Chain Reaction is an attempt to combine science and art in a way that embodies approaches taken by historians of science.
On a simple level, it celebrates a simple piece of experimental procedure, the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), which is 30 years old in 2013. This process is carried out in the lab by automated machines, thermocyclers (or PCR machines). By rapidly multiplying fragments of DNA into the kind of quantities necessary for experiment, the PCR machine has made possible all of the genetic science of the past generation.
And yet the PCR machine is an incredibly humble and simple piece of kit, essentially a water bath – a boiler – with a cycling thermostat. As such, PCR challenges many common assumptions about science. Science is not all about fancy ideas or extraordinary outcomes; simple and basic graft is a vital part – the biggest part – of it. This, then, is a show not about the products, but about the processes of science.
One way in which historians of science think about the processes of science is to open up its ‘black boxes’. Popularised by the sociologist of science Bruno Latour, a black box is any piece of technology where everyone agrees that the input reliably leads to output, and no-one questions this process even when things go wrong. For example, imagine if I’ve received a letter from my boss saying that my contract will not be renewed; I won’t wonder whether perhaps his printer has inserted the word ‘not’ into that sentence. I assume (alas) that the printer reliably outputs whatever was sent to it.
One can productively broaden the notion of the black box beyond material technologies. We could think, for example, of the journal Nature as a kind of black box; we assume that any paper published in it has been put through a reliable system of checking by qualified peer reviewers. Only in extreme circumstances do black boxes get reopened. Historians of science, on the other hand, like to open black boxes all the time, to discover how they were put together. They like to see how and why a piece of science has come to be trusted, which is to say how and why certain human/mechanical processes come to be relied upon.
Chain Reaction aims to open at least three black boxes.
First, of course, there is the box that is the PCR machine itself. OK, it’s beige or cream, not black, but in other respects it’s a classic black box. No one questions that what goes in comes out of the PCR machine – except in extreme cases like in court, where DNA evidence may be challenged on the grounds that the scientists sneezed into the test tube. Annie Halliday’s work opens it up for us, showing us the components of the machine and visualising the process of exponential replication that occurs within it. And yet despite the machine’s apparent reliability, there is still room for doubt and superstition, as in the case of the lucky rabbit, explored by Stig Evans in his work on ritual.
Secondly, the laboratory is a box: a room full of people who know what they are supposed to do and how they are supposed to behave. They move around and do things, and out of the room comes scientific knowledge. But for the general public, its workings are as mysterious as the inside of a computer. What goes into the box, and how does it work, to output things like the ancestry of humankind, or the identity of a father? Three of our artists engage with such themes. Andy Birtwistle’s film both reveals and re-enchants the generally unseen spaces of the laboratory, showing them to the public for the first time yet in such a way that they are defamiliarised for their usual occupants. Sarah Craske’s extensive lab practice over the project has immersed her in the culture and workings of a lab, and, curiously, her product has come out as self-contained and apparently sui generis as a piece of science – rendering the processes of its production almost invisible. Meanwhile, Katy Price’s cut-up art problematises the many steps between lab and public, over the course of which data becomes ‘science’.
Finally, the human mind is also a black box: we learn things, have experiences (including experiments), and out come ideas and conclusions. But what goes on inside? Does it work the same for artists and scientists? These days we tend to assume that scientists’ minds are tidier and more rational places than artists’, but that’s a historically local assumption. At other times, creativity and romanticism have been highly rated in scientists. Tony Stallard’s piece interrogates these thought processes, provoking us to wonder what will be the future relations between creativity and science.
Charlotte Sleigh, Centre for the History of the Sciences, University of Kent