A to Z of the Human Condition: U is for Urban Living

We invited you, as fellow experts on the #HumanCondition, to add your own idiosyncrasies to our current exhibition by submitting photographs on Instagram for a few of the themes explored in the gallery. As a thank you for your wonderful pictures, this series explores those themes and finds out the roles they play in making us human. This week, Andrew Matheson looks at how more and more people live in an urban environment, illustrated by your photos.

For the first time in human history more than half the world’s population lives in urban areas. Between 2000 and 2050 developing countries could add 3.2 billion new urban residents: larger than the global population in 1950 (Thinking Spatially, RTPI 2014). Yet planning as a recognised profession– the attempt to manage this rapid and accelerating urbanisation – has just celebrated its centenary. The story of the last century can be seen through a kaleidoscope of efforts to manage a massive move to urban living against a background of powerful social, economic and environmental factors.

For many, New York City is the epitome of urban living. Its seemingly perpetual reach-for-the-skies is based upon order brought about by one of the most regular street-pattern grids of any big city. But whilst New York appears to crave density, this comes at a heavy price: it is not placed in the top 20 cities of the Economist Intelligence Unit‘s (EIU) “Liveability Ranking”.

Yet there seems no single blueprint for loveable, liveable places. Cities that consistently rank highly on liveability rankings – such as Copenhagen, Melbourne and Vienna – are very different. Copenhagen has virtually all residents living within 350 metres of public transport and it also has ambitions to have 50% of commuting residents use a bicycle by 2015. In contrast, Melbourne sprawls but it makes the most of its ability to intersperse high and low densities. Vienna it seems has managed successfully to meld old & new. Each city has challenged the potential for dislocation from growth and change in its own way.

Jane Jacobs in her hugely influential book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ (1961) criticised the notion that you can bring control and order to cities; she noted the contrast with what they are in reality, complex organic systems. It is that complexity that is both the benefit and challenge of living in cities. Opportunities abound but every dislocation has a myriad of consequences, many difficult to foresee with any clarity, and so we build knowledge from past experience.

Perhaps urban living is an attractive proposition precisely because of the range of experiences they can encompass.  Ebenezer Howard who published ‘Garden Cities of To-morrow’ in 1896 knew this and his vision was of places free of slums and enjoying the benefits of both town (such as opportunity, amusement and high wages) and country (such as beauty, fresh air and low rents). Howard’s vision still inspires today with The Wolfson Economics Prize 2014 building on this legacy by seeking viable ideas for 21st Century Garden Cities; proposals here have suggested up to 40 new ‘cities’ with populations ranging from 25,000 to 400,000 ‘city’ populations.

On the world scale we clearly have very modest ambitions. The new Prime Minister of India has said his country will create 100 new cities, “equipped with world class amenities”. This commitment is said to have taken a lead from China where a whole array of planned eco-cities are being created (Guardian 14.04.14). Like Howard’s theory, the Chinese have the goal of building exemplar cities from the ground up rather than letting them develop organically. But as the commentator notes: “You can want to design your urban landscape, but in reality, on a fundamental level, that’s impossible. We have to acknowledge that it’s extremely hard to build a regular city from scratch.”

Some will see planners as the dead hand of bureaucracy stifling ambition and ordering the energetic chaos that brings excitement to cities. Others will see planners as the ushers of unwanted and dislocating change that has too little respect for tradition. As with most things, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. After the next 100years we will certainly know better!

Andrew Matheson is a Chartered Town Planner for the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), as a Policy & Networks Manager.

See all the #HumanSardines photographs submitted by the public.

A to Z of the Human Condition: N is for Natural Curiosity

We invited you, as fellow experts on the #HumanCondition, to add your own idiosyncrasies to our current exhibition by submitting photographs on Instagram for a few of the themes explored in the gallery. As a thank you for your wonderful pictures, this series explores those themes and finds out the roles they play in making us human. First up, Mark Rapoza contemplates our unending curiosity with nature, illustrated by your photos.

