Colliding Worlds 5: Unrealised science

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 fifth Colliding Worlds post, Martin tells Hans Ulrich about the unrealised projects of science and the importance of scientific citizens.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

You’ve mentioned that there are two big unrealised projects, not only in your work but in contemporary science in general. Could you tell me about them and how you see them unfolding in the 21st Century?

Martin Rees

The first is an attempt to unify the physics of the very small, the quantum world, with the physics of the very large — the domain where Einstein’s theory of gravity holds sway.

Normally we get on very well without this unification because if you’re a chemist you have to apply quantum theory but you don’t need to worry about the gravitational force between two atoms in a molecule because it’s very small. On the other hand if you are an astronomer you need to consider gravity but you don’t need to worry about the quantum fuzziness in the orbits of stars and planets because that effect is tiny because the masses are so large. But to really understand the beginning of the universe, a time when the entire universe was squeezed to microscopic size, clearly we need a theory that can relate gravity to quantum effects, a so-called unified theory. Until we have such a theory we won’t really be able to understand why the universe is expanding the way it is and why it’s got the properties and ‘mix’of ingredients that it has.

But there’s one very important point that some ‘popular’ writers overlook. Even if we some day discover this unified theory, it won’t be any direct help at all to 99% of scientists because they’re are engaged with studying very complicated things — things that are neither very small nor very large but which have layer upon layer of structure, in particular living organisms. Of course we humans are the most complicated things we know about in the universe, and it’s an unending challenge to understand that complexity. So it really is the biologists who face the toughest challenge – not particle physicists, not astronomers.

A familiar analogy I’d like to give is with a game of chess. Suppose you’d never seen a game of chess being played before. By watching people play you could figure out what the rules are – that the knight moves in a jagged way, bishops move diagonally and so on. But learning how the pieces move in chess is just a trivial preliminary to the absorbing progression from being a novice to being a grand master. By analogy, learning the basic laws of physics is like knowing the rules by which matter and forces interact. But even when you understand those rules fully, even when we have a unified theory, that’s still just the beginning of understanding how those rules play out in the complex world of living things and the environment that we humans inhabit. So the biggest challenge of all is to understand complexity.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

In your book From Here To Infinity, you talk about the scientific citizen and about the necessity of collaboration between lay people and scientists. It’s interesting, at the moment we are working on a solar airplane project with the artists Sehgal and Eliasson and the Danish solar technology by Ottesen and only this one problem needs a combination of aerodynamics, of design, of solar technology; of inventors, of artists. I suppose for all big questions of the 21st Century, it needs a bringing together or a pooling of disciplines, a pooling of knowledge.

Martin Rees

To address many of the challenges, both intellectual challenges and practical challenges, we need to combine the expertise of different branches of science. One of the occupational risks of scientists is that they become so sharply focused on one particular topic that they don’t realise it is part of some bigger picture. We often need broad interdisciplinary attitudes and collaboration.

Something that ‘s extremely encouraging is a consequence of the computer revolution. It has done two things. First, it has allowed us to do simulations, virtual experiments in the virtual world of a computer, which can supplement real experiments. Aeronautical engineers can now compute the flow of air over an aerofoil without necessarily having to do an actual experiment in a wind tunnel. Astronomers of course can’t do experiments on stars and galaxies in the real universe, and therefore benefit hugely from doing ‘experiments’ in the virtual world of computer simulations.

Another by-product of the information technology age is the internet, which has allowed far more people to participate in science. Before the internet there were a few sciences, like botany, where amateurs could make a contribution. But now anyone with a computer and access to the internet can download huge data sets in astronomy, in environmental science or in microbiology; they can analyse the data and look for patterns themselves. This mass effort by amateurs will surely speed up the development of science, and that’s necessary because the rate at which the information is being gathered is getting so large that the few professionals can’t handle it all.

Be sure to read the rest of the series as they are published.

Colliding Worlds 4: Science fiction

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 fourth Colliding Worlds post, Hans Ulrich finds out how Martin feels about science fiction and the visual arts.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

I was kind of wondering if you could talk a little bit about your relationship to science fiction, if you’ve had dialogues or friendships or collaborations with science fiction writers over the years or your interest in it.

Martin Rees

I certainly encourage people to read science fiction. Indeed I tell my students it’s better to read first-rate science fiction than second-rate science. It’s much more interesting and no more likely to be wrong!

