Tag Archives: science museum

Climate Stories at the Science Museum

Coal at the Science Museum

Pots of coal, Changing Climate Stories, Science Museum

The Science Museum has a new art/ history of tech exhibition exploring issues of energy and climate change: Climate Changing Stories.

It mixes a few re-interpretations of old exhibits with some dazzling new installations. It weaves through the museum as a whole, plotting new narratives, connecting previously separate spaces. It plays with ideas of pasts, futures and futures past. It left me with a big grin and a head full of ideas. It comes highly recommended.

It’s also sponsored by Shell. Ignore that for a moment though, I don’t want it to get in the way of the many good aspects of the exhibition. Park it at the back of your mind – just as you might on a visit to the museum – and I’ll return to it later.

The trail starts at the front of the museum, in the history of energy hall, inviting you to think of the immediate impact of the Industrial Revolution on the 18th century countryside. This look back to past environmental change is echoed a couple of floors up, in a room next to the energy futures gallery, with a film about a flood in a seaside resort in the early 1950s which juxtaposes the optimism of growth of the town due to holiday-makers in the 1930s with this flood, explicitly playing with our sense of flooding as a future narrative of climate change in the process. There is a similar display near the Agriculture Gallery, this time on air pollution. Its 1952 news reels describe smog as the “greatest mass murderer of recent years”, calling for cleaner fuels. It’s futuristic in a way, abeit an old future, long gone now. It is also current, echoing 21st century debates about slightly less visible air pollution.

The Making of the Modern World gallery has some of the best pieces. I loved artist Yao Lu’s beautiful series of photos; made to look like traditional Chinese landscapes but actually mounds of rubbish covered in green netting. There’s also the incredible toaster project and their resident spaceship now comes with added note on Stewart Brand and the blue marble. The highlight, however, has to the electric London taxi cab from 1897, in the centre of the Wellcome Wing. We might think of electric cars as something futuristic but, again, the museum is keen to stress they’ve been the future for quite a long time now (nice Wired post on this).

One might be wary of the museum’s steampunkish play with narratives of climate change. The line on the BBC preview that the gallery explores how “humans have adapted to keep pace with our changing world” is the sort that can set some environmentalists’ hair on end, as if climate change is just business as usual. I don’t think the museum frames it that way, personally, though other eyes might read it differently. It’s probably worth noting that the end point of the piece on coal was a move to greater regulation, not a techno-fix (although there is also an exhibit on fictional world-saving GM crops).

Moreover, for me, exhibits like the electric cab help show that technology is the consequence of choices, that the world might have been different and, if we let it, provoke us to make better choices today. That cab reminded me of a great bit in Alexis Madrigal’s history of American green tech, Powering the Dream, about how a betting man at the end of the 19th century would have expected transport in the US to have gone in the direction of electrically powered public transport, not fossil-fuelled private vehicles. As Maggie Koerth-Baker puts it in her review of the book: “Energy isn’t just what it is. Energy is what we have decided we want it to be”.

electric london taxi cab, 1897

An electric London cab, from 1897! 1897!

Brilliant as many aspects of this exhibition are, I left the museum feeling something was missing. I realised later it was the topic of oil. Which is a shame considering their lead sponsor is such an expert on the topic.

My mother accused me of being snide with that comment, which is not my intention. I genuinely think it’s a shame. That’s in earnest, not sarcasm. I actually want to see more about the oil industry in museums, or at least more than logos.

Shell have a fascinating history (official version). Did you know they are called Shell because they started off as shop that sold seashells? An antique dealer in the 1830s realised there was a fashion for using shells in interior design. They were so popular he had to import them from abroad, laying the foundations for an international import/export business which – via trading of rice, silk, china, copperware, sugar, flour and wheat – by the 1890s was transporting oil. An exhibit based on that could be ace. You could even, like the electric car, use stories of how the world wasn’t always how it is now to consider how it might be in the future; have an interactive asking visitors what different products Shell could trade instead, for example.

So great as this new Science Museum trail is, you might want to stop by Tate Britain too and catch the Patrick Keiller Robinson Institute exhibition which has a bit on the history of BP (till October 14th, free, sponsored by Sotheby’s).