Stepping out of an Islington flat late one summer night during my first visit to London, I could have focused on any number of things. The hum of a train approaching nearby Kings Cross, the texture of the uneven pavement beneath my shoes, or the flash of headlights from a cab as it rounded the corner. There were innumerable contenders that night vying for my senses, but one of them stood a head above the rest; ironically it was the quietist and most reserved.

Standing there under a lonely lamp in the middle of Bingfield Park, about 10 or 15 meters in front of me, was a single red fox. It wasn’t moving, wasn’t making a sound, yet it instantly captured my attention. I was absolutely transfixed and even after the fox lost interest and gracefully dissolved back into the night, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Red fox by count_nikula on Instagram.

Red fox by count_nikula on Instagram.

Inquiring about the fox with friends and neighbours the following morning revealed that I wasn’t alone in my interest. Whether they considered them a blessing or a scourge, it seemed like everyone had something to say about London’s urban foxes and our conversations inevitably led to discussions of other natural curiosities.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Nature has a way of consistently captivating us: of grasping some intangible part of our person and filling us with wonder. As a species, we humans all seem to experience some intrinsic need to connect with and explore nature. We spend countless hours in zoos, aquaria and natural history museums. We are consistently distracted at work by wildlife photos trickling through our social media feeds. We collectively love spending some time outdoors; even the most industrialised urbanites among us still appreciate at least some vestige of nature through houseplants, pets or rooftop gardens.

Pigeon by shorinjisteve on Instagram.

Pigeon by shorinjisteve on Instagram.

But why? After all, we have essentially spent the past 12,000 or so years since the rise of agriculture building civilisations which have progressively sought to distance themselves from nature, with walls, pavements, HVAC, etc. Why should we care about the natural world and why do we all feel that same persistent sense of curiosity when it comes to nature?

Stag beetle by vicky_pearce on Instagram.

Stag beetle by vicky_pearce on Instagram.

Behavioural studies suggest our curiosity with the world around us exists for purposes which ultimately translate into some benefit in terms of evolutionary fitness. While that is almost certainly part of the story, researchers admit that it is not a complete explanation. Many of the same studies indicate that though our interests may initially be motivated by practical concerns, at some point we become beautifully enamoured with things purely for the sake of knowing more about them.

Waterlily by louisazielinski on Instagram.

Waterlily by louisazielinski on Instagram.

As Ernst Mach once put it:

the first questions are formed upon the intention of the inquirer by practical considerations; the subsequent ones are not. An irresistible attraction draws him to these; a nobler interest which far transcends the mere needs of life.

In that regard, nature provides an ideal catalyst for our sustained exploration. There is far more to be learned about the natural world than can be learned in a lifetime and we are perpetually driven by our need to explain what we find in it.

Forest by catseyefitness on Instagram.

Forest by catseyefitness on Instagram.

Nature is also accessible. There are no prerequisites for exploring it and anyone can be a naturalist. Furthermore, nature communicates with us through a language that transcends nationality, creed, education, etc. and our curious fixations with nature are not age dependent either. As children we capture insects in jars and share our discoveries with friends; as we mature, that foundational interest persists. In fact, many of us still find ourselves putting insects in jars well into adulthood, only at that point we call our collections “museums” and generally embark on our explorations more systematically.

Spider by via_love85 on Instagram.

Spider by via_love85 on Instagram.

All that aside, there is perhaps a deeper, more philosophical element to what draws us to nature: that “subtle magnetism” mentioned by Thoreau in Walden. Perhaps at some primal, unconscious and uncontrollable level, we recognise that we have become separated in many ways from the majestic natural world that ushered us into existence and we long to reconnect. We are perhaps envious to some degree when we see a group of birds at our backyard feeder and wish that we too could fly back into the wild alongside them, free of our self-prescribed civilised obligations.

Bees by sambrewster on Instagram.

Bees by sambrewster on Instagram.

Thus, I think our curiosity with nature is, in part, a symptom of some evolutionary homesickness. We look at nature and remember, if only for a moment, where we came from and when we stare into the beautiful amber eyes of a fox in a London park, we do so in the knowledge that staring back at us is a part of ourselves.