I think imagination can be nourished by the best science fiction. I hugely admire the classics like HG Wells. But a special favourite is Olaf Stapledon who wrote in the 1930s two classic books, one called Star Maker which was a pioneer’s speculation about how universes might be created, and another, Last and First Men, which was one of the first books to actually explore the very very distant future.

These works exemplify how science fiction writers offer an imaginative vision that can inspire all readers, even those who are professional scientists. As regards more recent science fiction, I am not an avid reader of it but I would strongly recommend a wonderful book called Aliens by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart where they in fact condense the plots of a lot of science fiction books. I wish there were more books like this one, because science fiction books are rarely fine works of literature, but are interesting for their ideas. So if you can actually absorb the ideas in a condensed form you don’t lose as much as you would lose in getting a condensed version of a serious work of literature. So I am excited by the concept of science fiction even though I’m not a voracious reader of science fiction.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Wonderful, and what about the visual arts?

Martin Rees

My colleague in Cambridge, John Barrow, has collaborated with Martin Kemp on quite a few activities linking science and arts. I am interested in the visual arts, and particularly admire the sculpture of Helaine Blumenfeld (a friend who seems to me to get far too little critical acclamation compared to others with far less talent and persistence), but I wouldn’t say that art has as much impact on my thoughts in the way that literature and music do.

Be sure to read the rest of the series as they are published.

Colliding Worlds 3: Sixth extinction

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 third Colliding Worlds post, Martin answers questions from Hans Ulrich about the risk of a ‘sixth extinction’.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Now I’ve just been reading over the weekend a new book by Elizabeth Kolbert called The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. She says that over the last half a billion years there have been five mass extinctions on earth when the diversity of life suddenly contracted and she says that what could happen now is actually the sixth extinction, and maybe the most devastating extinction since the asteroid impact that destroyed and wiped out the dinosaurs, so it’s kind of interesting because we talk a lot about climate change and we talk a lot about ecology but maybe the most urgent notion which really makes us more aware of this imminent danger is that notion of extinction so I just wanted to see if you would agree with that and what is your view on extinction.

Martin Rees

Yes indeed. As I said earlier, one class of threats for this century are those stemming from the pressures we as humans are collectively imposing on the planet. There are more of us, and each of us is more demanding in terms of energy and resources; already about 40% of the biomass of the earth is being used directly or indirectly by humans. So humans are very much the dominant species in the biosphere, and we are of course changing the biosphere by causing extinctions. And of course climate change could happen too fast for species to adjust to it and that will be an aggravating factor for extinctions, so certainly the extinctions are a consequence of the impact that we are collectively having on the environment.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Would you agree with Elizabeth Kolbert that that threat of the sixth extinction, that it could lead to the biggest extinction since the dinosaurs? Martin Well how big it is depends on how humanity controls its development in the coming century. Obviously if global warming became very acute, or if we destroyed entire ecosystems then this may indeed be serious, so certainly this could happen. I wouldn’t want to comment on how likely it is –nor be too alarmist — because the outcome depends on many uncertainties: how humanity’s technology will develop, how the population will evolve after mid-century and many other inponderables.

Martin Rees

Of course one ‘doomsday’ scenario is runaway ecological catastrophe which would lead to mass extinctions — but which scenario actually turns into reality will depend on choices which we and the next one or two generations make.

Be sure to read the rest of the series as they are published.

Colliding Worlds 2: Ecological disaster

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 second Colliding Worlds post, Hans Ulrich speaks to Martin about his views on the fragility of our global situation, looming ecological disaster and the role of the concerned scientist.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

In the last couple of years there has been ever growing interest among many artists in your books, such as Our Final Century, and From Here To Infinity, where you address the fragility of our current condition. As early as the 60s there was an awareness about the looming ecological disaster, but when did this enter your work?

Martin Rees

I think I first became concerned with the fragility of our global situation through concern about nuclear weapons during the later part of the cold war – especially in the 1980s. I involved myself in the Pugwash Conferences and other activities of that kind. This led, later on, to a concern about how the advance in technology is generating new threats to the planet. These threats are of two kinds: our collective actions are depleting resources, disrupting ecosystems and affecting the climate; and also novel risks stemming from the misuse (by error or terror) of ever more powerful technology by a few individuals. Ten years ago I wrote Our Final Century, which was really an attempt to highlight the risks that may confront us later in this century. This is a theme I’ve continued to engage with in the subsequent years.

I am sometimes asked whether my being an astronomer brings anything special to this subject. I think there’s indeed one special perspective that astronomers offer, which is an awareness of the huge future lying ahead.

