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27/11/2014

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Review: One Culture at the Royal Society

Robin Bisson takes a weekend out

The UK’s most prestigious scientific institution seems an unlikely venue for a celebration of literature and the arts, but the Royal Society’s One Culture festival brought together artists and scientists to explore their common ground, aiming to bring a fresh audience through the doors. A packed schedule of talks and events uncovered some surprising overlaps between the two worlds, but could reach out to a broader range of people.

The weekend event marked 350 years since the Royal Society’s library acquired its first book, and featured stars of literature and science including Sebastian Faulks, Marcus Du Sautoy, Michael Frayn and Paul Nurse. Most events took the form of talks or conversations between speakers, but there were also plays on the lives of Robert Hooke and Samuel Pepys alongside events for families. Beating a path through a busy line-up, I went to a bit of everything to find out if there really is only ‘one culture’.

Thoughts and feelings

Various events focussed on consciousness and the mind. Where science tries to explain experience, literature lets the reader explore it, but in pursuit of these different goals the tools scientists and artists use turned out to be surprisingly similar.

Saturday morning saw three neuroscientists paired with three writers or theatre-makers, to discuss the physical nature of communication beyond the meanings of words: facial expressions, the sounds of language, and how writers convey feelings and sensation. A particular high point was director Jon Wright who brought the audience right in, getting a strong physical reaction to actors sporting masks with grossly exaggerated expressions.

Similar themes were brought up by Sebastian Faulks, who talked about ‘being other people’ in the process of writing. Light hearted but engaging (he described Freud as ‘wonderful prose but complete nonsense’), his descriptions of living through a fictional character not only gave a fascinating insight into the creative process but also pricked scientific curiosity from the audience into the unconscious processes behind empathy.

Mathematical stories

Both days featured numerous events on mathematics. A conversation between Apostolos Doxiadis, author of the graphic novel Logicomix, and Marcus Du Sautoy, mathematician and Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, focussed on the challenges of expressing mathematics through the narrative structure of literature. Du Sautoy pointed out that the pleasures to be had from mathematics and literature were similar, since ‘who really cares if Fermat’s Last Theorem is correct or not? It’s about the journey!’

Apostolos Doxiadis explained how the ancient Greeks first expressed mathematical theorems through strict poetic forms. This idea of how narratives emerge in both science and literature was a recurring theme through the weekend, relating how scientific discoveries are only properly appreciated when set in the context of their discovery.

Highs and lows

Some quirkier events proved to be some of the best. Brian Dillon gave a brilliant talk on how various great scientists and artists have suffered from hypochondria, and how this has affected its status as a medical condition. Charlotte Sleigh explored how perspectives on science communication can be mapped through the portrayal of science in contemporary literature.

Although the festival-goers hailed from the worlds of art, science and social science, there was a conspicuous lack of families, and the events aimed at younger audiences did not fare so well. This was perhaps due to an overabundance of talks, with few events in which visitors could get involved.

One Culture was the brainchild of Uta Frith, who at the close of the weekend was ‘delighted’ with the overall event, lamenting the lack of families but promising the festival would be back next year, ‘bigger and better’.

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Robin Bisson
Robin Bisson is a research student in science communication at the Open University
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