Postscript: A new campaign Science, Unstained aims to ask questions about the sponsorship of science communication. I’m happy to say I’m part of the group behind it. I wouldn’t have registered the URL in my name otherwise. There are several other people involved though, and it’s up to them to decide for themselves if they want to be open about this. It’s just a few 100 words on a blog at the moment and we’re not sure how it’ll develop yet. You can follow it, or even get involved, if you’re interested. Or not, if you’re not.

“Do your pupils have an energy gap?”

The Big Bang Fair, a big science and engineering event for schoolkids was held in Birmingham last month. Led by Engineering UK and supported by various government departments, charities, learned societies and businesses, it’s an annual event that’s been going for a while. They seem to have taken down the list of 2012 sponsors, but you can see a list of the 2011 ones in this leaflet (pdf), which included BAE Systems, Shell, EDF Energy and Sellafield Ltd.

Seeing as some of these firms are perhaps only too expert in making extremely big bangs, it’s upset a few people. Check out the BAE wikipedia entry, ‘products’ subheading if you don’t get why.

Anne Schulthess from CND happened to be at another education show in Birmingham that week and spotting the Big Bang, dropped in. She shared some photos, noting “basically it’s the arms fair for children. With a bit of environmental destruction thrown in for good measure”. Back in 2009, Scientists for Global Responsibility and the Campaign Against the Arms Trade condemned BAE’s role in the event (SGR/CAAT press release, reproduced on my old blog). I’d be tempted to suggest one of these groups try to set up a stall at the fair next year but even if Engineering UK let them, the £20,000 to £100,000 pricetag might well be out of the budget of a small NGO.

Industrial involvement in science education is nothing new. Take, for example, these adverts I found in some old copies of the National Association for Environmental Education’s magazine (c. 1978):

The Science Museum have a fair bit of history here: from the BNFL sponsored atomic gallery in the 1980s to Shell sponsorship of their climate gallery in 2010 (see also this 2008 freedom of information request on Shell and BP funding). I used to work on their Energy gallery, and it’d be depressing to watch visitors clock the BP logo, laugh and walk away.

I worry when I see reports that the Smithsonian were so pleased to have secured a sponsor that was ok with the idea of evolution that they let a bit of not very scientific attitude to climate change in (e.g. see ThinkProgress, 2010). I also worry when I hear about teaching resources designed to stress the uncertainty of climate change (e.g. see Guardian, 2012). I can see why groups like Liberate Tate focus on the corporate sponsorship of art and Greenpeace scale the National Gallery, but I worry slightly more about the involvement of the oil industry in exhibitions where their work is an actual topic in the content.

We should be careful of simply assuming corporate sponsorship means they have influence on content. Science Museum staff claim editorial independence from any of their sponsors. Just as, I noticed, the Guardian stresses Greenpeace had no say over editorial content of John Vidal’s report on industrial fishing in West Africa, even though the NGO paid his travel costs to Senegal. We should also recognise that there is a lot of scientific expertise in industry, just as Greenpeace give Vidal access to places he wouldn’t otherwise see. Science isn’t just a matter of what goes on in ivory towers, so perhaps it’s only right that such groups involved. Plus, seeing as people don’t seem to want to pay fees or taxes for publicly funded science communication, maybe it’s only sensible the Science Museum et al ask groups who’ve made a lot of money out of science and technology give something back. We can’t just rely on moneybags of the Wellcome Trust (which has its own complex economic history anyway).

As I’ve argued before, if businesses are going to have involvement in science education, I want to see what they think, warts and all. If groups like the Science Museum really have editorial control, they should take industrial sponsorship only if the company involved will also (a) give them their expertise, and (b) be happy for said expertise to be put under some scrutiny. Rather than retreat behind claims to scientific objectivity, science communication should wear it’s political fights on its sleeve, show science’s various institutional connections for what they really are. These sorts of debates are part of science in society and should be offered up and opened up for broader public discussion, appreciation and scrutiny.