Mark Rapoza is a naturalist living in California and is the author of the natural history blog, Corner of the Cabinet.

See all the #HumanNature photographs submitted by the public.

Mantis by cornerofthecabinet on Instagram.

Mantis by cornerofthecabinet on Instagram.

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M is for…Monsters?

Uh oh: some monsters seem to have found their way into our latest exhibition. Don’t panic, though. The exhibition in question explores what it means to be human; in this post Muriel Bailly explores what (or who) monsters really are and how different they are from us, if at all.

If you have visited An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition recently, you may have seen the drawing below entitled Three Monsters in the “F is for Fear” section. Maybe, like me, you were a little surprised by this caption? Personally I find these little creatures rather cute. I looked at them carefully and didn’t feel a single shiver. Definitely not monsters to me.

Three monsters, 1668.

Three monsters, 1668.

So why do creatures that were labelled “monsters” in the 17th century, probably feared and hated by many, appear sweet and pleasing to the 21st century viewer? Have monsters changed so much; if so, what do our present day monsters look like?

In any given culture monsters have been synonymous with excess, aberrant behaviour and being different. The theme of monsters and mystical or unnatural beings can be found everywhere from ancient civilisations to contemporary cinema and television.

In Roman and Greek mythology, monsters are both the origin and the limit of the world. The Titans (gigantic, patricidal and fans of anthropophagy) were the children of Gaia (Earth) and Uranus (Sky) and ruled the world in the Golden Age. They were led by Cronus and were eventually overthrown by a new generation of gods, called the Olympians, led by Zeus. With this new generation came the world as we know it. Thanks to the tricks played on Zeus by the Titan Prometheus, human kind obtained fire and nourishing food, benefitting it greatly. These events, known to us through Hesiod’s Theogony, are echoed in many mythologies from the Far East and Scandinavia.

Cronus, Goya. © Museo del Prado, Madrid

Cronus, Goya. © Museo del Prado, Madrid

In Homer’s Odyssey Ulysses encounters numerous monsters on his epic return home. Venturing to remote parts of the world he is confronted by the Cyclops Polyphemus, the Sirens, the whirlpool Charybdis and the six headed monster Scylla, among others. He is only safe when he finally reaches his beloved Ithaca. Centuries later, Pliny the Elder (1 BC-1 AD) in his Naturalis Historia describes Greece as being the centre of the world whilst Egypt is at its periphery. The latter was known as a land where half animal and half human creatures lived. In both Homer’s and Pliny’s work monsters are the physical representation of the limit of civilisation.

Ulysses [Odysseus] and the Sirens. Etching by P. Aquila.

Ulysses [Odysseus] and the Sirens. Etching by P. Aquila.

 Cultures without monsters?

Pliny’s description of Egypt with its half animal/half human inhabitants could be a reference to its gods. While Greek and Roman gods were anthropomorphic, Egyptian gods were hybrids with both human and animal features, such as Anubis the jackal-headed god of the afterlife. These hybrid gods, who may have been perceived as monstrous or grotesque in the western world, are very common in Eastern mythology. The Hindu god Ganesh is an elephant-headed deity and one of the most worshiped in the Hindu pantheon. Although it might be too much of a shortcut to say that Eastern cultures do not have monsters, it is fair to say that their association between monstrous appearance and monstrous identity is less automatic.

Anubis tending a mummy. Tombs of the Kings, Thebes.

Anubis tending a mummy. Tombs of the Kings, Thebes.

The status of monsters changes radically with the arrival of monotheist religions. The most famous monsters of the Old Testament (common to both Christianity and Judaism) are the Leviathan and Behemoth mentioned by Job 40 and 41. While in polytheist cultures monsters seem to be an aberration of nature, in monotheism monsters are creatures designed by God with a purpose. It was said that at the time of the Apocalypse God will prove his supremacy by killing the monsters in the ultimate victory of good against evil.

Job rides the leviathan in front of a grotesque procession of demons and tormentors.

