How did I miss science becoming so much a part of public life that it also becomes an integral part of theatrical performances? When did it happen?
We have long watched with fascination the wonderful wildlife programmes of David Attenborough and the astronomy programmes of Patrick Moore. And of course there is Brian Cox introducing us to the wonders of the universe, Marcus de Sautoy to mathematics, and Jim Al-Khalili to the cosmos, physics and the achievements of Arabic scientists. And now, as I watched the opening ceremonies for both the Olympics and the Paralympics, I was astonished to see how much science and Fellows of the Royal Society had become visible in the public consciousness.
Who will forget Tim Berners-Lee FRS appearing in person at the Olympic opening ceremony? And who better, given our worldwide communications: as the citation for his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2001 reminded us, his inventiveness in improving communications at CERN, where he “designed the universal resource locator (URL), an addressing system to give each Web page a unique location, and the two protocols HTTP and HTML”, developed and revolutionised communication via the internet for everyone else, enabling universal access to information placed on the Web, and has had a profound impact on all our lives.
And who would have expected Stephen Hawking to appear – in person – at the Paralympic opening ceremony? What a wonderful theme – Enlightenment, and human achievement – and to include references to no less a person than Isaac Newton, a former President of the Royal Society. His ‘Principia’ was the start of modern physics, and should anyone wish to see a copy, there is every edition from the first one published in 1687 in the Society’s Library, including translations from the Latin into English and even Mongolian. And an account of his discovery of gravity while watching an apple fall, is recounted in the manuscript notebook of William Stukeley, part of the archives of the Society, and currently on display in an exhibition on Newton there. The ‘crunch’ as everyone was asked to bite into an apple at the opening ceremony, was very interesting!
The end of the ceremony was perhaps an indication of things to come, when Prospero sends Miranda up to crack the glass ceiling, and there is a resounding sound of breaking glass. The glass ceiling has been a fact in all walks of life, including science. So it was very cheering that of all the seven medals won on the first day of the Paralympics by the British team, one of the first gold medals was won by a woman, Sarah Storey in the 3000m individual pursuit in cycling.
Science has been everywhere on show whether in the spectacular audio visuals or the engineering products such as the wheelchairs and prostheses. Those of us who lived through the 1960s, various student revolutions, and still enjoy festivals would have been heartily cheered by the display of incredibly inventive futuristic machines of the artistic collective, the Mutoid Waste Company. Their headquarters in the 1980s were regularly raided by the police – and now they are part of the artistic establishment. Most unexpectedly, however, in the wonderful, idiosyncrastic, uplifting closing Paralympic ceremony celebrating achievement and time passing, even Coldplay appeared in the finale with the song ‘The Scientist’.
As Stephen Hawking said: “Transform your perception of the world. There is no such thing as a run of the mill human being.”