After hours in the Science Museum

Science Museum DJThis evening my friends and I went to the Science of Music event at the Science Museum in South Kensington. The evening was part of Science Museum Lates, a monthly adults only event where the museum is open until 10pm and special talks and displays are laid on.

The place was pretty packed out with a surprisingly young and trendy crowd. Four of the museum’s seven floors were open, and each handily had several bars and DJs, surely a prerequisite for an event about music. There was even a silent disco, somewhat incongruously located among the satellites and rockets in the Exploring Space gallery.

First off we went to to the Launchpad area, an interactive hands on gallery that is usually packed with kids on a daytime visit to the museum. Instead we had the gallery to ourselves and got to have a proper play with things like electromagnets, generators, and circuit boards.

We then tried to catch the break dance demonstrations in the flight gallery. Alas we only made it for the tail end, but we did find out how angular momentum affects how fast a break dancer can spin on their head: arms out, they slow down; arms flat against their body, they speed up.

Materials man close upMaterials in the bodyWe were unexpectedly quite fascinated by the Plasticity exhibition, which showcases 100 years of plastics. I was particularly interested in the US Olympic ski suit, which had foam pads on areas like the shoulders and forearms that are soft when racing but instantly turn hard impact to absorb shock energy.

While we’re on the subject of materials, another of my favourite exhibits in the that I saw this evening was this “materials man,” who shows the anatomical location and real size of a selection the medical materials and devices that are currently in use.

In the close up, you can see a silicone artificial larynx, a carbon fibre bone plate, a titanium and silicone cardiac pacemaker, and a polytetrafluoroethene methanical aortic valve.  Dentures and a glass eye are in there as well.

All in all, the event was a great chance to have a look around the museum in a laid back atmosphere without hundreds of kids tearing around the place. Oh, and with a beer in my hand, always a bonus!

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The Nature Debate: Enhancing the Body

This evening I attended The Nature Debate: Enhancing the Body at King’s Place in King’s Cross, north London.

Today’s discussion is the second of two panel events on “the risks, benefits and extent of how far research can extend our mental and physical abilities”. Chaired by Kerri Smith, Nature Podcast Editor and presenter of Nature Neuroscience’s NeuroPod, the panel comprised:

Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading and wannabe cyborg.
Andy Miah, Reader in New Media & Bioethics at the University of the West of Scotland, Fellow of the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology and dapper dresser.
Aubrey de Grey, Chairman of The Methuselah Foundation, an organization committed to accelerating progress toward a cure for age-related disease, and owner of a magnificent beard.

After a brief introduction and tongue in cheek incitement to “get physical” from Nature Managing Editor Nick Campbell, the panel members lay down their views on the subject of physical enhancement.

Aubrey de Grey begins by pointing out that all three panel members are advocates for physical enhancement and questions whether the discussion will really be a debate at all, then lays down his case, arguing that being against the concept of physical enhancement is “incoherent”. Citing examples such as the beneficial effects of antibiotics and vaccines on the immune system, he illustrates that we humans have already taken measures to enhance ourselves physically.

Next up is Kevin Warwick, who compares humans to computers in order to demonstrate the limitations of our mental capacities. He cites a professor at MIT who claimed that all the memories of a 100-year-old person could fit on a single CD and states that machines can sense spectra like ultraviolet and X-rays, finally suggesting that by harnessing the power of computers in these areas we can enhance mental powers such as memory capacity and sensory perception. Warwick’s most famous experiments represent the first steps along this path – in 1998 he implanted a chip under his skin and was able to open and shut doors via a computer, then in 2002 a new chip that interfaced directly onto his median nerve permitted him to move a robot arm in synchrony with his own actions.

The third panel member, Andy Miah, spoke about the value of human enhancement in elite sports. An asthmatic, he only recently began regularly using his inhaler and feels that his running capability has increased tremendously – where do these kind of measures fall in the debate about physical enhancement? Miah also discusses the case of the South African runner Oscar Pistorius, who is a double amputee and the proud owner of very high-tech carbon fibre transtibial artificial limbs. Pistorius successfully campaigned to compete with able-bodied athletes in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. His case raises interesting questions about the perception of disability and the purpose of enhancements.