Job rides the leviathan in front of a grotesque procession of demons and tormentors.

 Monsters classified

The first attempt to identify and record all existing monsters happened in the Middle Ages with an anonymous publication from 9-10th centuries, entitled All Sorts of Monsters. The monsters are classified according to their nature: book I is dedicated to anthropomorphic creatures; book II to elephant, lions, whales and other wild, large animals; and finally, book III is entirely dedicated to snakes.

In 1559, in his last and most famous work, Histoires Prodigieuses, Pierre Boaistuau attempted to record all monsters from “freaks of nature” to extraordinary beings from mythology. He sailed to England that winter with a copy of the book, yet to be published. He hoped to offer it to Queen Elizabeth I, newly installed on the throne. Although we do not know how the Queen reacted to this peculiar book, we know that the book stayed in England. A copy is available at Wellcome Library.

Portrait of two monsters. Histoires prodigieuses, 1560.

Portrait of two monsters. Histoires Prodigieuses, 1560.

 Renaissance: monsters with reason

The development of scientific and medical knowledge during the Renaissance shed new light on “monsters”. The work of Ambroise Paré, a French barber surgeon who served kings Henry II, Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III, illustrates this change. Paré makes a distinction between “real monsters” (existing individuals living with a deformity) and monsters from mythology and religion.

Focussing on the former, he looked for a rational and medical reason for their unusual appearance. The findings published in his essay Des Monstres et Prodiges (1573), argue that a child with such an appearance is the result of an accident that happened during pregnancy. Indeed, Paré suggested that a poor diet, emotional shock and domestic violence during pregnancy could all cause a deformity in the baby yet to be born.

Following Paré’s example, Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, a French naturalist from the 18th century, attempted a scientific classification of monsters in his monumental essay on tetratology (the study of abnormalities and psychological development). Simultaneously, the development of social sciences and psychology helped to demystify “unreal” monsters living in individuals’ subconscious and in cultural tradition.

Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.

Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.

 The modern monster

Thanks to the development of medical and social sciences in the 18th century, “monsters” became better understood and, instead of provoking fear or disgust, society started empathising with these people. In literature, one of the most powerful indications of this humanisation of “monsters” is Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, published in 1831.

As the distinction between “monsters” and the rest of society becomes more blurry from the 19th century onward, there seemed to be a new generation of monsters: one created by humans. This latter generation greatly inspired the arts. Dr Frankenstein, in Mary Shelley’s novel, through scientific experiments creates a creature so horrible that he cannot name it. A similar fate was encountered by Edward in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands.

Frankenstein observing the first stirrings of his creature. Engraving by W. Chevalier after Th. von Holst, 1831.

Frankenstein observing the first stirrings of his creature. Engraving by W. Chevalier after Th. von Holst, 1831.

Edward Scissorhands.

Edward Scissorhands.

So what of today’s monsters? The physical manifestation of evil in the form of some kind of deformity has taken a back seat. Just as abnormal physical appearances tend to be used to inspire (such as in The Elephant Man or Mask), a polished exterior often hides the demons today.

Patrick Bateman from American Psycho.

Patrick Bateman from American Psycho.

Many of the classic monsters from the 20th and 21st centuries are savage criminals with complicated psychologies. In the Fritz Lang movie M, the child murderer Hans Beckert claims that he cannot escape himself and seems to be a victim of his own impulses. Hannibal Lecter, despite being a cannibalistic serial killer, is also a refined intellectual with sophisticated taste for the arts. Patrick Bateman is a suave and handsome Harvard educated businessman. Ghostface can be kids from school or members of your family. Dexter Morgan is your next door neighbour.

21st century monsters are often elegant, charming and seemingly “normal”. They walk among us; they are (part of) us.

Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Object of the month: Cowrie Snuff Box

This month’s object can be seen in our latest exhibition, An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition, until 12 October. Found under X is for X-rated, this cowrie shell snuff box features an erotic scene. Even cowrie shells themselves used be known as “Venus shells” because of their resemblance to female genitalia. Taryn Cain tells us about the rise and fall of snuff and how its popularity resulted in the variety of the boxes used to hold it.