Most people who are familiar with Darwinism know that we are the outcome of about four billion years of evolution on Earth, starting from simple organisms and evolving towards our present biosphere, and of course human beings. However, most people, I think, see us humans as the culmination of evolution. No astronomer could think that way. That’s because we’ve learnt that the sun has five or six billion years to go before it flares up and dies: it’s less than halfway through its life! So we should think of humans as just some intermediate stage in evolution. Much more wonderful creatures will emerge in the future here on earth and far beyond. Indeed that claim is strengthened because future evolution may be much faster – intelligently directed rather than natural selection, and perhaps eventually silicon-based rather than organic.

The reason that we should be so concerned about what happens this century is that if we snuff out human life, it’s not just us and our immediate descendants who would be destroyed, but we would destroy the potential for post-human life which could extend for billions of years. So the stakes seem even higher to an astronomer than to most people because we are aware that a disaster here on earth this century could foreclose millennia or even millions of years of future evolution.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Yes and also it would extinguish the possibility of life on other planets?

Martin Rees

That’s right. But of course if humans can eventually escape from the earth and produce self-sustaining colonies, our species would thereafter be less vulnerable to the kinds of disaster that could affect most of the earth. I think that within a few centuries there will indeed be small communities living away from the earth. They will of course be empowered by huge computer power, and an understanding of genetics and they will use the knowledge of those fields to modify their progeny to adapt to that alien environment. At that stage the post-human era will begin, because they will adapt to a different environment to the extent that they would within only a few centuries become a different species.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

I was also interested in the idea that very often, as the artist Orion Pernosky says, we invest in a future made out of fragments from the past. You’ve mentioned Joe Rablat, in relation to the Pugwash Movement as a kind of the model of the concerned scientist, and I was wondering if you could tell me what inspired you from Joe’s work and if there are any other scientists from the past whom you consider influences or inspirations.

[editors note: The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs are an international organization that brings together scholars and public figures to work toward reducing the danger of armed conflict and to seek solutions to global security threats. It was founded by Joseph Rotblat in 1957 and Rotblat and the Pugwash Conference won jointly the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995].

Martin Rees

I became interested in the Pugwash Movement because I got to know people like Joe Roblat, Hans Bethe and Rudolf Peierls, who had all been involved in creating the first nuclear weapons at Los Alamos in World War II. These man, all great scientists, felt an obligation to do all they could in civilian life to control the power that they had helped to unleash. I was very impressed by their commitment and their sense of responsibility. They are all sadly now dead, but I feel it is important that younger scientists should learn from their attitudes – their conscience and their commitment.

We now need ‘concerned scientists’ not just in the context of nuclear weapons but also in other areas. We need them to ensure that all the other areas of science which are of social relevance, in biomedicine and in computers and robotics, are exploited in ways that benefit us but that we strive to avoid their serious downsides. One of my current activities,incidentally, is helping to set up a Cambridge-based group to study the extreme risks that may confront humanity if we don’t control advancing technology in the bio, cyber and robotics spheres.

Be sure to read the rest of the series as they are published.

Colliding Worlds 1: Why astronomy?

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 first Colliding Worlds post, Hans Ulrich asks Martin why he became an astrophysicist.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

I’m very curious to know about the relationship between your work and art, and if you’ve had dialogues with artists. The first question I was curious about your beginnings because you started very early to connect to science, but I was wondering if there was an epiphany or a sudden revelation which brought you to cosmology and to astrophysics or how it all started.

Martin Rees

No, I didn’t have any epiphany at all. I came rather gradually to astronomy. When I was at school I specialised in science more because I was bad at languages than for any other reason. I turned out to be good at mathematics, so it seemed natural to study that subject at university. But I quickly realised I was not cut out to be a mathematician and prefered a more ‘synoptic’ subject where I could apply my mathematical skills to some complex phenomena. I thought of being an economist but for various reasons I ended up doing astrophysics. This was in the 1960s — a specially good time for a beginner, because the subject was opening up with the first discovery of black holes, the first evidence of big bang, etc.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

You were a pioneer of actually proposing these very big black holes as sort of power quasars. I was speaking to Gerhard Richter the other day, and he said his was all student work but then at a certain moment he had this revelation of the first kind of blurred photographic painting and that marked the number one in his catalogue raisonné. Now, a scientist doesn’t have that much of a catalogue raisonné as an artist – obviously there are the published papers and there are the books – but where would your catalogue raisonné start? What was the first discovery or paper you wrote where you felt that it was your breakthrough, that you had found your language?

