Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The One on the Right

Way back in July I posted a short piece (here) outlining a few of the ways in which, as a scientist, I had been drawn into some distinctively uncomfortable, and yet simultaneously hugely exciting, public engagement projects. A common strand to all of these has been the conscious decision to accept invitations to work to the agendas of others rather than to attempt to ‘impose’ my science on them. Please don’t misunderstand me: I still enjoy doing plenty of the latter in the form of talks on my pet area of research interest, glass. A month ago, for instance, I travelled to Chelmsford to talk to about 100 physics and engineering people who ranged from school students to those who had retired. At the end of November I delivered a variant of that talk – twice in the same day – aimed at school groups of one sort or another and others visiting my university for the annual ‘Christmas Lecture’ series (here; not to be confused with the world-renowned original here). However, these I count as an integral part of my ‘day job’ whereas this post is about the wider landscape of public engagement in which I am still a relatively naïve explorer.

I’ll share a couple of recent examples; both, in their very different ways, relate to Chaos Theory. I don’t want to attempt to cover the detail of what Chaos means in the world of science; indeed, I doubt I could do the topic justice as it’s not an area of my expertise. On the other hand, it is perhaps useful to offer an overview in order to set these particular public engagement events into their setting. One first needs to differentiate the scientific use of the word ‘chaos’ from its everyday connotations of confusion and disorder: whilst a chaotic system is not ‘predictable’ in the conventional sense we associate with the physical laws of nature it is, nevertheless, neither random nor disordered. A chaotic system is in fact governed by those very laws of nature: it is in that sense deterministic. However, if the behaviour of this system is subject to more than a small number of variables (three, in fact) and if at least one of those is non-linear (varying exponentially, for example) we end up being unable precisely to predict the system’s future state: the smallest of changes in the variables’ starting values will have a large effect on the eventual behaviour of the system. Examples of chaotic systems include the Stock Exchange, turbulence and mixing in fluids, the functioning of the heart and of course, the weather. There are some excellent and accessible resources available should you want to dig a little deeper; these include radio interviews led by the quintessentially philosophical Melvyn Bragg (here), online/video introductions (e.g. here, here and here) and books (the classic arguably being Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick).

The first example is perhaps somewhat tangential. It arose from a commitment I made to the excellent learning team at the Turner Contemporary gallery, about whom I’ve written before, on more than one occasion, to be a part of their contribution to the Fun Palace concept: ‘Everyone an Artist, Everyone a Scientist’. October 5th was the big day, nationally. I was the sole embodiment of their phrase “Meet scientists from the University of Kent …”, as shown in the blurb for the event (below, left).

In truth, I contributed very little to this particular event – not for lack of a desire to chat to visitors about what was going on but because for most people the artist himself, Emrys Plant, was a lot more fun to watch and to question. I can empathise with that; indeed, he and I had some fascinating conversations, when no-one else was around, during which I learnt a huge amount and was challenged by him to develop my own ‘take’ on his developing work. I also got to hold bits and pieces in place whilst he drilled holes and drove in screws which, if nothing else, took me back to childhood weekends working with my bricklaying father. For the record, it was relatively easy to see what was taking shape as a wave coming up the gallery’s steps from the famous Margate harbour and breaking on the boundary wall. (By the way, if you’ve not seen Mr Turner yet, which has the artist’s times in Margate as a core element to the film’s framework, then I thoroughly recommend it.) As engaging for me as any other aspect of the day was the development of our thoughts on the process of putting it together: was this an analogue of ‘chaos’? Certainly, there is a strong element of unpredictability in the sense that a small change in the placing of any one piece of wood would necessarily have progressively amplified effects on the position of later additions. It is also the case that this is not at all random: Emrys had no pre-determined plan as such, but there was a conceptual idea in his mind which developed from his appreciation of the place and was continually modified by what he saw emerging. It was a tempting idea, and one which easily captivated my thinking.

