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.

Colliding Worlds 6: A fair inheritance

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 sixth Colliding Worlds post, Hans Ulrich asks Martin how science can help to provide a fair inheritance to future generations.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

You conclude your book From Here to Infinity by saying “In today’s runaway world, we can’t aspire to leave a monument lasting a thousand years, but it would surely be shameful if we persisted in policies that denied future generations a fair inheritance.” You were President of The Royal Society until a few years ago, what do you think is that institution’s role in providing future generations “a fair inheritance”.

Martin Rees

I think science is clearly going to be an important part of the solution to most social problems. To address must of this century’s challenges, we need to think internationally and also to think long-term. But that is a problem for most politicians, for whom the urgent always trumps the long-term and the parochial always trumps the global. Politicians want to please their own electors — and please them before the next election.

This is a structural problem with all attempts to address the most serious problems —providing food and energy for the world and controlling technology. I think scientists make special contribution because science and technology are crucial to meeting these challenges, and they are more far-sighted than the average person in forseeing the implications of their work. Their crystal ball is still, however, very cloudy!

Also science is the one truly global culture. As I say in my book, protons and proteins are the same all over the world and everyone looks up at the same sky wherever they are in the world, it’s universal. Scientists have a tradition of transcending political barriers – even in the depths of the Cold War there was strong and often benign contact between the physicists in the Soviet Union and in the West – so scientists are a special international community, and this perhaps gives them a special opportunity and a special commitment to doing what they can to address these problems.

It’s crucially important that we are prepared to think in a longer-term because issues like transforming to a low-carbon economy, and feeding nine billion people sustainably will depend on science. But it will take more than 50 years to achieve these goals – to transform our infrastructure — and we need to think that far ahead. And we need to care about the long-term future. We’ve got to avoid any discrimination on grounds of date of birth: we should surely value the welfare of someone born today just as much as the welfare of someone who’s now aged 50. That means we need to take precautions to ensure that lifestyles in the later part of this century will be sustainable. We are not doing this enough. It’s sad that even though we have much broader horizons in both space and time than our ancestors did, and we don’t have such immediate hazards to face, we are reluctant to plan very far ahead.

There’s, somewhat ironically, only one context where people think a long way ahead and that’s in deciding how to dispose safely of radioactive waste, when they talk seriously about whether it will be in a repository that is safe for ten thousand years. But they won’t think seriously about how we are going to keep the lights on fifty years from now or whether we will avoid causing dangerous climate change. Scientists can perhaps be more activist in campaigning to ensure that these long-term global issues don’t fall too low on the agenda.

However, scientists have to be modest. They’ve got to realise that all these political questions have a scientific dimension but they are not just scientific. They have to discuss these questions in terms of economics and ethics and politics as well, and in those arenas scientists have no special expertise. So what we need is socially engaged scientists who are prepared to raise public consciousness of long-term issues and who are prepared to engage with the public and the politicians. We all want to ensure that we navigate the century safely – but it’s going to be a bumpy ride because of the unpredictability of new technology.

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

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.

Foolish Remedies: Bloodletting

A few months ago, we asked for your best tips for curing a cold on Twitter. The answers were brilliantly illustrated by our very own Rob Bidder as part of our Curious Conversations. April Fools’ Day kicks off our Foolish Remedies series as Muriel Bailly explores other unusual cures for illnesses inspired by Henry Wellcome’s collection.

People have always been fascinated by illness and disease, whether out of self-interest, general curiosity or morbid preoccupation. It’s interesting to look at how people in the past dealt with various afflictions and how effective (or not) they were. Looking back, some make more sense than others and then there are those that really make you wonder…

The first object from the collection to illustrate this is the scarificator and bleeding bowl. They are used for bloodletting and can usually be seen in our Medicine Man gallery. Bloodletting is the practice of making a small incision in someone’s veins to let the excess of blood out (not arteries: the patient would bleed do death within seconds).

An English Scarificator with six lancets.

