Humans are part of nature, we live within nature. Living in a future world of 10 billion, how can experts from different disciplines come together and find solutions to the challenges we may face? As part of the 10 billion three-week course, Dr Tom Webb from the department of animal and plant science organised a panel debate. The debate brought together professor Philip Warren, PhD student Rebecca Senior, Dr Alastair Buckley from the Physics department and PhD student Veronica Fibisan from the School of English to talk with an audience about visions of nature in a world of 10 billion.
The debate started with Dr Alastair Buckley, who raised a question on whether nature is personal. “Are we allowed to have a different version of nature? Or, given that nature is global, should there be legal limits to what nature is?”
Professor Warren highlighted the potential challenges facing nature, “We have already got many problems. We have looked at the problem of climate change and discovered a lot of complex changes.” He said species are declining and we are losing lots of nature in of lots of areas. But, he pointed out that nature ‘is still recognisable’. Nature is not just a future problem; it is about what we do now to change the consequence in the future.
Miss Fibisan’s presentation on environmental literature broadened the discussion to a wider perspective. After completing her master’s degree, Miss Fibisan developed an interest in ecology. She started writing poetry about the British shoreline and took part in fieldwork with other marine scientists. “I do not have a formal training in science, but it is about raising awareness,” she said.
Miss Fibisan also brought out a new idea to conserve nature by combining poetry with science. For example, the air-cleaning poem called ‘In Praise of Air’ displayed on the University’s Alfred Denny Building is printed on a treated material to absorb nitrogen oxide, a formula invented at the University of Sheffield.
Miss Senior said we should not give up conserving our nature. Based on her research, the Amazon forest has been able recover due to government regulation. But, she says that it is difficult for people living in an urban area to experience different types of nature. “There is a problem here, even though we have tropical rainforests, the animals are there, but most people don’t experience it,” she said. There might be two possible ways of development. It is either a big urban area without nature or different small urban areas with more nature.
Professor Warren added that 80% of the UK population live in urban area. He said physical health and mental health is highly associated with nature and people should think more about how nature can fit into the urban spaces.
Dr Amanda Crawley Jackson brought up some examples of community projects that are focusing on urban farming and self-sustaining community spaces. Furnace Park in Doncaster is a pilot scheme to encourage urban farming through passing the skills from older generations to younger generations.
During the discussion, the audience asked about how the concept of nature can work with today’s capitalist world and more practical measurements to save our planet. Professor Warren said grassroots activities and individual initiatives were very important to alert politicians and the government. He encouraged local people to work together and continue their work.
After the discussion, a member of the audience, Miriam Dobson, a PhD student in animal and plant science said: “The communications between grassroots organisations, scientific academics and academics in the humanities and social sciences is important for providing accessible places for people in different parts of society to talk about things.” She really liked the interdisciplinary approach to this issue.
Over the past three weeks the University of Sheffield has been buzzing with activity as students from all disciplines came together to explore the question, ‘how will we live in a world of 10 billion?’.
From lectures on demographics to workshops on migration to debates on the future of renewable energy, it’s been a whirlwind of a few weeks!
So, as the 10bn online course also draws to a close, we thought we’d share some of the highlights from this year’s events…
Demographics and dilemmas
It all started on Monday 13 February with a lecture on the ‘demographics and dilemmas’ of 10 billion by Professors Paul White (Emeritus Deputy Vice-Chancellor) and Tony Ryan (Professor of Physical Chemistry and founding Director of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures).
This was a lively opening lecture which sparked some interesting debate about how we will cope in terms of food, healthcare and energy as the population grows.
If you missed Paul and Tony’s lecture, you can listen to an audio recording and see the accompanying slides here.
The following day, Professor Marco Viceconti (Professor of Biomechanics) joined us to talk about the uses, limits and ethics of predictive technologies in healthcare across the world.
This was an engaging and insightful talk that brought together ideas and concerns from medicine as well as engineering, while managing to be accessible to those outside these two disciplines.
Listen to Marco’s lecture and view his slides here.
The next day it was Pro-Vice-Chancellor for the Arts & Humanities Professor Jackie Labbe’s turn to give her 10bn keynote.
In it, she explored aspects of our past through the prism of art and literature, drawing parallels between the environmental and demographic upheaval brought on by the industrial revolution and the changing world of today.
Through careful and close reading of poetry and art, Jackie brought to the surface the concerns, anxieties and experiences of people living in nineteenth century Britain, sparking lively discussion on how these concerns might bear similarities to those felt by people in 21st century Britain.