I’ve worked with a load of instituions in science communication, from Girl Guiding UK to the Royal Society, with a fair bit of industrial sponsorship thrown in at times too. This included stints at CND, Mind and the Science Museum while I was still in my teens. For that reason, I don’t think we should be scared about opening up debate on the politics of science at educational events aimed at schoolkids like the Big Bang Fair. I coped with these issues and think others can too. We should show them BAE, but make sure they get a group like SGR along to help offer other sides too. We should trust young people more when it comes to the messiness of science in society.

Science and craft

Mendel's peas
Mendel’s pea, by some of last year’s science communication MSc students

There seems to be more and more events happening which I can only describe as science-craft. I thought I’d write about it, and did a post for the Guardian Science blog.

There are overlaps here with sci-art projects, just as there are overlaps (sometimes problematic ones) between arts and crafts more generally. However, I think science craft events have the potential to involve new and different communities which sci-art doesn’t necessary reach, and to be more participatory in their whole project set up too.

There is the question of what you participate for exactly: what are you making? At danger of repeating myself, science communication isn’t all about baking a cake shaped like a neuron. In particular, I worry that the fluffier ends of sci-craft might act as a distraction from the production of more politically controversial outcomes.

Still, we shouldn’t loose sight of the use of these more playful products too. Or rather, we shouldn’t ignore the power of the social interactions which surround their production. My knitting friends often laugh at me for being a ‘process knitter’. I’ll happily take a piece apart and re-knit it, several times. Finishing is nice. But, for me, the fun’s in the doing. Similarly, I suspect much of the worth of public engagement happens in the process rather than the outcome. The various collaborative processes often involved in crafting can provide a space for people to talk through and think through ideas together. As I end the piece for the Guardian:

At a knitting evening held at Hunterian Museum a few years back, I ended up sitting next to a homeopath. As well as swapping tips on the best way to bind off for socks, we discussed our own research projects, including the ways in which they might be seen to clash, and some of the items of the history of surgery that surrounded us. Other people listened and joined in, before we all moved on to complaining about estate agents. It was polite, humorous and thoughtful. It was also pleasingly mundane; something that we’d all do well to remember a lot of science is.

To give another example, I spotted this video of a neuroscientist, Zarinah Agnew,  making a giant sandcastle. She told me she wants to do it again, but as a workshop rather than a film. I like this idea, because the time spent making the sandcastle allows space for social interaction which simply watching the film might inspire, but won’t necessarily do in itself.

Not all public engagement can or should have an obvious political or scientific outcome. Whether you want to open up the governance of science or increase the public understanding of science, you are unlikely to get anywhere without quite a bit of cultural change first. Playing with a bit of yarn might seem unambitious, but arguably the social interaction and reflection that comes with it can help us get there. Or this social interaction might lead us somewhere else entirely.

The mysterious colour blue

walking into the atmosphere gallery
I have a piece on the Guardian’s Notes and Theories science blog today on the Science Museum’s new gallery on climate science, Atmosphere.

As with the whole of the Wellcome Wing it sits within, Atmosphere is very blue. There isn’t a huge amount more I can say about the place, but here are some photos from my phone while I was visiting. I do think the gallery is exceedingly pretty, but I did leave feeling none the wiser (note: by “wiser” I mean I left without new questions to ask, as well as without new answers).

back wall of wellcome wing
That Atmosphere provided more of an aesthetic experience than an education one isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Maybe one of the ways in which museums work is by being slightly abstractly and beautifully inspiring, to encourage to you go away and learn more elsewhere, or simply reflect on what you already know. That said, I didn’t feel all that inspired either. Maybe I’m not the target audience.

In the Guardian post I posed some of the questions I think the museum must have faced in developing this gallery:

Should museums aim to teach their audiences, or offer space for self-directed learning and debate?

Should publicly funded science communication avoid taking sides on controversial topics, or work as advocates for a scientific view?

Should climate science present a united front to the public, or reflect diversity and uncertainties within the scientific community?