Chair Kerri Smith picks up on this theme and asks the panel whether there is a difference between enhancing the physical capabilities of a disabled person in order to bring them up to the the capacity of a ‘normal’ individual, and physically enhancing a healthy person to give them abilities above the norm. Harking back to the case of Oscar Pistorius, Andy Miah opines that the definition of a ‘normal’ human and, therefore, what constitutes a physical enhancement is particularly difficult, especially in the paralympics. This issue then leads into a discussion of what constitutes an acceptable physical enhancement, with Aubrey de Grey suggesting that elite sport is ‘the canary in the coalmine’ of physical enhancement and may well prove to be the litmus test of what society considers acceptable.

Finally, the panel are asked what sort of physical enhancements are possible at this moment in time and how long it will be before one of their pet projects comes to fruition. Aubrey de Grey says that the aim in his field is “to solve the problem of aging faster than it catches up with us” and that he hopes the discipline of regenerative medicine will reach this point in 25-30 years. Andy Miah thinks that the first genetically enhanced athletes might appear in the 2012 Olympic Games, and acknowledges that genetic modification is already possible in animals and it is only ethical and safety concerns that prevent such techniques being used in humans today. Kevin Warwick cites his most recent experiments – in which rat neurons are interfaced with robot ‘bodies’ – as examples that enhancing physical capabilities through computers is technologically possible at the moment, and purports that it could only be 12-18 months before scientists start doing similar experiments with the human nervous system. On the other hand, there are many concerns relating to surgery, infection, and the ethics of such undertakings, meaning that linking human brains to robot bodies – Steve Martin brain-in-a-jar style – might not happen for up to 10 years.

So what of Nature’s original question – “How should we respond to enhancement technologies?” The answer from the panel seems to be: “enthusiastically”. The last word goes to Aubrey de Grey, who states “It is intellectually bankrupt to say that any enhancement per se is wrong”.

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From homeopaths to psychopaths

To celebrate the launch of the book Medical London: City of diseases, city of cures, the Wellcome Collection is hosting a selection of events in the city. Written by Richard Barnett and Mike Jay, Medical London offers “a unique … view of the roles played by diseases, treatments and cures in London’s sprawling story”. Yesterday I took part one of the Wellcome events – a walk around west London titled From homeopaths to psychopaths.

We started out in Sloane Square, where leader Max Décharné, author of King’s Road, gave us a bit of background on the area. Throughout the 16th and 17th century, the Chelsea region served as a rural outpost of London, the clean air and clean water of the village a welcome reprieve for the visitors looking to recuperate from the filthy mêlée of the east end.

First stop was the statue of Hans Sloane, which stands outside of the Duke of York’s Headquarters (Photo: Matt from London on Flickr). Sloane, born in 1660, was physician to Queen Anne, George I and George II and was the first medical practitioner to receive a peerage, given the title Baron in 1716. In clinical practice, Sloane promoted innovations such as inoculation against smallpox and the use of quinine (a treatment for malaria). He was also a president of the Royal College of Physicians and succeeded Sir Isaac Newton as President of the Royal Society.

As well as being a proficient doctor, Sloane was an avid collector of pretty much anything and everything, and on his death his vast collection of natural history specimens and antiquities was sold to the nation at a knock-down price and housed in the newly created British Library, and later at the Natural History Museum.

We next passed through Chelsea Walk, which was originally built by William III and intended as a wide boulevard linking the newly-built Royal Chelsea Hospital with Kensington Palace, but actually only extends from the hospital to King’s Road.

The Royal Chelsea Hospital itself was commissioned by Charles II for the “succour and relief of veterans broken by age and war” (Photo: stevecadman on Flickr). Until the 17th century injured or elderly soldiers were not provided for in any way by the state. Many were kept on regimental rolls and still took part in duties so that they could continue to receive payment as there were no pension provisions. Charles II recognized that the state owed a debt to these soldiers, marking a shift from the tactic of previous kings who often left the poor and infirm to fend from themselves. The hospital was built by Sir Christopher Wren and completed in 1692, with the first 479 in-pensioners in residence by the end of the year. The hospital is still a home to elderly or injured British soldiers, and is also the site of the annual Chelsea Flower Show.

