiful or sublime.

    Selected themes weave the practice of science and art together: visual thinking and metaphor, the transcendence of music and mathematics, the contemporary rise of the English novel and experimental science, and the role of aesthetics and desire in the creative process. Artists and scientists make salient comparisons: Defoe and Boyle; Emmerson and Humboldt, Monet and Einstein, Schumann and Hadamard. The book draws on medieval philosophy at many points as the product of the last age that spent time in inner contemplation of the mystery of how something is mentally brought out from nothing. Taking the phenomenon of the rainbow as an example, the principles of creativity within constraint point to the scientific imagination as a parallel of poetry.

    View on CurateND