Science no longer left out in the cold

Scientists such as Brian Cox and Stephen Hawking have helped generate a popular fascination with the universe. Picture: Getty
Scientists such as Brian Cox and Stephen Hawking have helped generate a popular fascination with the universe. Picture: Getty
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CP Snow talked of the chasm between art and science, but collaborations between the two are helping close the divide, says Dr James Miller

To state glibly that you have no understanding of the Second Law of Thermodynamics is the equivalent of declaring you have never read a work of Shakespeare. That was the provocative claim made by CP Snow in 1959 in his legendary Rede Lecture, “The Two Cultures”.

Lamenting the loss of a common culture in western society, Snow maintained that a dangerously wide gap had opened up between the sciences and the humanities. Today, the battle continues to rage about the extent of such a gap and the degree to which it matters.

Snow’s concern lay not just in the emergence of two distinct cultures, but the danger of a society led by “elites”, schooled in the arts, whose ignorance and snobbery towards the sciences was a major impediment to solving the world’s problems. He contended that giving equal time and value to the sciences would not only ensure a country was better placed to compete in the scientific age, but was also the only way of progressing towards a better society, i.e. through deploying science, technology and industry to deliver social reform. Today, the view that we should look to the sciences rather than the humanities to foster a better world remains highly contentious. However, the argument about the importance of science in driving economic growth has largely been won. Moreover, there is growing recognition of the need for a scientifically-literate population which can engage with critical, science-based issues, such as climate change.

Passion to pursue a career in the sciences

The question that now vexes educators and policy makers is how to engender the enthusiasm needed to encourage more individuals into scientific careers. Although the education system is the focus for much of those discussions, formal education can only play one part in generating the necessary passion needed to pursue a career in the sciences. Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, we are increasingly seeing the arts and technology come together to play a role in popularising science.

Mass media has made celebrities out of scientists, such as Stephen Hawking and Brian Cox, popularised concepts like quasars and black holes and glamorised many scientific professions – not least forensic medicine! Advances in technology have also allowed the beauty and complexity of the natural world to be captured through digital imagery or more conventional film, as exemplified in the recent, award-winning television series, Frozen Planet. The series, put together by the BBC and The Open University, had consolidated viewing figures of 11 million in the UK, with 380,000 viewers subsequently requesting related printed material from the OU, demonstrating the extent to which collaborations between the arts and science are able to stimulate mass interest in scientific subjects. Artists are also embracing digital technology in a way that has transformed not just the creative arts, but fostered interdisciplinary partnerships to convey the wonder of science to wider audiences. With this in mind, The Open University in Scotland looked to artists to promote its scientific research as part of its celebrations to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Harold Wilson’s announcement to establish a “University of the Air”.

The Brain Trilogy

The result, The Brain Trilogy, incorporates material from aspects of OU neurological research linked to memory: the links between “blood brain barriers” and forgetting; the physical, physiological and morphological transformations that occur within the brain as memories change; and “growing” neurons for transplants. The images in The Brain Trilogy mirror the transient nature of memory and are used to create a dynamic experiment in time, space and sound, where 3D stereo, immersive video and audio are mixed live so they can be manipulated by a “driver” to change participants’ experiences.

By taking the research out of the lab, the work provides an insight into the tiny, exquisite structures of our brains, as well as provoking metaphysical and ethical questions.

The research suggests that far from being intangible, our memories lie in the structure of the brain, at risk of coming under physical attack as we age. What then are the implications of preventing forgetting, or indeed “growing” brains to mimic memory functions? The work was created by Wiretrace, a Glasgow-based partnership of two artists (one of whom has a doctorate in molecular biology) with a track record in using design to communicate biomedical projects.

Using their combined talents and diverse backgrounds they have created a work that attempts to narrow the communication gap between our ‘two cultures’.

We’d like to think CP Snow, who was himself a chemist and fiction writer, would approve.

• Dr James Miller is director of The Open University in Scotland. The Brain Trilogy is on at Inspace, Crichton Street, Edinburgh, on Saturday 2 November, 2pm-10pm & Sunday 3 November, 12pm-8pm

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