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Open science in a land of poetry

19 Jul, 2012

Comedian Dara O’Briain (left) and the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, at the ESOF2012 opening ceremony

It must be terribly hard being a professional poet in Ireland: there is so much competition! Having recently spent a few days in Dublin at Euroscience Open Forum 2012 (ESOF2012), I am convinced that just about everyone in Ireland writes poetry. Certainly the Irish President does – speaking at the opening ceremony, President Higgins reminded us of a poem from his second published collection that was inspired by cosmology.

Even the scientists are at it – Professor Patrick Cunningham, chief scientific adviser to the Irish Government and chair of ESOF2012, read out a poem he’d written for the occasion too. And at a later session, we heard that poets and scientists share “the same sociology”: each group knows that they don’t have too many readers, not everyone understands them, and so they form supportive communities to keep their spirits up.

Euroscience is one such community – a grassroots movement bringing together scientists from across Europe to connect people and enhance the contribution of science to our future wellbeing and prosperity, according to Professor Enric Banda, the current President of Euroscience. Their ESOF conference is a biennial event that presents cutting-edge scientific research in the context of contemporary challenges.

Samuel Beckett Bridge over the River Liffey, Dublin, on a typical Irish summer’s day

I was there for all five days of this year’s packed scientific programme, taking in over 20 sessions and hearing more than 50 speakers. Even so, this was just a fraction of what was on offer. There was hardly time to breathe as I rushed from a session on the identity of the human species to one on the concept of climate justice; from regulating new gene and cell therapies to the ethics of doping in athletics; from string theory to science-driven policy-making; fractals to urban sustainability.

Some of what I heard will be cropping up here in future posts, no doubt, but many of the highlights came from the world of physics, which (as yet) mostly falls outside the remit of the Wellcome Trust blog. For example, Professor Brian Greene gave a typically energetic and humorous assessment of the state of string theory and, of course, everyone was still very excited about the news from CERN regarding the Higgs boson. My favourite lines came from Professor Rolf-Dieter Heuer, director general of CERN, who summed up the state of particle physics as: “We know a lot, but we also know nothing.” So while he is happy to say about the Higgs boson that – in layman’s terms – “We have it!”, as a scientist he asks: “What do we have?”

Does biology have its own ‘Higgs boson’? It is a metaphor in search of a target (and many people are willing to offer suggestions) but perhaps we already have it. The Human Genome Project set out to sequence what we knew was there in each of us: we just didn’t know exactly what it was. Even today, work on the full human genome sequence is not finished and the knowledge and technological advances gained from the Human Genome Project continue to fuel research around the world.

Talks from Dr Craig Venter, chairman and president of the J Craig Venter Institute, and Professor Huanming Yang, president of the Beijing Genomics Institute, captured the indefatigable optimism that currently exists around genomics. Both expressed a desire to sequence more species’ genomes, not shying away from the audacious goal of sequencing every living thing, but it will also be important to link genomics more explicitly to phenotypes. The aim is to develop more applications of genomics in human health and medicine and a better understanding of biodiversity. As Professor Yang said: “Every corner of life science will use genomic data.”

A scientific mural in Dublin

Beyond the core ESOF programme, there were various satellite events, a social programme, a careers programme and, across Dublin, a series of public engagement activities called Science in the City. I got a strong sense that Ireland has decided to make science and innovation the basis of its economy as the country claws its way out of recession. The Celtic Tiger has been replaced by a ‘Celtic Boffin’, you might say.

Not that all scientists are happy to be cast as the economic saviours of anywhere. In this respect, they again resemble the poets: a poem does not have to be ‘for’ any particular purpose – it is what it is. But even as poems can animate their readers and stimulate interesting responses, so the products of ‘basic’ research can yield far-reaching applications without debasing the ideas at their core.

Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, Irishwoman and European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, said there is a relationship between curiosity-driven research and challenge-driven research but, beyond its potential economic benefits, scientific inquiry is a worthwhile intellectual pursuit in its own right.

“The desire to understand the universe is universal,” she concluded. That desire was evident throughout ESOF2012.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 31 Jul, 2012 10:40 am

    I really enjoyed reading this post, and was intrigued by the connection you draw between scientists and poets. It’s an insight that resonates with a book of essays I have been reading recently – Alice Major’s _Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science_.

    I would love to see the supposed separation between artists and scientists queried more, and perhaps even dismantled, as I suspect that practitioners in both fields are equally engaged in the universal “desire to understand the universe,” to use Maire Geoghegan-Quinn’s words, and have much to say to one another.


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