Martin Rees

Well, when new objects are discovered, normally they often display some mysterious aspects that pose a puzzle. When a subject is new, the experience of older people is at a heavy discount and young scientists can immediately make an impact. I was able to think about these objects when they were first discovered when I was young, and I did some early work on some puzzling phenomena on quasars which are very powerful distant objects.

Be sure to read the rest of the series as they are published.

Museum participation

Back in April, we hosted Drawabout: a relaxed roving drawing experience within the Medicine Now gallery space. Jack Millner tells us about how it enabled him to engage with our gallery and about participation in museums; a significant element of our current exhibition, An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition.

design by Jennifer Rae Atkins

Featuring guidance from a curiously adorned and mustachioed Adam Taffler from performance company Adamotions, our Drawabout event was a combination of storytelling and drawing. People were drawn alongside objects in the gallery as Adam and the group discussed the themes and stories around them, which were in turn incorporated into the drawings.

Medicine Now explores aspects of medical history through art and science, making drawing a natural way to engage with the exhibit for both children and adults. Taffler invited the participants to discover meaning in the objects through discussion and art, playfully exploring the connection between mind and body, disease and mental health.

The Drawabout was a fun way of engaging with Medicine Now, but it made me start to imagine activities that could harness the potential of participatory theatre in gallery and exhibition spaces more generally.

The history of medicine offers up a rich landscape for dramatisation and participation – imagine stepping into an 18th Century human dissection in an anatomy theatre and making sketches of the body parts in a morbid twist on life drawing.

A lecture at the Hunteriana Anatomy School.

A lecture at the Hunteriana Anatomy School.

The success of Secret Cinema, the company that transports its audience into the world of a film using dressing up, actors and audience participation, has shown that immersive theatre can breathe new life into familiar content, as well as provide a memorable and fun night out.

So why should galleries and museums be any different?

In fact, participation is often a central part of science exhibitions and children’s museums – the Exploratorium in San Francisco is an exhibition space built entirely around interactivity. And do you remember how much fun you had as a child in the Science Museum’s launchpad?

In her book, The Participatory Museum, Nina Simon makes the case for participation in museums for adults too. She imagines an institution that “uses participatory engagement as the vehicle for visitor experiences.”

People learn more effectively when they take part rather than just observe; breaking the one-way flow of information in a traditional gallery space could enrich the experience for everyone.

The Participatory Museum is available to read online, and you can check out Nina Simon’s blog, Museum 2.0 here too.

Russell Dornan talks about our latest participatory exhibition

Our current exhibition, An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition, takes participation a little further: half of what’s on show has been contributed to or generated by our visitors. For every letter of the alphabet there’s a theme presented in the gallery and explored through Henry Wellcome’s weird and wonderful collection of objects. Opposite each one is your chance to explore the theme in a different way.

A visitor listening to some music on the "For your contribution" side of the exhibition, featuring listening stations and digital games.

A visitor listening to some music on the “For your contribution” side of the exhibition.

From weighing in on debates (such as “is war inevitable?” or “are you ever too old to have a baby?”) to adding your height mark to the wall; from adding parts to an ongoing story to writing your fears down and leaving them with us, we are asking our visitors, all fellow experts in the human condition, to simultaneously explore and add to the exhibition.

R is for Resourcefulness.

R is for Resourcefulness.

K is for Keeping up appearances. We've asked visitors to draw how they present themselves to the world.

K is for Keeping up appearances. We’ve asked visitors to draw how they present themselves to the world.

T is for Tale-telling.

T is for Tale-telling.

You don’t need to visit to be a part of it. Several themes ask for submissions on Instagram: share your images that evoke urban living or reveal something curious you’ve spotted in nature. We’re printing your photos out and putting them in the gallery itself as well as adding them to our Tumblr.

U is for Urban living. Share your photos using #HumanSardines and we'll display them in the gallery.

U is for Urban living. Share your photos using #HumanSardines and we’ll display them in the gallery.

S is for Skin. Share a photo of your tattoo on Instagram using #HumanSkin and we'll add it to the album in our gallery.

S is for Skin art.

Wether you’re able to visit Wellcome Collection or not, we would love you to participate in our exhibition and add your stories to the #HumanCondition.

Jack Millner is one of our Wellcome Trust funded Science Journalism students.

Russell Dornan is the Web Editor at Wellcome Collection.