An English Scarificator with six lancets.

Can someone have “excess” blood? If you believe in the theory of the four humours, or humorism, then yes. Ancient Greeks and Romans mapped their understanding of human health and the body on their understanding of the universe. For them the harmony in the universe was maintained by the right balance of the four elements (air, water, fire and earth) and the four seasons (hot, dry, cold and wet). Similarly, good health was ensured by the right balance of the four humours, or body fluids, within our body: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile.

In the 2nd century AD, when Galen discovered that arteries carried blood, as opposed to air (as it was believed until then), there developed a need to “purge” the excess of blood previously not accounted for. From that moment, the practice became very popular and remained so until the 19th century.

During the 1800s, the practice of bloodletting was extremely fashionable in Europe, particularly in the UK, where people in good health were bled as regularly as they went to the market. It was considered a preventive action to boost your health, not dissimilar to drinking fresh orange juice or a yogurt type drink every morning today.

Another popular method of bloodletting was to use leeches. By 1830 France imported about 40 million leeches every year for medical purposes and in 1840 England imported 6 million leeches from France alone for the same purpose. The practice lost favour in the 19th century when doctors and researchers started questioning what the actual beneficial effects of bloodletting were. However, other inefficient and harmful treatments were still available, such as potions and tonics.

Pharmacy leech jar.

Pharmacy leech jar.

Today, bloodletting (or phlebotomy) is still practiced to cure specific illnesses such as haemochromatosis (iron overload) and polycythemia (high blood volume).

Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Games research workshop with Matt Locke

Last month, Matt Locke from Storythings hosted an insightful workshop on his research methodology and findings for an evaluation of a selection of Wellcome Collection’s recent games. Chris Chapman tells us more.

Working alongside James Melly and Silvia Novak, the team have been analysing six of our games using their Attention, Behaviour and Circulation (ABC) framework. The results have helped us to understand how well our games have reached people and how players have engaged with each game.

Listen to Matt’s presentation:

Following the discussion, and using the ABC approach, we wanted to allow attendees to brainstorm their own game ideas. Each table was therefore provided with three cards, each with a particular Attention, Behaviour or Circulation scenario written on the back. Teams were then asked to create game ideas based on their cards. Also provided was the option of a ‘Joker’ card, featuring a specific game genre to narrow down the characteristics of their game.

Game cards

Example game cards

The cards provided a useful exercise in motivating people to think about game attributes and the attention patterns that drive people to play games, whether for learning, socialising or entertainment.

Have a go yourself – download a printable pdf of the game cards:

Let us know if you find them useful and what game ideas you come up with.

Chris Chapman is a Multimedia Producer at Wellcome Collection.

Back to basics

Skeletons exhibition at Wellcome Collection. Wellcome Images

Skeletons exhibition at Wellcome Collection. Wellcome Images

Last year at a conference in Copenhagen, Wellcome Collection’s Head of Public Programmes Ken Arnold and Director of Copenhagen’s Medical Museion Thomas Söderqvist proposed a new way of looking at science exhibitions. This month, Museums Journal published their manifesto in full, and with their permission we reproduce it here on the blog.

You can find out more on the Medical Museion’s excellent Biomedicine on Display blog, but more importantly, we’d like to know what you think. Is this a vision for the future? Is this how you would like to experience exhibitions at Wellcome Collection and elsewhere? Use the comments below, or let us know on our Facebook page or via Twitter.

Just over 15 years ago, Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg spearheaded Dogme 95, a manifesto to purify the art of film-making.

The aim was to engage audiences more profoundly and make sure they weren’t distracted by over-production. The Dogme manifesto ruled out special effects, post-production changes and other tricks in order to focus on the story and the performances.

Since then, writers, theatre directors and other arts practitioners have all found inspiration in Dogme 95’s back-to-basics philosophy. Dogme has been criticised, as have some of the films made according to its rules, but as exhibition producers, this classic vow of chastity has inspired us as a way of guiding and sharpening the creative practice of making science, technology and medicine exhibitions.

