“Hey you. Thicko. Row J, Seat 18 – what are you doing here?”
Quite. What was I doing there? Glancing through the (impressive) Festival of Words programme weeks before I’d seen the entry for this hour-long talk at the Arts Centre. Excellent, I’d thought, one of those science-y talk things from the Popular Science section in the bookshop. One of those intriguing and entertaining dissertations that take some tiny nondescript detail of our lives and extrapolate it into an all-encompassing Grand Theory of Everything by way of salacious anecdotes on the seemingly-unrelated. Something packed with high calorie nuggets of eye-popping surface detail that I will thoroughly enjoy then entirely forget, retreating back to my default position of Total Scientific Idiocy. Something like how the invention of jam made humans better at hunter-gathering. Or how the chemical composition of jam contains the solution to the climate crisis. Or how Schrodinger’s Cat was actually dead in the box because it ate too much, erm, jam. You know. Jam books.
It wasn’t that type of talk.
To be honest, I was a little disappointed to start with. First impressions: Graham Farmelo is really clever. He’s too clever. Oh my god, he’s actually going to talk with intelligence but he’s not going to pander to my crass need to be titillated with trivia. Humph. How dare he. I’ve just had lunch!
As the hour went on, that disappointment turned 180 degrees back on myself. How could I be that shallow? It was a welcome reminder of how reduced our public discourse is on matters of huge scientific importance. A reminder of how we all increasingly skim across the surface of every subject we encounter. That’s nice, we think, next please.
Graham Farmelo is the opposite of that. He spoke for the hour with passion (expansive hand and arm gestures), insight, depth and clarity. It was a window into a world where people are doing real work on real things that matter in ways that almost defy our understanding. With his first-hand knowledge of many of the key scientific players and personalities of our times, we were given glimpses of a community engaged in research which may seem curiously unconnected to reality today but will inevitably go on to shape our future consciousness of where and how we live.
I said that “we all” have become shallower in our approach to life and knowledge. The JICAS-sponsored Arts Centre audience today was the exception to that rule. The most astounding question I’ve ever heard at a Q&A was posed – something to do with how the behaviour of quantum mechanics changes when observed (or something, please forgive me). You don’t get that class of question at a John Grisham gig.
Graham Farmelo’s responses to his questioners were faultlessly polite and generous and enthusiastic, which is not to say that anyone put any stupid questions to him – far from it. But his approach to questions and to every thought that he tried to express was deliberate and careful. Words were selected with precision. Even if I understood little of the science, I hugely admired how he chooses his words with such attention to detail, making me squirm with embarrassment when compared to my own spattered blancmange of thoughts.
A fascinating man, a fascinating hour. Food for thought (definitely not a jam).
WORDS: BEN EVANS
PICTURE: PETER MOURANT