The cowrie shell snuff box in the A to Z of the Human Condition exhibition.

The cowrie shell snuff box in the A to Z of the Human Condition exhibition.

We all know members of the 20% of the population who still light up a cigarette, despite the many warnings. Since smoking is considered a serious health risk today, it’s hard to imagine that only 300 years ago tobacco was seen as a health product with cigarettes only becoming a social norm around 1880.

Clay tobacco pipe, France.

Clay tobacco pipe, France.

1714 was a year of change: it was the year of Queen Anne’s death, and saw the war of the Spanish Succession coming to an end. England was already familiar with tobacco, though its use was restricted to small pockets of the population.  Charles II was quite fond of snuff, a ground and perfumed tobacco, introducing it to his court in 1660. In 1665 the College of Physicians declared the smoking of tobacco a cure for the plague; a risky tonic to take considering matches were not to be invented for another 160 years.

Despite its regal and apparent medicinal properties, tobacco needed another three decades to finally gain in popularity. In 1702 the Allied Naval forces delivered to England at least 50,000 pounds of snuff taken from the Spanish treasure fleet, which soon elevated its use to a social necessity. From then on no gentleman would be seen in public without his snuff and many ladies were keen to indulge too.

A gentleman visitor offering snuff to a woman at her fireside.

A gentleman offering snuff to a woman at her fireside.

This avid use of snuff predictably birthed a new fashion accessory: the snuff box. Originally a small, hinged box to protect the quality of the snuff, it quickly became a fashion statement. In 1781 it was written that a well-dressed man should have a different snuff box for every day of the year, advice some genteel men took literally to heart. Popular dandy, Lord Petersham, would only use each snuff box once in 12 months, while George IV owned 700: one for every day and evening. Visit Wellcome Images to see a selection of historic snuff boxes.

Towards the middle of the 18th century, snuff boxes became more personal. Erotic images began to appear on the insides of the boxes, either openly or hidden in secret cavities. Most showed a couple engaged in sexual activity, but nudes were also popular; generally a mistress or sometimes a wife. Occasionally the images were even accompanied by music.

Though the keeping of erotica was a private matter, Henry Wellcome managed to acquire one of these lewd items to add to his collection, allowing us to have it on display in the museum today. Snuff boxes were generally made of fine materials, such as porcelain and tortoiseshell; ours is no exception, being a cowrie shell and silver creation. The image inside is of a man unlocking a woman’s chastity belt. For a long time chastity belts were believed to have originated in the Middle Ages as a means for men to control their wife’s sexuality. We now know they were an 18th century invention which, if used at all, were more likely to prevent sexual assault than protect a lady’s fidelity.

Silver-bound hinged cowrie shell containing a painting of a man unlocking a woman's chastity belt.

Silver-bound hinged cowrie shell containing a painting of a man unlocking a woman’s chastity belt.

Cowrie shells come from cowries, a diverse species of nocturnal marine snails living in tropical environments, feasting on algae, corals and sponges. The shell in our collection came from a humpback cowrie, which can be found in shallow waters of the Indo-Pacific. Both the inside and the outside of cowrie shells have a beautifully polished appearance due to a layer of calcium carbonate crystals secreted by the mantle; it was this porcelain-like exterior which ensured the cowries would never have a peaceful life. Like tobacco, cowries have had a long history with humans, being used variously for medicine, divination, fertility and, primarily, as money.

As currency, cowrie shells are one of the oldest in the world, at times being more valuable than gold. They were first used in China during the 2nd century and were still being used in Africa during the 19th century. They were an ideal choice for money, being consistent in shape, difficult to obtain in inland areas, easily transportable and, crucially, difficult to forge. While mostly used as currency in Africa and Asia, Europe began trading cowrie shells in the 15th century to obtain slaves for the slave trade. The use of shells was eventually overtaken by metal currency.

