Imperial College London

Exploring the silences of science



Recently an unusual workshop concluded a series of events and artistic collaborations exploring the role of silence in the processes of science.

Funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, the Silences of Science network was set up to investigate any discord that might exist between the constant drive to communicate and engage with as many people as possible about research, and the need for scientists to withdraw sometimes from the public sphere and reflect on their work, or perhaps protect its intellectual property.

Over the course of three workshops, a group of experts from fields as diverse as religion, law and music joined science historians, philosophers and communicators of science to get to grips with different ways of talking about silence and considering patterns of contemplation in the work of the scientist in the 21st century.

“What has been fascinating is to engage with people from different professions, where silence is an absolutely essential part of the work, and to see how this might resonate with the working practices of today’s scientists”, reflects project lead Dr Felicity Mellor, who also leads Imperial’s MSc course in Science Communication.

“The priest with his prayerful silences, the musician with the all-important rests between her notes, and the poet who established a new level of attentive quiet from the audience as he sat down to read some of his work – they all provoked us into reflecting in different ways about what silence is and what it can help us achieve.”

It is perhaps somewhat ironic that in order to understand silence better, the network had to convene people to generate yet more noise. But not all the events have been noisy. And when silence has been invoked, it has often been done in creative and sometimes unusual ways.

For example, the first workshop included a silent tea break, where participants were surprised to be invited to mingle as usual, but without the high energy networking conversations that so often accompany such breaks in the programme. And the most recent event opened with a commissioned installation by ‘soundmaker’ Edward Prosser, an alumnus of Imperial's MSc in Science Media Production, designed to challenge everyone’s ideas about what sound means to them.

The project has covered a huge amount of ground, from philosophical and political angles, such as a highly polarized discussion on who is being silenced in the climate change debate, to more practical considerations such as the time-honoured arguments about what music, if any, should be played in the lab. And how to deal with the implications for group well-being when more and more people don headphones while they work.

The network leaders hope to publish a report based on the workshop presentations aimed at research policy makers. But a more tangible legacy may lie in the direct effects on the working practices of some of the participants.

“Although this started largely as a project for humanities researchers, the surprise and pleasure for me was the number of science PhD students who actually attended our events,” says Dr Stephen Webster, Director of Imperial’s Science Communication Unit, who has also contributed to the development of the network.

“These are people at the start of their scientific careers, who will be asking themselves whether they went into science in order to be hyper-productive or to think more. If the project has given them a route to create and protect a space for contemplation, then it will have served an important purpose.”

There are also plans for the project to feed into more practical approaches for communicating science, such as the programming ideas for next year’s Imperial Festival. “As the Festival attracts more and more people, we might usefully explore how to create more peaceful and contemplative spaces for our visitors to think and to reflect on what they have seen and heard,” says Stephen.

“Silence is an important part of the process of science, and we need to reflect that in the way we tell the story about the science we do. This year we gave our visitors the hugely popular Robot Zone. Maybe next year we can surprise them with an equally exciting Silent Zone.”


Natasha Martineau

Natasha Martineau

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