These rules have been written and published with almost indecent speed. They are deliberately provocative prompts for further discussion. This manifesto is not a definitive set of working proposals, but a draft, which will no doubt be modified and sharpened through challenge and feedback.

And anyone who knows the institutions we are based at will be aware that the exhibitions we have presided over have often not followed one or more of these rules.

This manifesto is almost reference-free, but this does not mean we think the ideas are purely our own. There are vast bodies of literature on science communication, exhibition making, art history and museology; we have read some of this literature and been influenced by it. We also have learned much from the museums we have visited.

1. Exhibitions should be research-led, not a form of dissemination

Curators should use exhibitions to find things out (for themselves and for their visitors) and not just regurgitate what is already known. Good curators are inspired and imaginative researchers who find and then build on the investigations of experts and colleagues, juxtaposing varied understandings about their chosen topic. They add their own insights and gradually come up with new ideas and perspectives.

2. A scientist should always be involved in the exhibition, a technologist if it is about technology

Don’t shy away from drawing on real expertise in interpreting a topic or finding exhibits. But this is not to say that the aim of the exhibition is simply to give voice to the views of these experts. They are not, nor should they be encouraged to see themselves as, the curators, but it is vital that their perspectives are present in the final exhibition.

3. Be clear about exhibitions being “multi-authored”

Exhibitions emerge from curatorial collaborations between experts and designers. But a show’s funders, the institutional context and other stakeholders have a bearing on the final outcome; it should be possible for exhibition visitors to find out about these influences.

The project teams who make exhibitions deserve to be credited. Those responsible for the show not only need to take a bow, they also need to be held responsible for its contents and impact.

4. Use only original material

Exhibitions should engage audiences with original material rather than reproductions and props. If you cannot illustrate a topic with original artefacts, images and documents, ask yourself if an exhibition is the best way to make the point. Models, replicas and reproductions can be shown, but only if this is the point of showing them.

Reproductions of artworks should not be used, unless the work’s natural medium is “facsimile” – for example, digital photographs. The use of scientific and medical images raises complicated questions, such as what is the “original” format of a microscopic image of a cell?

Most scientific images today are minted as digital data, and their final appearance invariably owes much to enhancements and cropping. How this material should be displayed and labelled needs consideration. It is often better to leave it out all together.

5. Never show ready-made science

Focus on the processes of science: science in the making; the triumph of discovery; the frustration and blind alleys explored along the way. Also, look at the social and cultural processes of scientific ideas becoming accepted and embedded.

6. Jealously guard a place for mystery and wonder

Exhibitions provide opportunities to explore topics in ways that bring new light to sometimes forgotten or less-well understood aspects of medicine, science, technology and their histories. But this urge to demystify subjects should not be allowed to render exhibitions earnestly didactic.

Deliberately include some exhibits about which less, rather than more, is known – curious exhibits that just cannot completely be accounted for. Visitors should leave exhibitions wanting to find out more.

7. Reject most exhibition ideas

Exhibitions represent the meeting point between subjects and material culture, and can be approached from either end – themes or objects first, or a mixture of the two. But often, topics that seem promising will not be worth developing because there simply aren’t good enough objects with which to explore or support them.

Similarly, many areas of material culture end up just not being interesting enough to make a show about. Too often, exhibitions are made from empty ideas of stupid objects. It is worth searching for a topic and a set of objects that harmoniously amplify and mutually enrich each other.

8. Leave out as much as possible

Less is usually more in exhibitions. Visitors will remember and enjoy looking at 10 carefully chosen things more than a 100 that are reasonably well selected.

The most important aspect of an exhibition is its outer boundaries, which keep out the mass of distractions that lie beyond. In the digital era, a core value of a museum exhibition is that it makes its point through displaying a few selected original objects.

9. Embrace the showbusiness of exhibitions

Audiences come to exhibitions in their leisure time and deserve to be lifted out of themselves. They will respond to the drama of the best exhibits, displays, design, writing and lighting.