On Thursday 16 February we were joined by guest speaker, International Criminal Court (ICC) Judge Morrison, who had traveled over from the Hague to give a special talk on the future of international criminal law.
This was an engaging and illuminating lecture in which Judge Morrison discussed the international tensions associated with a growing population and talked about how international criminal law may need to expand to tackle environmental and transnational corporate offending.
10 billion: future prospects and current thinking
For the final keynote, we rounded once again on the demographics of 10 billion with Professor Danny Dorling (Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford and author of Population 10 Billion) and Carl Lee (University Teacher, School of Geography).
In this exciting and insightful talk, Carl and Danny introduced the demographic challenges posed by 10 billion, debated the reliability of current projections and addressed the socio-political implications of moving towards a more settled and equal world.
You can listen to the full talk and see Carl and Danny’s slides here.
Drawing negative space
Students from all disciplines were given the opportunity to roll their sleeves up and get creative for this special art workshop led by fine art lecturers Hester Reeve and Christine Arnold (Sheffield Hallam University).
The purpose of the workshop was to explore and express the concept of negative space and the spaces in-between, specifically in relation to the University campus.
Students from Journalism, Architecture, Geography and beyond all came along for what turned out to be an extremely rewarding two hours of expression and experimentation using just charcoal and a white canvass.
Migration and the Bible
Half way into the 10bn programme we welcomed Dr Casey Strine (Lecturer in Ancient Near Eastern History and Literature) to discuss the parallels between Biblical and current-day narratives of involuntary migration.
Casey also talked about the ‘Back where you came from‘ project in which asylum seekers and refugees read and discuss texts from the Book of Genesis dealing with involuntary migration in order to inform art making (monoprints, ceramic vessels) expressing their interpretation of and reaction to these stories.
Students then had the opportunity to practice the same technique used by the asylum seekers and refugees Casey had worked with. Using white wax, the students drew an invisible image onto a white canvas before brushing it over with watered down black ink to reveal the image or scene they had created. The end results where fascinating and sparked interesting discussions about how we perceive and empathise with the experiences of others.
We invited three people working in the field of water and the environment to debate the future of H2O. The panel included: Professor James Wilsdon, Director of the Nexus Network, an ESRC initiative to link research & policy across food, energy, water and the environment; Dr Vanessa Speight, Director The Sheffield Water Centre at UoS and Twenty65; and Tinashe Mawodza, postgraduate researcher at Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures.
Following short presentations from each member of the panel, the audience had an opportunity to ask questions and challenge the speakers on a number of issues. The discussion which ensued covered everything from how we can preserve water by taking fewer baths and limiting our time in the shower to developing robots that swim around our water networks seeking out problems to fix!
Organised collaboratively by Dr Tom Webb (Animal and Plant Sciences) and Vera Fibisan (English Literature), this was an interdisciplinary debate which brought together scientific, artistic and philosophical perspectives on the topic of nature.
Over 130 students and staff attended the closing debate seeking answers to the question, ‘can we have a fully renewable energy future?’.
The multidisciplinary panel included: Dr Alastair Buckley (Physics), Professor Paul Mosley (Economics), Dr Grant Wilson (Chemical and Biological Engineering), Matthew Billson (Director of Energy2050), Professor Fionn Stevenson (Architecture), Dr Karen Finney (Energy 2050), Dr Chris Jones (Psychology) and Professor Martin Mayfield (Civil Engineering) all came along to have their say – as did the audience!
To get a true feel of the event, read postgraduate student Lucy Smith’s review here.
During 10bn we invited students to go on a tour like no other…
Unlike the traditional University campus tour, this was one where students were offered a glimpse of the ‘unseen’ corners of our campus. Stop-offs included the historic Alfred Denny museum, the dusty chambers of Western Bank Library, the ‘green’ solar paneled roof of the Hicks Building and the carefully controlled greenhouses at the Arthur Willis Environment Centre.
Photograph by Grace Jones
Words and photography by Fern Merrills (unless otherwise stated).
Over 130 people came to the Diamond to challenge, support or simply learn from the seven academic experts presenting on renewable energies.
True to form, technology failed early on when the clickers were unable to determine the percentage of the audience who felt that a fully renewable energy future was either desirable, probable or possible. An old school show of hands determined that half thought it was possible but two thirds thought that it wasn’t probable.
The multidisciplinary panel was formed of Dr Alastair Buckley from the Physics Department, Paul Mosley Professor of Economics, Dr Grant Wilson of Chemical and Biological Engineering, Matthew Billson the Director of Energy2050, Professor Fionn Stevenson the Head of the School of Architecture, Dr Karen Finney a Research Fellow in Energy 2050, Dr Chris Jones the Director of Impact for Psychology and Professor Martin Mayfield from the Department of Civil Engineering.