On the way to the hospital we passed Bram Stoker‘s house on St Leonard’s Terrace, who, despite writing rather morbid literature, has an interesting health connection. In 1882 Stoker was awarded a Royal Humane Society Bronze Medal for attempting to save the life of a man who had jumped into the River Thames.

At this point I sadly had to abandon the walk as I had been totally soaked through by the torrential rain. I was particularly disappointed to miss the trip to Chelsea Physic Garden, not least because for many years I thought it was called Chelsea Psychic Garden and was hoping for some horticultural glimpse into my future (incidentally, the word ‘physic’ refers to the science of healing, not the science of matter and forces. So much opportunity for confusion). The garden was founded in 1673 as a site to train apothecary apprentices in the art of identifying plants and still hosts the Garden of World Medicine, a special collection of plants used for medicinal purposes by different cultures around the world.

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Music, memories and the mind

Yesterday I went down (no, make that up – up a very steep hill, on my bike) to Jackson’s Lane in Highgate for some neurology theatre – not of the surgical kind but a performance of the play Reminiscence.

Inspired by a case study published by the neurologist Oliver Sacks, the play tells the story of elderly Mrs O’Connor, who, following a stroke, experiences temporal lobe seizures accompanied vivid auditory hallucinations. Although she recognises the songs she hears, Mrs O’Connor can’t put her finger on where she knows the melodies from. Through these seemingly familiar “experiential hallucinations”, she re-lives events that she believes are buried memories from her distant past.

As far as I was concerned, a key aspect of the play was how Theatre DaCapo approached a dry medical case study and transformed it into an engaging piece of theatre. Instead of depicting the story of Mrs O’Connor through the objective view of the neurologist, the whole case study is portrayed from the perspective of the patient, bringing an altogether more human angle to the case study.

Thus, the onus was on the theatre group to represent effectively the subjective, difficult-to-quantify experiences of a neurology patient. In order to do this, the five-man group of actors used clever staging and a myriad of props and visuals.

In scenes such as the one shown here, actors popped out from between the folds of a giant white backdrop, portraying in this instance the characters Mrs O’Connor begins to see as her hallucinations gather more sensory components. In another scene, the actors, posing as doctors, appeared in the windows within the backdrop and bounced neurological terms off each other, depicting Mrs O’Connor’s disorientation at the mass of medical information she was being bombarded with.

Folk songs – reworked in a classical style and performed by the actors – and the pitching and swaying of the scenery indicated when Mrs O’Connor was experiencing a seizure.

I was also interested in how the play was going to depict the neurology that underlines the case study. In the scene shown here, a dish of jelly was used to represent the brain and the affected region scooped out with gusto to demonstrate how the seizures and hallucinations could be cured by surgical removal of the damaged part of the brain.

One of the issues raised by the play is whether the hallucinations Mrs O’Connor experiences actually reflect real memories, or are false and are in fact the result of Mrs O’Connor’s psychological motivation to come to terms with her past. This issue was one of many debated in a a panel discussion after the play in which the audience quizzed the director Michael Callahan, clinical psychologist and Mind Hacks blogger Dr Vaughan Bell, and actors Ian Harris and Katie Pattison. During the discussion, we touched on whether the verity or not of our memories is important – although they may be revised through telling at different points in our life, they still represent an important part of our identity.

It was a refreshing change to learn about a clinical case study through such an imaginative and well-realised play rather than from a journal paper.

  • Reminiscence will be performed at 8pm at Jackson’s Lane theatre until Saturday 20th September (matinee 2pm Wednesday 17th September). For tickets, contact the box office on 0208 341 4421 or buy online at jacksonslane.org.uk

(Thanks to Theatre-DaCapo.co.uk for the photos)

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