I could probably also add: “Should museums provide largely written content, or simply connect you to books/ websites elsewhere and concentrate on making use of space and objects?” I don’t have any definitive answers to these questions, but maybe you have a opinion on them?

ceiling of atmosphere gallery

entrance of atmosphere gallery

Engaging audiences: rethinking “difference”

Steam power

I’m blogging from the Co-Curation and the Public History of Science & Technology conference at the Science Museum (picture is of an exhibit)

Saturday’s programme started with a “provocation” (or keynote talk) entitled “New Ways to engage people” from Andrew Pekarik of the Smithsonian’s Office of Policy and Analysis.

Pekarik is an exceedingly smooth speaker. He rolled off lines about the need to not only “see difference” in audiences but also “be that difference”: to embody such difference within the curatiorial team. To “See it, be it, and then use it too”. To use this difference in content, but also use it in determining display. Moreover, they need to follow this all up by testing the difference. That such testing should be about checking a team’s work, but also a way to identify new differences. As Pekarik concluded, this should become a continual cycle; one that is more important than any step individually.

All lovely sounding stuff, but what do we mean by “difference” here? What of the many possible differences are they looking for?

Answer: between “people people”, “object people” and those who are more “ideas people”. Pekarik noted most curators aren’t really “people people”, they are drawn to the job precisely because they like books and objects, and talked enthusiastically about a process of bringing in “people people” from other areas of the museum. For me, such a categorisation of “people, object or ideas” “people” didn’t ring true. Moreover, it seemed like a distraction from more important differences (class, ethnicity, gender, age).

A couple of senior Science Museum staff picked up on this in questions. One suggested that these three categories are just a 1st step which ends with 2.7 million forms of difference (i.e. as in 2.7 unique visitors). Another flagged up the difference between those who like hands-on experiences at museum. She also raised concern over Pekarik’s starting point of asking people about their most meaningful museum experience. What about people who never have museum experiences? How do you capture those who don’t already like you?

We didn’t have time for my question, but I wanted to ask whether he was still worried about class, race, age, gender, etc. Would he, for example, think about putting children in a curatorial board? I don’t necessarily mean to argue that we should categorise difference in such a way. Indeed, we might argue that limiting ourselves through these sorts of (equally reductive?) audience categories. Maybe another way of conceiving of diversity of audience is useful. It’s also worth underlining points several people made on twitter: however we choose to think about difference, identity (a) is always fluid and multiplicitous and (b) can be changed by the experience of visiting a museum (indeed, people might go to museums to be changed).

I’m sure that interesting work has come out of Pekarik’s sense of difference, and I love his point about the need to consider this as an ongoing process. Still, I worried that it’s a bit too abstract, a bit too devoid of social context (though maybe he’d say I’m just being too much of a “people person”…). Personally, I felt more comfortable with the notion of “community curation” discussed later by Karen Fort from the National Museum of the American Indian. I suspect this sort of approach captures the social and cultural diversity museums I’m worrying about and, in the process, will probably end up covering the differences Pekarik was playing with too. Similarly,  we heard about some very open and exploratory ways of involving audiences today – Denver Community Museum, Wellcome’s Things and London ReCut – I suspect there are all sorts of “differences” captured by these too. Also relevant, I think, was Nina Simon’s challenge to think about how a busy museum could, in a web2.0 sense, help make a museum better (not just break exhibits). Projects like these seemed like genuine attempts to involve more viewpoints than just those already held by a museum. In contrast, Pekarik seemed to be working from a point of view where the museum retained the power to frame and articulate its audiences.

Maybe he’s right to though. Maybe we want museums to talk to their idea of us rather than integrate audiences in the very fabric of their production. Maybe I’m just stuck in the 1980s with a focus on Big Social Issues like class. Or, maybe when it comes to communication projects, we need to think about what we have in common rather than what sets us apart; areas of similarity, not difference. (Maybe that’s just another distraction).

ADDED 25/10. At the end of the final day, Elizabeth Anionwu from the Dana Centre’s African-Caribbean Focus Group argued she shouldn’t have to be there: the  museum shouldn’t have to go to a special focus group for that sort of perspective, it should it be part of conversations happening already. It should be woven into the infrastructure of the museum.