With three minutes of floor time each, Dr Alastair Buckley kicked off the evening to describe the fact that even if renewable energy is able to meet the demands of society, a x10 energy payback is required to build the renewable technology in the first place.
While the optimistic audience had hoped to be presented with a positive framework to build upon they were faced with an economy that supports the use of fossil fuels, renewable energies that are incapable of achieving required capacities and the prospect of a lifestyle that involves mucking out your pigs every morning before going to work!
I should explain… Prof. Stevenson described a futuristic lifestyle in a renewable home that requires daily maintenance of solar panels and wind turbines that are controlled by counterintuitive control systems with no feedback loops; livestock that must be fed and watered to provide fuel for a biomass plant. All of this, implemented by an industry that is incapable of maintaining pace with technological change.
Prof. Mosley explained that while the cost of fossil fuels is so low, there will be no funding for renewable energy solutions. This was supported by Prof. Mayfield who stated that a global switch to renewables would ‘tank’ the global economy which would have the biggest impact on the poor.
The overall message from the panel was that a renewable energy future was unlikely unless there is a shift in global politics.
By the second question to the panel, they were called out on their pessimism towards the subject, and essentially our futures! “You should be here to inspire us!”, roused a member of the audience.
The rebuttal from Prof. Mayfield: “I’m glad we’ve made you feel uncomfortable, that’s a good start”.
A wide range of topics were discussed, while the prospect of a population of 10 billion was only briefly touched on. The main takeaways from the debate:
Renewable energy solutions alone cannot produce a consistent supply to the grid
Low carbon solutions in combination with renewable energy solutions and storage is the most likely long-term solution
We are not necessarily looking at the right problems- embodied energy of materials is just as important as energy use (if not more important)
Interdisciplinary action is needed to achieve a sustainable future
We need to change as a society and “JUST GET STARTED”
While the more cynical viewpoint remained with members of the panel towards the end of the debate, the audience left with a feeling of hope, knowing that if we work together to think outside of the box, a sustainable future may still be possible!
As part of the University of Sheffield’s pioneering interdisciplinary programme 10bn (see this previous post for more details), I was due last Friday to talk at a session we had organised on ‘Visions of Nature in a World of 10bn’. Unfortunately, Storm Doris had other ideas, and I was stranded in London. But had I made it back in time, here’s what I would have said…
One criticism of social researchers is that they are pretty good at identifying the problems but get shy when asked to advance ideas about how to resolve them.
Social justice: What kind of society do we want to live in – the 10bn online course section and Social Futures event on Tuesday 28th Feb –are designed to get you thinking about what some of the thorny issues and social evils are today and how we might begin to respond to them.
The word prosocial means to be in the interests of society. This basic idea goes to the heart of what research and teaching in universities is for, it also goes to the core of many political ideas and ideals and evokes a utopian and imaginative engagement with many issues and the question of how we can create societies that work best for all.
To unleash such an imagination is both exciting but also potentially tyrannical – if you were ruler for a day or a decade what plans would you have to make the world better? And what would you do with those who didn’t want to follow your plans? How do we maximise benefits, recruit people to a cause and really address social problems?
One immediate problem lies in realising that most proposals about what the core problems and social evils are, and what to do about them, are frequently divisive – are we experiencing higher levels of national debt because we helped the banks after the crisis or because we spent too much on social security? If poverty and malnutrition are global problems is the answer greater transfers of wealth and capital from massive corporations perhaps, or to leave the poor alone in the hope that they will devise entrepreneurial plans to get themselves out of their situation? Is the latter response genuine or simply a way of protecting the wealth of the few?
Is war, peace or something else the answer to state violence on civilian populations? What, less damaging, arrangements do we think will work and why?
Can we begin to think about locating not simply what is problematic but also ask how the political, economic and social systems we inhabit are productive of, but also reproduce, these problems?
How can we begin to challenge the harms, damage and violence that aspects of our social and economic systems do to many people today?
Today’s economic, political and social environments undermine everyday social life as notions of the shared, the public, the municipal and common space have been fundamentally challenged. In this sense the idea and value of what is ‘social’ has been attacked.
One interesting development in recent years has been the way that rising global inequalities have generated outrage at the level of reward for those already doing well – whether this be particular individuals or corporations. The rise of the Occupy movement and ideas of the 1% and 99% have generated straightforward ideas and terms to focus on what needs changing in broad ways that have seen significant buy-in from publics across the globe. Thinking more broadly, what might we do to help reduce inequalities, anger, violence, human suffering and promote care, development, happiness, joy, togetherness, community safety and meaningful modes of economic existence?