By the 19th century snuff began to fall out of favour as interest in cigars grew. After the death of George IV in 1830 the demand for imported cigars had grown massively, while matches and hand rolled cigarettes were increasingly available. As the Victorian era began, snuff boxes bore the brunt of the changing market. Many of them became obsolete short of becoming a collector’s item. Erotic snuff boxes suffered most of all due to strict Victorian morals, with few avoiding destruction by embarrassed families. It was said that George IV’s niece, Queen Victoria, melted down most of his enormous collection in order to make more socially acceptable jewellery for herself.

Taryn is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Comics and illustrations

Drawings, sketches and comics have all, at least once, crossed the path of science and medicine. Often used as a way of communicating and educating, the illustrated history of science is fascinating, surprising and mostly gruesome. Muriel Bailly takes a look.

Comic strips trace their history back to the 19th century in Europe and as far back as the 13th century in Japan. Over the last century the diversity of comics and graphic novels has grown hugely and covers almost any genre you can think of. Over the past decade or two, comic books have (arguably) benefitted from the exposure of their film adaptations as well their mention on popular TV series such as The Big Bang Theory. We even published a post about Marvel’s X-Men recently.

Using drawings or other visual representations to tell a story is a form of communication that goes back to our prehistory. Palaeolithic caves have been discovered with images ranging from abstract symbols to clearly identifiable animal and, more rarely, human representations, and are still being interpreted by archaeologists and scholars today. Egyptian hieroglyphs could be seen as an early form of comics, using long strips of symbols and drawings to tell stories.

Weighing of the heart by Osiris, god of the Egyptian Underworld.

Weighing of the heart by Osiris, god of the Egyptian Underworld.

One of the most impressive early attempts to tell a story through graphic representation is the Trajan’s column in Rome. Almost like an epic comic strip, the bas relief runs along the 30m (98ft) high column celebrating the emperor’s victory in the Dacian Wars. If that seems a little over the top, it’s worth remembering that using images was a way to ensure that everyone could access the information, even illiterate sections of the population. It is for this very reason that Bibles were often illustrated during the Middle Ages.

The Apocalypse: antichrist has Enoch and Elijah beheaded.

The Apocalypse: antichrist has Enoch and Elijah beheaded.

Until the first widespread use of photography in 1839 (thanks to Louis Daguerre), drawings and sketches were the common way to document events and research. In the world of medicine and science it’s important to mention the anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. The high status of the artist allowed him to conduct dissections in Renaissance Italy at a time when it was still highly controversial. From his studies of anatomy he produced over 200 detailed drawings, including the first scientific drawing of a foetus in utero. Despite the astonishing progress of technology and medical imagery, da Vinci’s drawings are still used today to teach medicine and anatomy thanks to their accuracy and level of detail.

Leonardo da Vinci the anatomist .

Leonardo da Vinci the anatomist .

Drawings and paintings also helped document the outbreak and development of major infectious diseases in a time before photography. Physicians and anatomists made accurate drawings and sketches of patients to map the exact appearance and development of diseases. An astonishing compilation of medical drawings covering cancer, smallpox and venereal diseases, to name a few, can be found in Richard Barnett’s recent publication, The Sick Rose.

Early pustules of smallpox.

Early pustules of smallpox.

Drawings and illustrations have been used as a tool to quickly and easily spread news and ideas for a long time. The Illustrated Police News in London, for instance, was one of the first British tabloids launched in 1842. The journal made great use of drawings and sketches to report domestic violence and social crimes. It encountered a large success for its coverage of Jack the Ripper’s murders which traumatised the whole of London in 1888. You can see a copy of the Illustrated Police News on display at the British Library in the brilliant Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK exhibition (on until 19 August).

Although it might make us smile today to see such important news reported in comic form, sketches are still crucial for police investigations despite the huge advancement in forensics science. Forensic sketch artists help to identify suspects by interviewing eyewitnesses and victims and reconstructing a crime scene from the evidence. Reporting bad news using comics and cartoons can make it more bearable to hear and, rightly or wrongly, distance readers to the topic.