Object of the month: Shrunken Heads (real and fake)

As part of our development project, the tsantsa (or, shrunken head) normally on display in Medicine Man is in storage. Our replica tsantsa, however, which forms part of our cross-gallery handling collection, can still be seen. This month Charlie Morgan delves into the history and controversy of this erstwhile cultural practice. N.b. although this series is called Object of the Month, real tsantsas are comprised of human remains and we in no way mean to dehumanise them.

Shrunken head, Shuar

Shrunken head, Shuar

At some point in the mid-16th century, Spanish Conquistadors entered the Amazon rainforest and came into contact with the Shuar people. In the epic colonisation of Latin America, one more indigenous group would not have made much of an impact if it had it not been for two factors: gold and tsantsas. To gain the former, the Spanish Empire tore up its initial peace agreements and subjugated the Shuar in a brutal mining system. In 1599, The Shuar – amongst other tribes – revolted against the Spanish, sacked their towns and – as the story goes – to satisfy the insatiable lust of the Spanish governor, poured molten gold down his throat. The area never again came under complete colonial control.

To obtain tsantsas, subsequent expansionists took a different approach. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, collectors would routinely arrive in the borderlands of Ecuador and Peru, laden with money, weapons or both, dead-set on exchange. Europeans and Americans might by that time have grown to fear the Shuar, but they were still utterly obsessed with shrunken heads.

A Shuar shrunken head (tsantsa) from Ecuador.

A Shuar shrunken head (tsantsa) from Ecuador.

Despite that fact that tsantsas have only ever been produced by the Shuar people, it is often assumed that head shrinking was, and is, a globally ubiquitous phenomenon of indigenous groups: Papua New Guinea and parts of Africa being oft-ventured guesses. Yet aside from re-thinking our assumptions of where they might be made, it’s also important to consider the why.

The Spanish colonialists assumed the Shuar were a very warlike people’ because of the 1599 revolt and because they shrunk human heads – both, apparently, for no particular reason. However, while we now know the first was a legitimate act of anti-colonial resistance, we also know that the second was done for a very specific purpose.

Central to historic Shuar belief systems is an adherence to the idea of multiple, yet interlinking, souls, and one of the most powerful is the vengeful soul. Traditionally, if someone were to be killed in battle, the greatest fear of the murderer would be that the dead person’s soul could wreak havoc upon them from the afterlife; in order to prevent this happening the soul would have to be trapped. As the Shuar believed that the soul resides within the head, the best way to do this was to shrink it. Click here to read about the head shrinking process.

While head shrinking may be a unique trait of Shuar history, heads have been removed from foes in numerous places and in most cases they have been prominently displayed. At the Tower of London, heads of executed traitors were rammed onto spikes and in medieval Japan those removed by Samurai would be treated similarly. Not so with tsantsas.

Shrunken heads were produced to trap souls; once done, the soul had no way of escaping. The crucial part was not the end product but rather the process. As such, despite the fact that some heads would be paraded at feasts and hung up on display, others would be thrown away or even given to children to play with. In reality, a tsasnta only attained value as an object in itself when, akin to gold, it was integrated into the global networks of modern capitalism.

Shrunken head compared with normal human skull

Shrunken head compared with normal human skull

Henry Wellcome obtained the shrunken head normally displayed in Medicine Man from the Stevens Auction Room in 1925. It cost £25 but it’s entirely possible that wasn’t just for the head: Stevens was well known to bundle objects together if he knew Wellcome was interested. He would then hike up the price as far as he could. How the head got to the auction in the first place we don’t know, but by the end of the 19th century the Euro-American lust for tsantsas was so extreme that more were being produced for trade than for the trapping of souls. Collectors would trade guns for heads and the guns would create heads to be traded for guns. For those that try to explain indigenous practice through colonial ideas of ‘modernity’ vs. ‘backwardness’, this is problematic because if head shrinking was a ‘backward’ practice it was far more escalated by ‘modernity’ than limited by it.

There is one final caveat. While the collecting of tsantsas was often very destructive it would be a mistake to see the Shuar as just passive victims. One aspect of the trade can be better explained by our replica tsantsa than by the real one. The shrunken head in our handling collection is made out of animal skin but is otherwise produced in exactly the same way that a human one would be (and looks remarkably similar). At the height of 19th century trade, wealthy collectors would often purchase tsantsas and put them on display, unaware that what they had been sold was made of animal skin. It’s estimated that this applies to 80% of all shrunken heads ever displayed. Like most objects in Wellcome Collection, the tsantsa tells more than one story.

Charlie is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.