|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Thursday, October 15, 2009
The first of our Social Sessions (below) went well. More people signed up than we could accomodate, though in the event every seat was taken and (as far as I know) no one had to be turned away at the door. The Forum's admin staff and the University's service staff had worked hard to turn the main meeting room in the offices into an informal discussion venue, with low lighting, seats and small tables arranged in curving rows and drinks and nibbles strategically placed.
The crowd was more or less the mix I'd hoped we would attract - some social science people, several 'actual scientists' (a phrase which, as I mentioned later, I keep having to stop myself saying when there are social scientists around), and a very creditable showing from Edinburgh SF fandom and the Edinburgh literary scene.
After about half an hour of informal mingling, during which Mike Calder from Transreal set up a book table in the foyer outside, we all took our seats. I introduced the opening speakers and the subject: the portrayal of scientists in SF and science studies. Andrew Wilson drew on his long experience with Writers' Bloc to give a lively reading of relevant snippets from Frankenstein, The Island of Dr Moreau, Gregory Benford's Timescape and Paul McAuley's The Secret of Life. Steve Yearley outlined what science studies tries to do, why in the 1990s some scientists felt that it was an enemy within academia (hence the Science Wars), and why the issues it tackles - such as defining what exactly distinguishes science from non-science - have some importance in the wider world, including law (who counts as an expert witness?) and education. Emma Frow then brought the interaction of science and science studies into focus in her own work with a group of scientists working in the new field of synthetic biology. The view from the other end of the sociologists' microscope was given by Dr Chris French, who'd not just prepared a five-minute talk as requested but in true scientific spirit run a survey among his colleagues on the question.
The discussion that followed was still going strong when I finally had to call a halt about two hours after we'd started, and it continued in a local pub (The Canon's Gait) and in the smoke-huddle around its doorway.