Faraday’s cupboard is bare

by Michael

Old father Faraday's cupboard at the Ri seems to be bare

Old father Faraday’s cupboard at the Ri seems to be bare

I’ve noted before that scientists – as a group – are often some of the most conservative (with a small ‘c’) people in society. They hate change. Now I am not good with change either, but I mostly restrict that to my own life. On a grander scale, I think change can be creative, ‘scientific’ and, most importantly, perhaps, inevitable.

Take those scientists involved in conservation, for example. Darwin spelled it out for us, but we seem to conveniently forget that extinction is a fundamental part of evolution. And yet the conservationists get all squirly when species become ‘endangered’. Now, an endangered species is, by definition, not doing a great job of surviving in the world. Something has tipped the scales out of its favour and it is in decline. Coming up with innovative ways to prop up a lifeform does it no favours in the long run – like subsidies in a free market, it creates false balances that then have to be maintained at all costs, which, like the CAP in Europe, prevents anyone ever being able to move back from the position, or even move on from it.

Now I get it: many species in the endangered list are there because the factor against them is us – humans. But we are a part of the ecosystem, and as much as we think we can stand back from it all and decide which species to save and which to let slide under, I don’t think it gets us very far. We are, in fact, interfering with natural selection. Of course, that’s kind of ok, because our role in the ecosystem just becomes a more complicated one and whatever we do, we are exerting some sort of balance of selection pressure on all other species but, as with the market examples, it takes more effort to artificially extend the non-extinction of a species, and insofar as it is a choice, it is the conservativism of the scientific community (broadly speaking) that interests me.

A whale

A whale

And what are we saving? A friend recently explained to me that she was concerned she wasn’t doing enough; her impact in the world might not be of the scale she had hoped for. She wanted me to help her save the whales. Whales are being killed on the spurious grounds that they are being used for ‘research’, when – it seems – everyone knows, that research is usually a taste-test in a fine dining establishment in Japan or Norway. She hoped that I would mobilise the weight of my employer (a British research funder) to expose the spurious research rationale, opening the way to a ban on all killing of whales. My response was less than overwhelming: I don’t care about the whales. Mostly for the reasons above and a little bit because I find them kind of freaky.

The argument that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone (or some version of that) holds no weight with me either. We love dinosaurs. No human being ever has ever seen a dinosaur but we love them anyway. Whales can have a similar place in our hearts. Even better that they don’t have to be real, with their frankly disturbing physiques and creepy need to swim all the time (I have never seen a real whale in its natural habitat). We don’t need to conserve them – especially if by conserving them, we prevent something amazing evolving in their place.

Why am I writing about this now? Well, it seems the Royal Institution (Ri) may have to sell its home in order to avoid going under. This has galvanised the scientific community in the UK (and in some parts elsewhere, I’m sure), who express enormous dismay at the Ri’s possible demise but particularly at the prospect of the building where Faraday demonstrated electricity being sold off to the highest bidder. There are some heartfelt arguments but deep down, I can’t help but feel this is just another expression of scientists’ dislike of change. The idea of establishing some new inspirational edifice, be it a physical building or not, seems repugnant. The argument seems to be that “the Ri inspired me, so it has to be preserved so it can inspire someone else”. Now, like the whales, I have never been to the Ri, but that’s the point – most people in the world, in the UK, even, haven’t been to the Ri. Why should we care about conserving it if its time is past? If it is on the evolutionary road to extinction? (I confess, the whole saving buildings thing dismays me as much as conserving species – cities, civilisations, conurbations thrive on change and slapping a grade whatever listing on a building seems misguided. There are times when it might be better to knock it down and build something else.)

Zeus complex

Jupiter (Zeus) and Saturn (Cronos), the conjunction of which was believed to cause syphilis

Jupiter (Zeus) and Saturn (Cronos), the conjunction of which was believed to cause syphilis

Why should scientists be particularly conservative in this way? I wonder if it has something to do with pushing at the uncertain boundaries of knowledge in your day job and wanting everything else to be reliably unchanging, if only to act as a marker in the sand so you know how far you’ve gone into new territory. Some years ago, I articulated this suspicion about scientists as a sort of ‘Zeus complex’: it doesn’t quite work, unfortunately, as my understanding of Greek mythology let me down, but basically, Zeus castrated his father, Cronos, in order to become Olympus’s next top god. Take Zeus to be ‘scientists’ and Cronos to be time (there was a Greek god called Chronos who was the god of time but it seems this was not the same god as Cronos, which is the disappointing link in my mythological chain), and this was my theory – that scientists ideally stop time, perform an experiment and analyse it; then time can be restarted with the new understanding that the experiment has revealed. Having time roll on through the experiment makes the analysis messier. This was in opposition to economists, who I thought were actively trying to apply their ‘science’ in real time (revealing my misunderstanding of economics, I’m sure).

Ho hum.

There is a lot of change coming in my job at the moment and I have been struggling so far this calendar year to accept it. There are reasons why the changes are potentially scary for my role but at heart, I think I have been indulging my own Zeus complex – wanting to emasculate Old Father Time so as to stay in my comfort zone. The changes will definitely open up some new opportunities to write creatively about science, and they are inevitable, so I might as well accept my own criticism and embrace the changes. And maybe that is the critical point – that if change is exciting and full of potential, we welcome it; but if change is wrapped up only in thoughts of loss (such as the whales or the Ri), it is generally perceived to be wrong and negative. But we are (some of us, sort of) scientists, damn it! Let us invoke the first law of thermodynamics: nothing can be created from nothing; sometimes we have to lose things in order to find better things. It’s risky, but it is life.

Oh, and that principle is sometimes also called the law of conservation of energy. There’s no getting away from conservation, even when you’re arguing against it….

All images from Wellcome Library, London, c/o Wellcome Images. From top: Faraday’s cupboard in his laboratory at the Royal Institution, London; An engraving of a whale being speared with harpoons by fishermen in the arctic sea; Woodcut of Jupiter and Saturn.