Most writers need silence at some point in their process and I feel strongly that’s true of anyone involved in creative endeavours of any kind including science. As well, it may seem contradictory to some but one needs to be both open (communicative) and closed (silent).
These days in the field of science there’s a lot of pressure to be open and communicative at all times according to Felicity Mellor’s [Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at Imperial College London] Jan. 15, 2014 blog posting for the Guardian and she feels it’s time to redress the balance (Note: Links have been removed),
Round the back of the British Library in London, a new building is taking shape. Due to open in 2015, the Crick Institute is set to become one of the largest research centres for biomedical science in Europe, housing over 1200 scientists.
The aim is to foster creative and imaginative research through interdisciplinary collaboration and the emphasis on collaboration pervades every aspect of the enterprise, from its joint foundation by six major institutions through to the very fabric of the building itself.
In stark contrast to the hunkered-down solidity of the British Library next door, with its pin-drop silences within, the glass walls and open-plan labs of the Crick Institute are intended to create “an atmosphere that maximises openness and permeability”. In place of the studious silences of the library, there will be the noisy cacophony of multidisciplinary exchanges.
Collaboration is clearly a key component of modern science and the Crick Institute is not alone in prioritising cross-disciplinary interaction. The rhetoric of openness is also widespread, with calls for public engagement and open data further extending the demands on scientists’ communications.
… Last year, Victoria Druce, then a student on the MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College, interviewed some of the scientists due to move into the Crick and found that they were already getting twitchy about sharing equipment and spoke territorially about their labs.
The unease is about more than territoriality (from the blog posting),
Researchers may quickly find ways to carve up the multidisciplinary spaces of the Crick Institute. But will they ever be able to shut themselves off from all that openness? Where, in these spaces of constant chatter, are scientists supposed to find a place to think?
Historically, the pursuit of knowledge was characterised as an activity conducted in, and requiring, silence, symbolically located in solitary spaces – whether the garret of the writer or the study of the intellectual. Newton was famously reluctant to engage with others and his theory of gravity came to him whilst sequestered in Lincolnshire, remote from the hubbub of London. Darwin, too, withdrew to Down House and held off publishing for as long as he could.
Mellor acknowledges that Darwin and Newton did not live in complete seclusion as there were neighbours, family members, and servants about during their ‘solitary’ sojourns but they still were able to enjoy some solitude where it seems the scientists at the Crick Institute will not (from the blog posting),
… when scientists recount moments of creativity, they frequently allude to periods of solitude and silence. If the aim of research centres like the Crick Institute is to foster creativity, then perhaps silence and withdrawal need to be catered for as well as collaboration and communication.
In response to this perceived need, Mellor and her colleague, Stephen Webster, organized a series of conferences titled, The silences of science, from the conferences’ homepage,
Constructive pauses and strategic delays in the practice and communication of science
The Silences of Science is an AHRC-funded reearch network examining different aspects of the paradox that science depends both on prolixity and on reticence. It seeks to interrogate the assumption that open and efficient channels of communication are always of greatest benefit to science and to society. It aims to remind the research community of the creative importance of silence, of interruptions in communication, of isolation and of ‘stuckness’.
Through a series of three workshops and conferences, the research network will bring together a range of scholars – from literary studies, anthropology, legal studies, religious studies, as well as from the history and philosophy of science and science communication studies – to draw on insights from their disciplines in order to examine the role of silence within the sciences.
Conceptualising Silence: 2nd-3rd July 2013, Wellcome Trust. Programme here.
Silence in the History and Communication of Science: 17th December 2013, Imperial College London. (Further details and recordings of talks can be found here.)
The Role of Silence in Scientific Practice: Spring 2014, Imperial College London.
The most recent of the conferences features, as noted previously, audio recordings of some of the talks (from the Silence in the History and Communication of Science webpage),
Silence is often construed negatively, as a lack, an absence. Yet silences carry meaning. They can be strategic and directed at particular audiences; they can be fiercely contested or completely overlooked. Silence is not only oppressive but also generative, playing a key role in creative and intellectual processes. Conversely, speech, whilst seeming to facilitate open communication, can serve to mask important silences or can replace the quietude necessary for insightful thought with thoughtless babble.
Despite a currently dominant rhetoric that assumes that openness in science is an inherent good, science – and its communication – depends as much on discontinuities, on barriers and lacunae, as it does on the free flow of information. …
Brian Rappert (University of Exeter). The sounds of silencing.
Kees-Jan Schilt (University of Sussex), “Tired with this subject…”: Isaac Newton on publishing and the ideal natural philosopher.
Nick Verouden (Delft University of Technology), Silences as strategic communication in multi-disciplinary collaborations within the university and beyond.
Paul Merchant (National Life Stories, The British Library), “He didn’t go round the conference circuit talking about it”: oral histories of Joseph Farman and the ozone hole.
Emma Weitkamp (University of the West of England), Offering anonymity: journalists, PR and funders.
Carolyn Cobbold (University of Cambridge), The silent introduction of synthetic dyestuffs into food in the 19th century
Oliver Marsh (UCL), Lurking nine to five: ‘non-participants’ in online science communication.
Ann Grand (University of the West of England), Having it all: quality and quantity in open science.
Camilla Mørk Røstvik (University of Manchester), The silence of Rosalind Franklin’s Photograph 51
Elizabeth Hind, Reconstructing ancient thought: the case of Egyptian mathematics
Tim Boon (Science Museum) ‘The Silence of the Labs’: on mute machines and the communication of science
Alice White (University of Kent), Silence and selection: the “trick cyclist” at the War Office Selection Boards
Enjoy! One final note, Tim Boon’s ‘Silence of the Labs’ is not to be confused with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Fifth Estate telecast titled Silence of the Labs (mentioned in my Jan. 6, 2014 posting),which focused on opposition to Canadian government initiatives which have forced journalists to send queries for interviews and interview questions to communications officers rather than directly to the scientists and such other measures.