I couldn’t agree more. I heard the line “but the Science Museum is this great big oil tanker of an institution, it takes ages to change” three times over the course of the weekend. I also heard complaints that I heard 10 years ago when I first started working there. And complaints about problems from the 80s I only learnt about in my history of science degree. It’s time to decommission that bloody oil tanker. The museum is, at least in part, its staff. The crowdsourced grass-roots innovative bottom-up change people were banging on about at the conference applies within the institution too. Don’t like it? Do something.

My favourite scientist

I’m not really someone who does “favourites”. When people ask my favourite colour, favourite t-shirt, or favourite food I tend to roll my eyes and point out that I’m not seven. But I do have a favourite scientist. His name is Frank Oppenheimer.

This is a bit embarrassing because, as a trained historian of science, I really should be above a “great man” view of our past. I know science doesn’t progress genius by genius. I know any greatness of science is (a) up for debate and (b) tends to come from long, iterative work done by largely anonymous groups, not starry individuals. I have to admit to finding the veneration of Darwin last year a bit weird. But I’ve thought Frank Oppenheimer was amazing ever since, as an undergraduate, I stumbled across a dusty book about him at the edge of the Science Museum library.

Really short version: Frank was J. Robert Oppenheimer‘s little brother. Like his brother, Frank was also a physicist and also worked on the Manhattan Project. Post-war, he was blackballed as a communist so went off to run a cattle ranch, later becoming a teacher before re-joining academia. After a brief sabbatical at UCL he dropped university life again and moved to San Fransisco to found the Exploratorium (now a model for science museums all over the world).

Short version: Go read my second piece for the Guardian science blog festival.

Medium-long version: Have a play at the Exploratorium’s history site.

Long version: Get hold of a copy of  KC Cole’s biography.

Let’s not build heroes here. Frank Oppenheimer didn’t save the world. In fact, we might even say that as someone involved in the Manhattan Project, he played a small part in the closest we’ve come to destroying it. It’s also worth emphasising that the guy wasn’t a saint, and that it’s not like the Exploratorium is the definitive word on how to do science education (personally, I love it, but I appreciate I’m a kinesthetic learner who likes physics). Plus, let’s not forget, he was a rich, white man of the 20th century who’s Dad left him a Van Gough. Still, I think he’s a fascinating chap.

Every now and again I pop into the Science Museum’s mini-Exploratorium, Launch Pad. I build an arch bridge. I mess about with some bubble mix. I remember all the similar exhibits I’ve played with in similar museums all over the world. And I remember that I have a favourite scientist. His name was Frank Oppenheimer.

Science: weighing the public’s shit since 1666

A couple of weeks ago, I attended three lectures on science’s relationship with the public in the space of four days. Even for me, that’s a bit dense.

  • Simon Schaffer‘s Science Museum’s Centenary Talk on Science for the Public. Schaffer is Professor for the History of Science at Cambridge, and much of his talk was rooted in the 17th century.
  • Martin Rees‘ first Reith Lecture for the BBC, part of a series of talks by Rees (President of the Royal Society and Astronomer Royal) on the theme ‘Scientific Horizons’, this focused on science’s relationship with the citizen.
  • A seminar from Brian Wynne hosted by my department at Imperial, reflecting on his now seminal sociological study of post-Chernobyl Cumbrian soil (e.g. this 1992 paper).

This blogpost was just going to be a write up of Schaffer’s talk, but they were so close together, I couldn’t help connecting the three. So this is largely historical, but with a bit of sociology and reflection from a senior scientist thrown in too, and some general thoughts on ignorance, knowledge and weighing up of public shit (both metaphorical and actual).

NB: I apologise, quite seriously, to anyone who objects to the word shit. It’s the only one that really lets me work the metaphor, so I’m keeping it, but I do apologise to those who dislike such terms.

Schaffer’s talk took place in a makeshift lecture theatre set up, very fittingly, outside the museum’s George III Gallery and Launch Pad interactive space. He started with a reference to Douglas Adams, specifically the imaginary labour saving device, “The Electric Monk”. Just as washing machine saves you the labour of scrubbing and wringing out clothes, the Electric Monk would solve one of the main problems of our time: the trouble of believing the incredible. We have all, allegedly, become doubting Thomases: we no longer trust people the we should. We are too incredulous to science. In an age of miracles and demons of science and technology, wouldn’t it be lovely if there was a machine to produce public belief?

