I don’t do science and so would not have imagined an evening spent listening to four distingished contributers to Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal Society would have been my kind of thing. But thanks to somebody at church who couldn’t go and so thrust the ticket in my hand over coffee I found myself there and loved it.
Bill Bryson was hosting this as part of the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society. It was a hour and a half q&a with Lord Martin Rees (who is apparently a big cheese in the science world), Philip Ball (a journalist and writer), Georgina Ferry (writer and broadcaster) and Richard Holmes (a historian and biographer).
The discussion largely revolved around scientists, science and their purpose. It also had an interesting feminist undercurrent going on.
So what were the key things I got/ learnt from the evening?
1) Dorothy Hodgkin (beware it’s a Wikki link…read Ferry’s book to check), the only female Nobel Prize winner for science is yet another kick ass woman of the early/ mid 20th century whose life is worth investigating. Georgina Ferry has written a biography on her and the outline given was facinating.
2) The line between art and science is finer than we think.
3) Lord Rees made the point that science needs the freeze rather than the cut because as one contributor said, “the history of science shows it’s not about economic purpose only. Enquiry is part of what it is to be civillised.”
4) We’ve been here before. In the 1820’s, another time of recession, Babbage wrote “The Decline of Science in Britain” just as Darwin was going off to explore.
5) The relationshp between science and religion is often misunderstood. I know quite a few Christians who are also scientists but on this panel it was atheists and Bryson was keen to use the US creationist debates to try and highlight the apparent divide. There was a lack of new atheism on offer though. Lord Rees spoke eloquently about why atheists should take a position of accomodation, as did Ferry.
Ferry explained, “People want to know why they exist. People build structures they feel safe in. Religion is not going to be seen off.”
Lord Rees went further and said, “the new atheists are doing a great deal of damage”. He went on to explain (in almost but not exactly these words – I was scribbling the best I could), that fundamentalism of whatever sort is dangerous and allies and religious leaders should be respected. He also pointed out if young Muslim 6th formers studying science are told they have to choose between God and science they will choose God and the scientific community and science will lose good scientists.
6) The final message that came out was that story tellers are important. Scientific discovery involves a narrative which is usually interesting and powerful but which often lacks an audience. Alot of good scientists go unrecognised beyond their peer group.
All in all, as I say, a good night which made me appreciate TOH’s academic self a little more.