One pub, many publics

To Bradford, for a day at the British Science Festival, ending up at the well-preserved gem that is the New Beehive. I’m frankly envious of the various colleagues who manage to arrange their contributions to these events thus:

(a) give talk

(b) go to pub.

This arrangement has a pleasing simplicity and an overwhelming logic behind it. For me, though, the sequence is usually as follows:

(a) watch other people’s talks

(b) go to pub

(c) fret about cables, props, signalling to the laptop, lighting and seat positioning for half an hour

(d) give talk

(e) gibber.

This was the fourth outing for Drinking Up Time, possibly (though probably not) best described as a peculiar sprawling lecture/performance-type thing inspired, to varying degrees, by Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, Genesis of the Daleks, and the enormous pile of primary material gathered while trying to write a monograph about the history of brewing science for the better part of seven years without visible effect.

Overall, I’m happy that the thing is doing what it was meant to. The audience, though smallish as these things go, was… well, actually, I’ll come back to the general nature of the audience in three paras’ time. The most startling thing about it was that it included the British Science Association’s present CEO (as presently styled; “General Secretary”, the historical title, is surely a better euphemism for “person whose word goes”). He was there for the excellent and reassuring reason that he liked the idea of being at a history of science event in a nice pub. Still: DUT is a flippant and sometimes stupidly impolitic bundle of thinkage, and I did toy briefly with the merits of clambering out of the toilet window and running away.

In the event, the only thing Sir Roland queried me on was my brief description of the early BAAS – at which William Black presented his theory on thunder spoiling beer in 1837 – as a body set up to increase public involvement with science. I could entirely see his point. The Association now is concerned with engaging ‘the public’ in the sense of ‘people in general’, and makes a strategic play for audiences including children. The Association of “persons of distinction” in the 1830s was nothing like this.

‘Public’, however, is famously the most slippery term in HoS. In a nineteenth-century sense, David Brewster and chums were desperately concerned with bringing scientific discussion to a wider public. The Association’s founding declarations, with their aim to improve “the intercourse of those who cultivate Science in different parts of the British Empire”, implied a dig at the insular culture of metropolitan philosophy. The people whose knowledge and influence the Association wanted to recruit included the textile masters in textile towns; the ironmasters in iron towns; the maritime masters in maritime towns; and so on. (And, of course, practical brewer-authors like Black, whose theory sounded perfectly reasonable to Michael Faraday.) This definition of a “person of distinction” was not the one in use at the Royal Society.

Which brings me back to my audience. The established point of Drinking Up Time is to try to recruit audiences who would not otherwise be at science festival events at all – people who are intelligent, discerning drinkers (on that much I insist, hence the pub selection policy), but who generally only have evenings free, and aren’t likely to spend them wandering around university campuses. At some previous pub events, we’ve managed to achieve a fair number of regulars and semi-regulars wafting through into the function room. This time – despite having an enthusiastic landlord, which is always a blessing – the room was at least half full of other Science Festival event organisers and speakers.

Is this a problem? I wonder. “Public”, you see, is also the most slippery term in public engagement.

Nobody who’s serious about PE wants to be seen to be running a version of the fabled island economy where everyone subsists by taking in everyone else’s laundry. If the History of Science Section ran an event at and only established HoS Section people turned up, this would rightly be regarded as a waste of time and money. But what about recruiting from other disciplines? At DUT, I had people from geology, arch and anth, and others who’d found us via the science fiction event earlier in the day, whose fields I wasn’t sure about. Are these people, festooned with doctorates and Festival lanyards as they are, “the public”?

The answer is surely yes, if the practical aim is to promote contextual understanding of the history of science. If I’m doing my job properly, some of the ideas in DUT will be as unfamiliar and interesting to, say, an experienced physics lecturer, as they will be to anybody else.

In fact, DUT goes in fairly hard in rejecting the narrative of scientific progress – a conventional doctrine in HoS, but one which famously gives offence to many working scientists. I’ve had no complaints so far. This is possibly because the pill is deliberately sugared eight ways to hell by the nature of the presentation, and possibly because people keep going to the bar during the shouty bits; but it’s possibly, just possibly, because what I’m saying makes sense to them.

I have occasionally heard people in universities using the term “inreach” – by analogy with “outreach” – to describe projects aimed at persuading students, academics and/or other staff to engage with this, that or the other activity which the institution does, but they themselves (so far) don’t. “Inreach” is a repellent name for a useful concept. Scientists constitute an obvious and important mission field for HoSers. And also an instructive one, because they will not tolerate being patronised, and will rarely settle for less than proper two-way dialogue. (Although I managed to get mine to keep quiet for an entire hour by shouting about alchemy and rotten fish a lot.)

Not that we would want this as a sole focus. This year’s Section programme is, I think, pretty well balanced. We’ve also had a session of talks on HoS in Bradford, which drew a mixture of serial Festival-goers and interested locals; a hist of med session designed to draw in family historians; and the science fiction/religion session, which got a big turnout obviously involving people from all sorts of backgrounds. (“Real” two-way engagement with a sufficiently large general audience is an interesting one. A lot of people don’t want to address the right answers or the right questions, and you’re not allowed to tell them why their questions are wrong. Most vexing.)

An unexpected bonus was that the audience we managed to pull from the SF event included Una McCormack, who knows a thing or two about time travel, and immediately grasped my obscure and completely gratuitous reference to the Blinovitch Limitation Effect.

In an ideal world, in fact, I’d get the assorted publics to fill in the evaluation sheets before the event, listing their various in-joke preferences to allow tailoring, and giving special attention to any historical field they know more about than I do and can trip me up on. Then again, we must work in the real world if we insist on real ale.

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