Brains and Plasticising – Getting Past the ‘Squeam’ Barrier

Yesterday I went to the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition on ‘BRAINS’. I didn’t think I would be squeamish at all when looking at all these bottled noggins, part of what is eerily called ‘the spirit collections’.  In actuality I was in awe that these were ACTUAL BRAINS sitting there, only a few centimetres away from me and not protected by  a skull, meninges or skin.

For me, the thing that sends tingles down my spine is the idea of plasticising. Unfortunately, when I Google this too many ‘Images for…’ come up and slightly freak me out, meaning that a definition of the process is lacking in this blog. I can’t quite put my finger on why this really pushes the buttons of my squeamishness – maybe pumping a body with plasticiser conjures up ideas of something between ‘Planet Terror’ scenes involving Bruce Willis and ‘The Hulk’ when he expands and becomes green.

And although yesterday I was in a room filled with brains, suspended from their normal decomposition through submersion in methylated spirit and accosted by videos of brain surgery (pretty unnerving) the piece to really set it off for me was the plasticised vein system of the brain. Why? Well, after a discussion with a fellow brain fiend at the exhibit I began to ask myself what really is the difference between looking at a spirit collection and a plasticised body?

I used to have an issue with black pudding. The concept of eating what is essentially just blood was a bit gruesome, although I thoroughly enjoy vampire lore. But, after some careful thought I decided that if I eat steak rare and love haggis then really I have no feet to stand on when it comes to a justifiable argument for not eating black pudding. I love it.

I also love going to the stuffed animal section of museums, and have no problem looking at huge dinosaur fossil skeletons. And in all honesty, when it comes to looking at a plasticised animal I don’t feel quite as squeamish. In the Natural History Museum they currently have an exhibition on plasticised animals, and have a great big plasticised camel in the entrance hall on show.  When I first saw this I was intrigued and thought it looked great although I was not aware of the exhibition at the time I had a sneaking suspicion about what it was…but I decided to feign ignorance with myself and enjoy the show.

So maybe there is some sort of link here, I can look at animals in any form and not feel a huge sense of ‘squeam’ but that changes when it comes to humans being plasticised. Why? I read an interesting blog today about the Brains exhibit at the Wellcome Collection which touched on this slightly. He talked about the avoidance of things that make us remember our own mortality, even such important things as writing a will. Is this what makes me feel odd about plasticising? Possibly. But something more than that is the idea that these are people who have died and should be decomposing. They are not meant to be in this stasis, in these poses. You can, I hear, ask to be plasticised in your will so then possibly you could argue that they are meant to be like this. Maybe I feel that they should be allowed to rest, to be sitting in their graves and allowed to lie there for eternity rather than be put on display in all their stripped, plasticised glory. Maybe it is just something I would never want for me.  But this still doesn’t explain why I do not feel the same about a stuffed animal.

My brain fiend friend noted something else, he said that some people don’t like to be reminded that they are just an animal. Some people want to feel that humans are better than the world around them, more intelligent and some sort of higher being. However, we both agreed that it’s nice to be reminded that you are just an animal, a natural being that has evolved just like every other species on this planet. Sometimes it’s reassuring in such a fast paced and stressful world that we build ourselves. Seeing the inner workings of the human body puts us in our rightful place in the kingdom of life, in a comparable state to other species, such as what Darwin discovered and later many scientists would study: “…all hands start out in much the same way. There is a network of many genes that builds a hand, and all hands are built by variations on that same network. Some sculpt the wrist; others lengthen the fingers. It takes only subtle shifts in these genes to make fingers longer, to make some of them disappear, to turn nails into claws.” National Geographic Magazine, The Common Hand. Additionally, I just finished reading the book Prey by Michael Crichton – a good read for anyone feeling a bit high on the food chain.

To be honest, I think the reason I don’t feel the ‘squeam’ when I visit stuffed animal displays is because I have done so since I was a child. I did not think of my own mortality at that time, and certainly not that of any other animal. Also, crucially I had not encountered any horror films of books at that stage either!

In the end, I will be going to see the current plasticised exhibition at the Natural History Museum which is on until the 16th September. Regardless of squeamishness, knowledge and understanding of science is crucial and I would highly recommend everyone to get a grip and go see the dead plastic things.

Photo courtesy of Cameron Robinson

Who Is My Favourite Science Writer?

This piece was featured in The Science World Daily on the 26th April 2012.

One day I was thinking about a quote in Terry Pratchett’s novel Lords and Ladies describing elves:

“Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.

Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.

Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.

Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.

Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.

Elves are terrific. They beget terror.

The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning. No one ever said elves are nice. Elves are bad.” 

My initial reaction when reading this was a feeling of miniature revelation. I love the way in which a writer can look at not just the world but the English language in a way that others can’t.

This past month the Wellcome Trust were holding a science writing prize, for which I entered, but this is not what this story is about. As food for thought they posted lots of blogs written by well known science writers talking about their favourite piece of science writing. One post was the book Moneyball by Michael Lewis not actually a piece of science writing at all: http://wellcometrust.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/science-writing-prize-2012-mark-henderson/ 

Although Pratchett is not a science writer but instead a fantasy novelist, he manages to tackle the subject of science particularly well in his books. The way he portrays attitudes about science in society brings a well needed element of humour into science.