Make sure that all of this is done well and given the greatest polish. This will enhance the presence of the objects and the impact of the ideas. Don’t be ashamed to admit that making exhibitions is, in part, a matter of putting on a show.

10. Celebrate the ephemeral quality of exhibitions

Catalogues, web-presence and filmed versions of exhibitions can lengthen the shadows cast by exhibitions, but they will never come close to keeping alive the actual experience of visiting a show.

This is an important part of the magic of exhibitions. Like good pieces of theatre, they gain much of their energy by being around for a limited time and then disappearing. The fact that they are time-limited gives their makers a degree of freedom to experiment and be daring. Grasp it!

11. Make exhibitions true to the geography of their venues

The principle is that knowledge is “situated” – the context in which we contemplate and acquire it can seem as important as the ideas or facts themselves. Exhibition makers need to think hard about how to work with the “place” of an exhibition.

Consider what is lost in touring an exhibition where the subject becomes detached from the local context. The country, the city, the venue, the room, and the set and design of an exhibition, even the showcases and the orientation of individual objects – all have a bearing on the meanings that audiences derive from them.

12. Avoid artificial lighting

Use natural light where possible. Start with the light available and build up from it. If possible, reveal the windows and keep the doors open. Let the natural layout of the building be apparent, make it clear where you have introduced false walls. This will enable visitors to keep a sense of where they are.

And don’t fall into the trap of imagining that the background for an exhibition has either to be a neutral black box or a pristine white cube. Ideally, a show should look and feel very different on a midsummer morning to a winter evening.

13. Always involve more than one sense

It is impossible for visitors to turn off their non-visual senses in an exhibition – they will hear, touch and smell things no matter what. So make sure that some of the tactile, audio, or olfactory experiences of an exhibition are curated. Exhibitions work by teasing their visitors into thinking that they could get close enough to what they see to touch it, even while making sure they don’t.

But curators should think about how to introduce at least a few objects that visitors can touch. Never use artificial sounds or odours, but try hard to find ways to enhance the audio and olfactory qualities of the original objects, getting visitors to use their ears and noses.

14. Make exhibitions for inquisitive adults

If you aim at educationally under-achieving primary school children, it will be impossible to engage anyone else (and you are unlikely to engage even your target audience). Many children and teenagers are keenly attracted to adult culture, but very few adults see the attraction of young material.

Never make exhibitions for educational purposes – other media and methods are more effective. It’s also worth bearing in mind that exhibitions are, by their nature, a “childish” medium, bringing out playfulness in all of us. This should be encouraged, but to focus deliberately on young audiences reaps diminishing returns.

15. Remember that visitors ultimately make their own exhibitions

Some visitors might not be interested in reading what the curators write, while others might not look at many objects. Some will be interested in aspects of a topic that the curators might not have come across.

Because of this, when an exhibition opens, it is only ever the second or third draft of an idea that will, through revision, reach maybe its eighth or ninth incarnation by the time it closes.

Exhibitions should be alive, and change is a vital part of life. Even in the most “stable” shows, lights will need adjusting and labels redrafting. An exhibit might even have to be removed or replaced. More radically, some exhibitions should be deliberately half-finished, or set up so that updates can be added halfway through.

16. Make exhibitions the jumping off place for further engagement

Good exhibitions are the point of departure for a longer relationship. The value of exhibitions should only partly be judged by analysing how many people come, how long they spent in a show and what they think of it. On this basis alone, most exhibitions are foolishly expensive ventures, particularly in these cash-strapped times.

Don’t forget that, just occasionally, exhibitions can really change visitors’ lives and this is worth a lot. Effective exhibitions can also bring in new objects to museums, have an impact on recruitment, add to shop sales, improve the organisation’s reputation, and provide a context for corporate celebrations. There is a virtual avalanche of cultural capital that can flow from them: this should be valued from the start.

17. Don’t be afraid to bend, break or reinvent the rules