Ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, Μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ
πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσε
I could very well have begun like this. In an iron horse across the wine dark seas was just how it felt to arrive by train along the pristine beaches of Aberdeen. While the looming grey buildings mirror the dark clouds overhead, the city does have immense charm with its cobbled streets and crisp sea breeze.
I kicked off my first day at the Festival with a symposium on “how the body shapes the mind.” The panel consisted of Stephano Cappa, Gabriella Vigliocco, Gün Semin and Arthur Glenbery. It was very interesting to hear their ideas on the different approaches to mind and body from the philosophical musings of John Locke to the modern ideas of the brain as an abstract symbol manipulator. They challenged the traditional distinction between low-order (e.g. motor control) and high-order (e.g. language) functions. It was interesting to see how perceptions, actions and emotions influence our understanding of the world around us and how that can be investigated through language. I especially enjoyed Arthur Glenbery’s talk on how associating motor tasks with reading words could improve the reading ability in children Gün Semin’s talk illustrated how even the ostensibly mundane question “why does the bride wear black?” could lead scientists towards some of the most fundamental concepts about human nature.
I spent the time in-between talks roaming around with Beckie, Nyx and Ed; having lunch at the hub and that most dreaded of all activities: mingling.
Then it was off to see “Dissections – uncut” and “Sperm warefare” by Simon Watt. Two talks with some of the most squeemish yet enlightening visuals I have ever seen. While the first focused more on the issues involved in shooting the documentary “Inside Nature’s Giants,” the latter was more informative about evolution and sexual selection. There were some interesting ideas about how diverse gene slecetion startegies can be across different life forms and the ever surprising aspects of evolution. The talk also had some interesting ideas about sexuality in humans and why men and women behave the way they do. Looking at all those slides of different animals and thinking of these concepts brought to mind those illuminating lines from “the Marriage of Heaven and Hell” by William Blake:
What is now proved was once, only imagind.
The rat, the mouse, the fox, the rabbet; watch the roots,
the lion, the tyger, the horse, the elephant, watch the fruits.
The cistern contains: the fountain overflows
One thought. fills immensity…
I think what Blake is trying to tell us is that we are all at the mercy of our fundamental natures. But it seems he goes on to say that our minds should not simply be repositories of knowledge (like a cistern containing water), but overflow (like a fountain) with ideas and thoughts to be shared with our fellow creatures. That, I believe, is the essence of the British Science Festival. I look forward to the coming week and the overflow of knowledge and ideas which might even fill my cistern and turn it into a fountain.