He has discussed geology and palaeontology:

“The entire universe has been neatly divided into things to (a) mate with, (b) eat, (c) run away from, and (d) rocks.”
Terry Pratchett

“You’re not allowed to call them dinosaurs any more,” said Yo-less. “It’s speciesist. You have to call them pre-petroleum persons.”
Terry Pratchett, Johnny and the Bomb

Personally, I love when geology crops up in his novels, because it is a common perception that rocks are, well, rocks.  They are not associated with many interesting features (a definite misconception!). Pratchett manages to not only express the common opinion of ‘all rocks are boring’ but effectively contends this with the fact that they contribute so much to our knowledge of life, the Earth and many of the things in it. He actively challenges your own ignorance in many facts or opinions, making you laugh along the way. A particular favourite quote of mine was where he talked about species’ innate love of iron:

“And that’s what the stones contained. The love of iron. A love so strong that it drew all iron things to itself. the three dwarfs who found the first of the rocks only got free by struggling out of their chain mail trousers.

Many worlds are iron at the core. But the Discworld is as coreless as a pancake. On the disc, if you enchant a needle it will point to the Hub…Elsewhere, on worlds designed with less imagination, the needle turns because of the love of iron.”  – Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies

The reason I feel this is so poignant is that I for one took for granted our utter dependency on metal – particularly the oldest of all metallic discoveries – iron.  Our ‘love’ of iron has led us to discover the world by navigating across the seas and much later, to be used in computer screens, electric motors and much more. Pratchett has a gift for taking the ‘overlooked’ parts of our society and rebuilding them from scratch, making you go back to basics in your understanding of the world. Partly, I think, this works as Discworld is set in their present, but in our past. This allows Pratchett to address science and society from a fresh perspective, talking in ‘real time’ for the Discworld and allowing you to see the science, traditions and opinions that we take for granted unravel in the course of the series.

Pratchett also talks about the basics of physics, which from a personal point of view makes a subject that can be pretty tricky, much, much easier to understand:

“In the beginning, there was nothing, which exploded.”

– Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies

“Chaos is found in greatest abundance wherever order is being sought. It always defeats order, because it is better organized.”
Terry Pratchett, Interesting Times

“In fact, the mere act of opening the box will determine the state of the cat, although in this case there were three determinate states the cat could be in: these being Alive, Dead, and Bloody Furious.
— Schrodinger’s Moggy explained”

Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies

“The only things known to go faster than ordinary light is monarchy, according to the philosopher Ly Tin Weedle. He reasoned like this: you can’t have more than one king, and tradition demands that there is no gap between kings, so when a king dies the succession must therefore pass to the heir *instantaneously*. Presumably, he said, there must be some elementary particles — kingons, or possibly queons — that do this job, but of course succession sometimes fails if, in mid-flight, they strike an anti-particle, or republicon. His ambitious plans to use his discovery to send messages, involving the careful torturing of a small king in order to modulate the signal, were never fully expanded because, at that point, the bar closed.”
Terry Pratchett, Mort

His quotes are based on facts, and a core understanding of the subject area he is dealing with. This means that it is all the more entertaining to read, you get the impression that this is a man who has done his homework, and is able to then break this down and re-invent it in another world, from a different perspective. For me, the worst case scenario is an author who doesn’t understand the scientific (or societal) matter they are trying to discuss. This only leads to confusion and misrepresentation in the wider public reader community.

What he also manages to get spot on is the ‘science’ of people. The causal nature of events and attitudes in the world are mirrored spectacularly in the Discworld:

“There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who, when presented with a glass that is exactly half full, say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty.
The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What’s up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don’t think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass! Who’s been pinching my beer?
And at the other end of the bar the world is full of the other type of person, who has a broken glass, or a glass that has been carelessly knocked over (usually by one of the people calling for a larger glass) or who had no glass at all, because he was at the back of the crowd and had failed to catch the barman’s eye. ”

Terry Pratchett, The Truth

“Cutangle: While I’m still confused and uncertain, it’s on a much higher plane, d’you see, and at least I know I’m bewildered about the really fundamental and important facts of the universe.
Treatle: I hadn’t looked at it like that, but you’re absolutely right. He’s really pushed back the boundaries of ignorance.
They both savoured the strange warm glow of being much more ignorant than ordinary people, who were only ignorant of ordinary things.”

Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites

“A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on.”
Terry Pratchett

Although none of these quotes are technically dealing with science, Pratchett has given me the chance to rethink a few fundamentals of science and achieve a new insight into the way the universe works. In a way, it highlights the ridiculousness of the universe and the people in it (including your own possibly ignorant views) and makes you question any previous scintific/societal assumptions. But this just makes our world all the more fascinating to be part of. When reading his books, I feel I am being educated about our own society and world events, as well as being captivated by an engaging storyline and believable characters.

There are hundreds more quotes I would like to be able to put in this short post…but if you are intrigued, you might as well be better just reading the books yourself.

So to conclude this (rather shabby) evaluation of an author’s work, I would have to say my favourite science writer is Terry Pratchett, although not in a conventional sense, and his engaging prose has led me to read his complete Discworld series.