Feast of science

14/02/2008

The British Association for the Advancement of Science recently returned to its spiritual home. Edward Wawrzynczak ventured to York to sample the delights on offer at the 2007 BA Festival of Science.

The annual BA Festival of Science is a firmly established feature of the UK science calendar. This week-long event, which is held in a different city each year, brings together professionals, interested amateurs, students, school kids and families to celebrate the achievements of science, engineering and technology. As ever, the 2007 BA Festival had a feast of treats to suit all tastes.

From formal lectures to hands-on demonstrations, museum exhibits to innovative displays, student posters to celebrity interviews, early morning birdwatching on the university campus to evening debates in city pubs, architectural tours of the Minster to geological field trips, the biology of athletes to the physics of bungee jumping, the history of science past to visions of science future, there really was something for everyone to try.

How did it start?

The first BA meeting was held in York in 1831 under the auspices of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, founded to study and preserve local geological findings and other antiquities. The headquarters of the Society were located just a short stroll from the famous Minster, appropriately so since the Reverend William Harcourt, son of the Archbishop, was one of the prime movers in the formation of the BA.

The 1830s were a time of widespread industrialization, social upheaval and political unrest in Britain. Improved transportation – including the advent of the railways – meant that people of all classes could move about more freely. Towns in the provinces were no longer so isolated and it became easier to form new organizations with regional or national reach. It was into this climate of revolutionary change that the BA was born.

The impetus for the BA's establishment was provincial dissatisfaction with the decline of science in Britain, which was blamed on the unsupportive attitude of Parliament. The choice of York as venue was politically symbolic: the city lies central to England, Scotland and Ireland, and is some distance from the traditional seats of power in London, Oxford and Cambridge.

At the time, science was seen as a vocation or calling, available only to those who could afford it, and was certainly no way to make a living. The profession of science did not exist; the word 'scientist' had not even been invented. The participants in the first meeting were 'gentlemen of science' and included, without any hint of controversy, many well-off clergy of the Anglican Church.

What difference did it make?

BA meetings proved popular and provided an opportunity for public discourse between the learned cultivators of science. Not everyone was impressed, however, with the theatrical posturing of the Association in its early days. Dickens described it as 'The Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything', and the satirical magazine Punch poked fun with 'British Association for the Advancement of Everything in General, and Nothing in Particular'.

Importantly, BA meetings also brought science to a wider audience. The meetings projected a particular image of science and, in part, helped to shape science as the dominant mode of knowing about the world, a value-neutral way of thinking to be distinguished from religious or political ideology. And, in due course, the Association contributed to the public image of the professional scientist.

From time to time, BA meetings became the battleground for some heavyweight contests. The Oxford meeting of 1860 has gone down in history as the most momentous. It was here that Thomas Huxley, known as 'Darwin's Bulldog', defended the controversial theory of evolution by natural selection against what we might today characterize as a creationist assault from the slippery Bishop Samuel ('Soapy Sam') Wilberforce.

Why is it important now?

The BA Festival of Science is the biggest science festival in Europe. Although major public spats may be something of a rarity nowadays, BA meetings are not afraid to debate controversial subjects. The impact of science on society, for good and bad, is as important a topic for discussion as the science itself.

Even if the glorification of science is not the prime objective, the Festival nevertheless represents a useful forum in which to showcase topical advances. For one week of the year, the meeting acts as a focus for the release of news, reports, and other official announcements, all of which tussle for the attention of the media. EW

© FELIX 2008
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Dickens described it as 'The Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything'.