BRIANWAVE COLUMN No 21: December 1995

Common Ground

Brian J Ford

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The last time I went to the British Association’s annual jamboree was to host one of my BBC programmes devoted to the talks. This year’s meeting was the first time I had been to present a lecture. The thrust of eager children, and exuberant adults from all walks of life, was heart-warming. If science is yet to become part of common culture then this must be the way to do it. Yet how much interest is there in science as culture? When I launched my 'Where are you taking us?' series for the BBC I was conscious of making the first programme to take science as culture. It was also one of the last.

Mary Archer held a British Association audience in her hand as she spoke from her stand-point as a chemist. She has been researching the abundance of natural energy. Her most memorable conclusion is also the simplest: we receive, from the sun, enough energy in an hour to meet the world’s needs for a year. There is, assuredly, no shortage of energy. It’s the wit and wisdom to use it wisely that is the problem.

The mental abilities of old people were challenging our preconceptions, too. Elizabeth Maylor of Cambridge University now shows that - when it comes to tasks demanding reliability - older people tend to be more successful than the young. A recent report in Scientific American averred that nonagenarians show remarkable mental abilities.

Science also emerged in its essentially humanitarian guise. One of the most hopeful new areas is the use of artificial implants to restore hearing to the profoundly deaf. A tiny electronic device can replace a non-functioning cochlea, and translate sounds into mental stimuli. Barry McCormick has just announced his findings after a programme of scientific research into techniques of implantation in practice. He described the thrilled expressions of those who witness a child, deaf from birth, talking on a telephone.

Yet still we persist in feeling that science is somehow remote from life. I was delighted to learn that there was a meeting on ‘science as culture’ organised in London a little while ago. The thrill was short-lived, for the title eventually chosen was ‘science and culture’ (my italics) just to prove how the organisers couldn’t put the two together.

As the southbound train pulled into the station, departing delegates from the British Association were regaled by singing announcements. They are provided by Lindsey Brown, and her clear delivery sounds like a Gregorian chant. The maintenance of set frequencies means that syllables are less likely to be lost under new resonances from a conventional speaker in a large and echoing station, which is why psalms in great churches are traditionally sung in fixed monotones. To the passengers her novel technique seems a pleasant, personal touch. To me, the gain in clarity is an example of practical science. What could be more scientific - or more commonplace?

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