Schaffer’s main point, however, was a warning against amnesia or nostalgia when thinking about science in society. He did not like the idea that we have “become a bit bolshie recently”. A particular target was a recent Guardian interview with James Lovelock:

“We need a more authoritative world. We’ve become a sort of cheeky, egalitarian world where everyone can have their say”

Schaffer argued against a mythical time where we revered expertise in a way we no longer do. To hark back to a less cheeky age is, he argued, simply forgetful. It is lazy nostalgia, and wrong. For example, look to Gillray’s 1802 sketch of Humphry Davy at Royal Institution: plenty of fart jokes and satire here, but little deference. If anything, Schaffer went on, our problem today is a new proliferation of experts, there are so-called “experts” in anything and everything. We have lifestyle experts instead of DIY. We live in society that constantly defers.


Schaffer then went on to argue that in making science public, our culture has made very different publics for and with science. If you are ever in London, the difference between the George III Gallery and Launch Pad is indicative of this. He pointed us to the famous Joseph Wright painting “An Experiment on a bird in an air pump” (1768), which draws your attention not only to the eponymous experiment, but a variety of public reactions: revolution, amazement, caution, curiosity and disinterest. Thus, in some respects this painting is less a representation of a birds in air pump and more a representation of publics when science is done in front of them. He also mentioned a painting of a man who collected air pumps, a layman who choose to be represented surrounded by scientific apparatus. Here, Schaffer suggested, the aim was to imply this man should be trusted/ respected because he owned science. Perhaps, though in much smaller ways, some publics ‘patronise’ science in a similar way today too?

Another of Schaffer’s key points was the way in which the public are often articulated as quite passive participants in public-science. Schaffer’s example here was, in his own words “shit and eyes”. To start with the shit: In mid-17th century Florance, there was some debate over antimony versus rhubarb as a laxative. So the powers that be rounded up 50 members of the general public, locked them up and monitored them: measuring, weighing and recording their “outputs” in every way possible. On to the eyes, which are slightly less straightforward. Still in mid-17th century Florance, an aristocrat wanted to test Christiaan Huygens’ observations of Saturn. He collected a set of publics “men off the street” who were not familiar with astronomical theory, standing them at one end of a long gallery and placing a model of Saturn illuminated by moving lamps at the other (to simulate the sun). These lay participants were then asked to draw what they saw. These drawings looked like Huygens’ results, which helped convince people of its validity. Here, as with much medical testing, the ignorance of the observers was something which to be celebrated, it became part of a rigorous scientific method as the lay observers wouldn’t be as biased as “expert” scientists. Such an approach might be strong methodologically , but it does keep the public out of the loop somewhat. In the class structures of Schaffer’s 17th C Florence, it is more easily read as exploitative, but arguably, even today there is a thread of public science which requires lay participants remain ignorant, institutionalising a need for stupidity. There is, Schaffer suggested, a rhetoric of the celebration of ignorance which runs though much of the history of public science. It runs against a lot of other rhetorics of public science – those of the greater dissemination of knowledge and learning – but it is still there, and should be remembered.

Schaffer’s next example of public science was Sir Charles Vernon Boys, a physicist who taught H G Wells at Imperial. Boys was known for his bubble research, so at this point Schaffer stepped aside and gave the stage to one of the museum staff to do mini version of their “bubble show”, which culminated with putting Schaffer inside a giant bubble. Public science, Schaffer noted with a grin as he got out of the bubble, can be a lot of fun. He quickly moved to end on dark note though, showing us another image of bubble science, this time from a test at Los Alamos. Demonstration, he noted gravely, is a military term, it’s a representation to others of one’s own strength. Indeed, Schaffer had previously explored the theme of public experiments as a “trail of strength” (e.g. Otto von Guericke demonstrating the power of vacuums with teams of horses trying to separate hemispheres). The demonstration of science to the public can be a way of showing off science, or at least cleverness, as powerful: one man (the expert) with air pump against a team (the public). At times, Schaffer suggested, science for public can at times look a little like science against the public.

