Science At the Heart of Culture

Pondering my imminent holiday, as with every holiday, my mind turns to finding cultural hotspots- museums, galleries and sites of historical interest- to marvel at. After five months at Birmingham Science City, my ‘cultural top ten’ is looking rather different. This is not so much because my tastes have changed, but it’s because my definition of ‘culture’ has deepened to include things that have radically altered the course of how we live, through science. Never again will I look at an aqueduct or a cathedral without being amazed at its engineering, the use of natural and man-made materials and the impact of these innovations on economies. No, I am not taking my job home, it is more profound than that.

Roman Aqueduct, Segovia, Spain

Culture is important not just because it is interesting. Ultimately, it is a wonderful thing because it is humanising – it helps us to appreciate and, essentially, contribute to the world around us. ‘Being cultured’ usually means being knowledgeable about things like languages, art, music and theatre- ‘the arts’. But I would argue passionately that it is only right to place the sciences under the cultural umbrella, too.

“A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery” by Joseph Wright of Derby

Reading Christine and Rhiannon’s recent blog (below) on their work experiences in STEM areas, and talking to my sixteen year-old step-daughter, Erica (who did work experience, at Aston University, on science commercialisation), it was heartening to hear genuine excitement about their discoveries. All three young people clearly enjoyed taking science out of the classroom and applying their knowledge and problem-solving skills in environments where they could have fun whilst making a difference to our everyday lives.

I was lucky enough to attend the recent opening gala of the Thinktank Science Garden. The weather was characteristically torrential, which is never a good omen for something outdoorsy. But rain seemed to enhance rather than stop play. A very substantial crowd of people of all ages and from all backgrounds came along, interacting with the science exhibits and each other. Science seemed to be uniting people across a diverse spectrum, tapping into something deeply subconscious. Special guest, Dr Alice Roberts– the University of Birmingham’s Professor of the Public Engagement in Science, spoke about seizing the opportunity to interact with science as it is ‘all around us’. She urged us to jettison the image of the lab-bound scientist operating in isolation from the world. All of us can and should be scientists- we ‘do science’ daily, even if we aren’t conscious of it. And, clearly, it can be enjoyable and life-changing. That the exhibits outside in the Science Garden were closely related to the technologies used to power some of the great innovations inside the Thinktank Science Museum, was a fact not lost on those in attendance.

Giant Hamster Wheel at the Thinktank Science Garden, Birmingham

One very interesting new development on the Birmingham Science City radar is the Digital Heritage Demonstrator, at the University of Birmingham. Its aim, as the name suggests, is to enhance access to and engagement with culture and heritage with the help of digital technologies. It will provide digital businesses with ‘tailored support from a wide range of experts in the field of digital technology and innovation and provide access to a suite of innovative multi-user, 3D multi-touch technologies, mobile devices and tablets, advanced user-testing facilities and augmented reality tools, all integrated into a unique digital prototyping lab.’ This will give these enterprises the opportunity to develop commercialisable innovations. It will therefore offer those wanting culture a whole new level of user experience.

Science does have purely practical and physical elements to it- getting us from A to B, curing sickness and building structures for us to live in- all hugely beneficial and definitely not to be underestimated. But science is also a deeply social thing. Rick and David’s blogs below illustrate how it helps us to communicate, and how it can be the prompt and the solution to us becoming more social and socially responsible- making cities (and indeed homes, hospitals, offices and so on) better places to live and work.

If we want to consider the civilizing and humanising forces for good in society, science needs to be considered as more than a helpmeet. It must be rewarded its place along with the arts, at the heart of culture.

All the best and happy holidays!

Susannah Goh