There was another component to the Fun Palace event at the gallery that day, and this was a lot more engaging for visiting children I suspect (and for some of their parents): the opportunity to build something out of a giant set of plastic ‘scaffolding’. If the work Emrys was crafting so lovingly outside could be described as arising out of a chaotic process then how should one look upon the construction, and re-construction, of a ‘dwelling’ by children who didn’t know each other and were, on the whole, working independently of each other? Perhaps it’s best simply to describe this as fun. What did strike me as I watched it all unfold was the effect of the accompanying adults. On the whole, wisely in my opinion, they stood back and confined themselves to thoughts of safety and diplomacy. When one or more of them gave in to the desire to get involved it was remarkable how quickly ‘conformity’ set in: the word ‘dwelling’ was in the title of the exercise, so ‘dwelling’ it shall be …
It’s really rather wonderful to see people, of any age, having fun in an art gallery; also, bottom left, is a picture of one of my grandsons enjoying the Krijn de Koning installation ‘Dwelling’ which sat outside the gallery for several months and provided the inspiration for the Fun Palace event.
In all honesty, this story is but the warm-up act for the main event: my spiralling slide into participating in something that had the word ‘cabaret’ in its title! I’ll try to distil out the essence of the early steps and focus on the end result. About a year ago an ex-colleague who I hadn’t seen for a great many years, a now-‘retired’ but hugely busy bioscientist, Frank Burnet (see here), sent me an e-mail out of the blue: could he buy me a coffee in exchange for advice on a funding application for a science-inspired public engagement project (described at that stage as an ‘opera’)? Why yes, of course. After that – and a successful bid for modest levels of funding – came a request to listen to his outline ideas for a music/theatre-rich idea to convey something of Chaos Theory to a lay audience in a fun way. I’m no expert, as I’ve tried to make clear already, but I know enough physics to make some sense of the relevant articles I now cram-read and that was, thankfully, enough to be able to steer the plot ideas away from the biggest of potential pitfalls. For the first time in my career, I ‘played’ a character during a couple of read-throughs of an early draft script – one of these occasions was in front of a group of Science Communications MSc students, who were brimming with confidence-boosting ideas. Then came silence, for several months, whilst the project fermented alongside the other things Frank was engaged with, and in the hands of the collaborators he was already drawing in. I had all-but forgotten my ad hoc involvement when I spotted this entry in the Canterbury Festival’s science strand (which Frank helps to organise) …
I thought it might be Frank’s work, so I bought a ticket (along with tickets for several other events). A few days later I got an e-mail from him: would I be able to come to his house wearing my physicist’s hat in order to reprise my earlier role as a sounding board for script ideas? The composer (Joanna Ive), lead musician (Sam Bailey), one of the lead actors (Tamsin Fessey), the Festival’s Programme Manager (Alison Chambers ), project manager (Emma Weitkamp) would all be there; lunch provided. Well, if there’s lunch …

The lunch was excellent, but for me the joy of the afternoon lay not in the food but rather in watching, listening to and hopefully learning from this small group of committed experts. Observing, and very occasionally contributing to, the interaction between them was little short of inspirational. In this one package was encapsulated the kernel of why I feel so privileged to be invited to take part in these more encompassing public engagement projects: working alongside people who are knowledgeable, experienced, creative and enthusiastic in their respective fields is so uplifting. It was also a lot of fun to try my hand at playing a Tibetan singing bowl (see here for a little more information) – yes, the music was indeed growing out of an appreciation of chaos. I left with the invitation-come-request that I try to get to a rehearsal and certainly to the dress rehearsal on the day of the performance. Well, the rehearsal gave me the chance to meet the excellent principal actor/protagonist (Matt Fifield) but I contributed nothing of any note beyond a few nods and smiles. The dress rehearsal on the day of the performance was another matter entirely. Expecting only to sit and observe and to respond as best I could to any last-minute ‘physicsy’ questions I was rather taken by surprise when asked if I’d be on stage at the opening in order to introduce one of the key characters (Frank, playing Professor Lorenz, our mid-twentieth century ‘hero’ of Chaos Theory). “You really only need to be yourself Bob: you must have chaired no end of conference sessions.”

How could one refuse: after all, I had indeed spoken similar words in umpteen work situations over the years and all I really needed to do was stand up from my chair – the one on the right – speak a couple of sentences and then find the steps off the stage afterwards (with the house lights down, so trying to avoid falling over myself). In practice, I needed a bit of schooling from Tamsin; apparently I was changing position too often in my chair: I needed to pose, and then to move in synchrony with Frank as he mimed the end-stages of a lecture whilst the overture played. It’s all to do with maintaining presence on the stage I gathered. How did I get through decades of a career in science before discovering this whole new world now emerging around me; I love it. So far, so good – and in fact it did come out OK ‘on the night’ (I think). One of the benefits of getting my moment on stage out of the way in the space of one short overture and a one minute monologue is that I could then watch the rest of the rehearsal in peace. It was fascinating to watch the performers adapt their movements, cues and timings to the performance space – which included the audience, sat around tables in the Spiegaltent venue (a huge tent, supported by pillars faced with mirrors).
Tamsin and colleagues dancing as beekeepers – yes, seriously, it’s all on the theme of illustrating aspects of Chaos; Frank is on stage, in character.
There was one more twist before the actual performance that evening: I was asked – and I use that word in an amusingly loose fashion here since, by then, I had all-but painted myself into the “yes” corner – to front a Q&A session with the audience after the performance. This was the point at which it all unravelled, where my lack of genuine expertise in the subject was paraded in a particularly public fashion. I did my best, naturally, and I was certainly able to show genuinely high levels of smiling enthusiasm; I was, however, not only a long way out of my comfort zone but also well out of my depth. This final part of the evening was redeemed, it seemed to me, only by the presence in the audience of a retired colleague of mine who actually does understand the subtleties of Chaos Theory and who generously agreed to field some of the questions. And so it ended; I strolled out and made my way home – grateful for the experience overall, but painfully aware of my all-too-evident limitations.

There is a footnote to this, or perhaps it should be a caveat. Apparently, someone from the renowned Cheltenham Festival organisation (science strand here) was in the audience and liked what he saw: Chaos Cabaret moves to the Festival’s science week next year …