Schaffer’s cautionary conclusion: we should not let our ideas of science in society suffer from either amnesia or nostalgia. Science has been weighing up public shit since 1660, both metaphorically (i.e. repsonding to a lack of public deference) and literally (as the public are passive subjects for experiments). We need to remain aware of this, as a lot depends on public science in the 21st century. Further, with a nod to reality television and “some forms of democracy”, Schaffer warned that we should be careful of any celebration of ignorance. Whatever that ignorance is of, over-deference and lack of critique (a complacency over expertise) is not a productive form of science in public.

It was with these words still echoing in my ears that I took my seat at Martin Rees’ Reith Lecture on “Science and the Citizen”. This will be broadcast by BBC radio on the 1st of June, so you’ll be able to it for yourself. Reflecting Schaffer’s preoccupation with the 1660s (or rather, Rees’ preoccupation with the Royal Society’s 350th birthday), he started off by emphasising that the scientists of late 17th century London were important not just for being experimentalists, but doing so immersed in the practical agenda of their day. The classic example of this being the role Royal Society fellows played in the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666. Rees then went on to argue that we ask more questions of science today. I didn’t feel that this was necessarily the lazy nostalgia Schaffer was getting at. It’s not a sudden cheekiness Rees was talking about, out that we have greater access to information to ask questions with. Moreover, unlike Lovelock, Rees largely argue that such scrutiny should be welcomed. Indeed, one of Rees’ final conclusions was in many respects similar to parts of Schaffer’s, that ignorance is an impediment to public engagement, whether in science or other areas. We shouldn’t let a desire to spread scientific knowlege obscure widespread ignorance in geography or finance. We should all try to know more and reflect on the use, worth and basis of the knowledge we have.

Brian Wynne, on the other hand, had a more diffuse sense of ignorance. It was ignorance of science, by scientists as well as publics. There was lots of ignorance going around his story: Farmers, Scientists, Politicians (groups that all pointed figures of ignorance at, and within, each other too). In particular, I was struck by a point Wynne made about a ‘lost’ bit of research, a Nature paper from the 1960s which could have been more constructively applied. The question had ceased to be active, so the research had ceased to be funded, and so, due to the practice-based nature of science, the research ceased to be used and was forgotten. All of this, I should emphasise wasn’t some sort of playful critique of science from outsider. Something worth remembering about Brian Wynne is that he has a PhD in materials science from Cambridge. In some respects, this showed in his talk, he spent quite a large chunk of time on the physical processes involved in his case study, there were a fair few graphs and one of his final points was summed up with an equation. However, he wove the more scientific knowledge of the natural world in with knowledge of cycles of farming business. I’d say, that was partly the point. Wynne was as equally strong on a diffuse sense of knowledge as he was on scientific ignorance. When he spoke to farmers in the 1980’s, he continually found them telling him about Windscale in 1957. Such a long cultural memory, Wynne underlined, is evidence based in its own way.

Back to Schaffer. One of his most interesting points was, inevitably, in the questions. He was asked about Einstein and way the uncertainties of “the new physics” had an impact on public confidence with scientific certainty. In response Schaffer argued that Einstein’s importance as icon of public science was less relativity, and more that he was the first to produce a paper where everyone was told “this is entirely true and yet most of you will never understand it”. This reflected a new relationship between science and the public for an age of specialisation and more extreme peaks of expertise (arguably, a seminal moment in our contemporary obsession with trust). This, perhaps, is the main reason we might need Adams’ Electric Monk. Maybe we already have them; we all have to believe quite so much in order to get through the day.

How much you believe the relationship between science and the public has or has not changed in the last 350 years, I think Schaffer’s points are still worth thinking about. Science has been “weighing public shit since 1660”, whether that’s because the public shout back at them or because so much research has been embedded in solving the practical concerns of the day (“blue skies” or not). Personally, I still hope for constructive debate between the various gaps and differences of knowledge and ignorance. I suspect there is a long history of productive collaboration if we look for it too. Still, the shit and the petty showing off (on all sides) is there, it runs deep and is likely to remain so. It’s worth keeping an eye out.