Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Midsemester's Read

In today's post we review a nice play about science and society.  We are co-teaching an upper-level class called "Biology, Evolution and Society" -- which is just what it sounds like.  We cover genetics, evolution, the history of the ideas, their place in society, how they've been received, and so forth.  The students are great; interested and interesting, and fun to work with.

This week we're reading a play called An Experiment with an Air Pump, by Shelagh Stephanson, published in 1998.  The action takes place in England at the turn of the 18th century and the turn of the 20th.

It's a good read.  When the play opens, a scientist, his family and a friend are re-enacting experiments done,  by Robert Boyle and others in the 1600's with air pumps to explore the nature of gases, air, and vacuums.  One experiment by Boyle first demonstrated that animals require air to live, as depicted in Joseph Wright's painting above, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, from 1768.  Wright paints a complex array of emotions into this one small scene -- fear on the children's part that the bird will die, scientific curiosity and remove, the absorption of two lovers, the boy in the corner pulling the drapes or getting down the bird cage, it's not clear which.  The central figure seems to be inviting us, the observers, to be curious about the bird's fate as well.

Wright, a British landscape and portrait artist, painted this picture at the height of the Enlightenment, a time when it was thought that science and reason were the path to understanding and human social progress.  He produced a series of candle-lit paintings depicting scientific experiments with the kind of reverence usually reserved for religious scenes.  The Bird in the Air Pump is one of these. 

Stephanson bases her play on this painting.  Her18th century scientist, Joseph Fenwick, is a radical, sure that science and reason will put an end to the monarchy, democracy will come, and society will be much improved.  Calm during an uprising that he can hear from his window, he says, "The best tonic in the world is the sound of institutions crumbling." His two daughters keep trying to get him to watch a play they've been rehearsing, "a hymn to progress."  Fenwick's friend, Roget, however, questions Fenwick's belief that science will solve all social ills.

One of the characters is fascinated by the skeletal anomaly of a homely hunchbacked servant girl, whom he woos so that when she is naked he can examine her unusual skeletal anomaly, to tragic effect.  Anatomical knowledge was central to medical science in those days, the days of the grave-robbers.....

The 20th century scenes echo those of 200 years before, with scientists, questioners, lay people with strong ideas of their own.  The modern scientist, Ellen, is a geneticist, trying to decide whether to go to work for a company that is able to noninvasively determine the genotype of embryos soon after conception.  Her husband is disturbed by the moral and ethical implications of this kind of science, but Ellen has no qualms.
I could have avoided filthy commercialism and struggled along on bits of funding from now till doomsday.  I did consider it actually.  But this is too exciting.  I can't resist it, basically.  It wasn't an intellectual decision.  It was my heart.  I felt it beat faster when I thought of all the possibilities."
 Indeed, the play opens with Ellen explaining why she loves Wright's painting so much:
I've loved this painting since I was thirteen years old.  I've loved it because it has a scientist at the heart of it, a scientist where you usually find God.  Here, centre stage, is not a saint or an archangel, but a man.  Look at his face, bathed in celestial light, here is a man beatified by his search for truth.  As a child enraptured by the possibilities of science, this painting set my heart racing, it made my blood tingle in my veins: I wanted to be this scientist; I wanted to be up there in the thick of it, all eyes drawn to me, frontiers tumbling before my merciless deconstruction.  I was thirteen.  Other girls wanted to marry Marc Bolan.  I had smaller ambitions.   I wanted to be God. 
 The painting described the world to me.  The two small girls on the right are terrified he's going to kill their pet dove.  The young scientists on the left is captivated, fascinated, his watch primed, he doesn't care whether the dove dies or not.  For him what matters is the process of experiment and the intoxication of discovery.  The two young lovers next to him don't give a damn about any of it.
But the elderly man in the chair is worried about what it all means.  He's worried about the ethics of dabbling with life and death.  I think he's wondering where it's all going to end....
 And the play goes on from there.  Stephanson manages to cover in 96 pages -- or 2 hours on stage -- many important issues related to the role of science in society.  Can science be value free?  Should scientists be detached from the objects of their work?  Will reason lead to progress?  Can scientists play God?

These questions are, of course, relevant to many in our society today.

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