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Cartoons and comics are also used to talk about sensitive and taboo subjects such as sexual orientation or sexually transmitted diseases. It’s not uncommon to find leaflets illustrated with cartoons in hospitals all over the UK explaining aspects of diseases and treatments to patients, especially children. Public health posters and pamphlets are common too: the high profile of HIV and AIDS in the 1980s alone led to thousands of posters being produced. The Wellcome Library’s collection of over 3000 AIDS posters reflects the importance of illustration in health education, as well as the evolution of both style and content over time as attitudes towards HIV/AIDS began to change.

A personified penis wearing a condom in bed.

A personified penis wearing a condom in bed.

Scientific publications also use comics to share their theories, including the Science Tales books by Darryl Cunningham and Graphic Medicine. We also recommend you check out Helix, a digital comic book story about DNA, its history, discovery and evolution, and what the future of DNA brings.

At Wellcome Collection we have been enjoying using illustration as a means to engage with our followers for almost a year now, thanks to the very talented Rob Bidder. Rob draws your stories and confessions every fortnight in our Medicine Now gallery for #CuriousConversations as well as in our Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition exhibition.

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Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Colliding Worlds 7: The future

Wellcome Collection recently hosted Colliding Worlds, an event exploring the extraordinary research of Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, in the thought-provoking context of a conversation with curator and art critic Hans Ulrich Obrist. From astronomy and ecological disaster to science fiction and advice to young scientists, watch the exchange below. 

We’re also publishing excerpts of the conversations that led to this event in a seven-part series. In our final Colliding Worlds post, Hans Ulrich speaks to Martin about the future and asks him what advice he’d give to a young astrophysicist.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

We know a lot about architects’ unrealised projects but we know very little about scientists unrealised projects. Do you have unrealised projects, dreams, projects which have been too big to be realised, unwritten books you want to read, to write?

Martin Rees

Obviously the most exciting things to happen in the next 25 years will be new concepts that no one’s thought of yet. It’s the unpredictable part that will be most exciting, but nonetheless there are many areas of science and technology where there is a big gap between what we would like to be able to do and what we can afford to do.

One can see this in any science where we’d like to have much bigger and more sensitive experiments than we can afford. And in technology we would like to proceed faster with new transport systems, with space exploration and so forth – but the gap between what can be done and what actually happens is going to get wider.

Manned spaceflight is one example of this. Between 1957 when the first Sputnik went up and 1969 when Neil Armstrong made his ‘one small step’ on the moon, developments was extremely rapid. Had that pace been sustained there’d be footprints on Mars long before today. But the impetus was lost because the original motive had been politics – superpower rivalry — not science. Another example is supersonic flight, We once had Concorde. But there was no social need and no economic demand, so it went the way of the dinosaurs. Of course, if you are an architect then there are certainly many buildings you would like to design, many cities which your’s like to improve or build anew. But you have to accept that there’s no realistic prospect of that happening in one’s lifetime. There’s always a big gap between aspirations and achievements – between reach and grasp. And of course that’s a good thing because otherwise we wouldn’t be driven onwards.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Maybe very last question would be Rainer Rilke wrote this wonderful little book which is an advice to a young poet, what will in 2014 be your advice to a young scientist or to a young astrophysicist.

Martin Rees

I think it’s important in science to enter a field where new things are happening — either new observations or new experiments or new techniques or instruments — because if that’s not happening then you will be trying to solve the problems that the previous generation failed to solve. And if you’re not cleverer than them you won’t succeed. So it’s best to pick on a subject where you will get a chance to apply techniques or analyse data that the older guys never had a chance to. So you don’t have to be cleverer than them to make an impact. Also, you must pick a topic matched to your talents – not trivial, but not too hard either. Obviously there’s a temptation to work on one of the most important problems — the origin of life or a unified theory of physics, for instance. As the great Peter Medawar reminded us, scientists who fail to solve problems beyond their competence earn, at best, ‘the kindly contempt reserved for utopian politicians’ — and they won’t get much satisfaction. But what you should do multiply the importance of a problem by the probability that you will solve it and maximize that product.

Be sure to read the rest of the series.