Monday 21 August 2017

The grit that niggles

This is by way l'esprit d'escalier: all those witty and trenchant things you think of as you descend the stairs after the interview. We were invited to a birthday party last weekend. These things are a bit daunting for The Beloved and me, partly because social events happen so rarely that we get out of practice. Birthday Boy is an artist (more conceptual than my father's water colours) with a strong theme of feminism and science about his oeuvre, so you never know whom you might meet at his gigs.

One of the problems with morphing from wrinkly to crumbly is that you get lost in the middle of a sentence and never get it to . . . Part of that is, of course, that conversation is a dialogue and you have to give the other chap some space in the conversation. The Blob is a bit easier that way because a) it's not in real time [it is now 0255hrs as I write] and b) nobody is interrupting.

One of the people I met at the bday seemed to follow what I was saying about databases, servers and the human genome and it turned out that he was Artist in Residence AiR at CONNECT "the world leading Science Foundation Ireland [SFI] Research Centre for Future Networks and Communications". I was intrigued because we have just submitted a grant application to SFI to forment relationships among artists + scientists and + teens in order to promote FITNa. The AiR seemed to be already embedded in that role . . . although I have no idea whether nascent scientists get access to him wearing his AiR hat-of-power. I put forward the idea that Science can be rather magisterial because it is now much more the Age of Science than the Age of Aquarius, The Gods of STEM have brought us cars, mobile-phones, wind-farms and server-farms [just to mention a few of the items of tech kit that had appeared earlier in our dialogue] and it is as if everything worth having is due to science. I suggested that we scientists could have a teeny bit more humility about this because Science is A Way of Knowing [bloboprev] but surely not the only way of generating 'value'. Philosophers, geographers, historians and linguists all add value to the trudge between cradle and grave. Not to mention potters, weavers, painters, poets, singers and sculptors.

Our application was submitted through SFI's Discover programme which promotes inter-disciplinary collaboration. A tiny fraction of the SFI budget [Total = €184m in 2016] goes to that sort of thing. The bulk, I suppose quite properly (There is an Arts Council - [€65m in 2017] after all!), goes to fund those who are hewing at the coal-face of science. The Discover programme could be seen as a crumb that falls from the table: The Gods of Science will allow Art to taste the ambrosia of science.  Oh oh the hubris.

But it does not have to be like that. Bringing outsiders in to scrutinise the work of science can be a positive good. I'm not talking about outsiders as peer-reviewers of scientific manuscripts for publication - they are insiders. Outsiders are AiRs - and others - who get to sit in on our lab meetings and a) force us to analyse what we are saying/thinking in order to get the language intelligible. Visiting seminar speakers will often, as a courtesy, have a session with individual post-grads after their talk: a different world-view, a different experience can often expose an unwarranted assumption. Steven Pinker recommends your old college room-mate who is smart but in a different field. If you can't explain your idea to a 15 y.o., or a visiting professor, or an AiR, then it is is probably too woolly to be correct. The mere act of articulating your thoughts, can help you work them through and give insight.  But it gets better; once you've gotten over the language barrier, the AiR can act as the grit than niggles . . . and forces the development of a pearl: a truly original creative idea.

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