With social and policy thinking often fixed on notions of the anti-social it appears timely to consider the value and limits of the social itself, of the kinds of mechanisms for community participation and self-realisation amidst these powerful social and economic forces. In this context we can and should ask – what do universities and their students have to contribute to discussions about a better world and how we might achieve it today?
Professor Rowland Atkinson, Research Chair in Inclusive Society, University of Sheffield
The full article and further resources about Prosocial can be found on the 10bn online course
Thanks to all our committed #shef10bn students who are bringing so much energy and insight to 10bn, we are really enjoying all of your input and ideas so far. Here are the main events to look forward to next week!
Driving in a world of 10bn:
Monday 20th Feb, room 19.4 (top floor) Arts Tower
Take part in an experiment run by the School of Architecture with Psychology. Research assistant Scott Fox will kindly be available all day, so you can pop in anytime between
10am – 4pm. You will spend around 5 minutes driving in daylight and then in night time conditions, in the custom built experiment room.
How does light affect your perception of the road and other vehicles? In particular, what do we think urban environments might resemble in the future?
Tuesday 21st Feb, Food workshop, 3-4pm, Info Commons 1:20
Dr Megan Blake from Geography leads this fun and interactive session. What are the main issues with food inequalities in our society? Dr Blake will tell us more about her current research project and in groups, we will analyse the key debates to come up with interesting headlines which could be used to inform people and policy.
Our first migration themed event this week features Dr Amanda Crawley Jackson, academic lead for 10bn and co-researcher of ‘the Longer story, bigger picture’, which explores issues of representation in migration. Those of you doing 10bn online can find out loads more about this on the course. All welcome, come along to the Alfred Denny conference room 11-1pm on Tuesday 21st Feb.
Weds 22nd Feb, 10-12am, Information Commons 1:20
There’s another migration themed event this week, led by Dr Casey Strine, a historian at UoS who explores the study of migration to reconstruct ancient history and to interpret ancient texts. All UoS staff and students are welcome to find out more about how involuntary migration – people fleeing environmental disasters, war, or persecution in various forms – influences the ways groups construct their history, tell those stories, and respond to the other cultures they meet in their movements. In this session we will have the opportunity to make artefacts which respond to the theme.
*10bn border guards will be checking tickets upon arrival – please bring your eventbrite confirmation! Visas will be provided.
Water debate: Thursday 23rd Feb, Firth Court Lecture Theatre (FO2)
As we all know, water is essential to life, so how do we ensure there will be enough clean water for everyone as the global population grows? This key event features leading academics from the University, including Prof James Wilsden (director Nexus Network), Dr Vanessa Speight (Water Centre and director Twenty65) and Tinashe Mawodza from the Grantham Centre. The panel will present videos and information about the latest critical issues and technological innovations for you the audience to explore and ask questions.
Antibiotics breakthrough: Fri 24 Feb, 14:00 – 15:30 Alfred Denny PC room
Antibiotics, we’ve all heard the stats! 10 million lives a year at risk due to superbug infections and ever-increasing antibiotic resistance. So, how did a young academic’s belief in his work become one of the biggest impact stories in science with the potential to address a key societal issue that affects us all?
In a career spanning 30 years, Professor of Functional Genomics Jon Sayers’ world leading research is developing a new class of antibiotics which target highly drug-resistant bacteria. Join Prof Sayers in this computer lab session making use of 3d molecular graphics technology to explore how we visualise atoms, molecular proteins and DNA.
We are only a week away from 10bn 2017, the University’s interdisciplinary programme open to all Year 2 undergrads. Here’s a little more about what you can expect, where you can find us and what you can do.
10bn expo stand
Firstly, we will have an expo stand in the Diamond, next to reception, on the opening day (13th Feb) and at other times throughout the 3 week programme. If you have any questions, would like to pick up your 10bn workbook or a timetable of events, this is a good place to come to! You can also find out more about sustainability practices and future pathways.
Come and chat to our colleagues from across the campus, including the Carbon Neutral Uni, the Grantham Centre, 301 skills and SURE scheme, and Green Impact. You will also be able to find us in room 1:20 in the Information Commons.
We are pleased to announce that our Vice-President of Education, Prof Wyn Morgan, will be launching 10bn along with our academic leads Dr Al Buckley and Dr Amanda Crawley Jackson. This starts at 1.30pm in the HRI. Wyn and Al will be doing a fun quiz with you – what is interdisciplinarity? – and explaining more about what 10bn entails.
Then at 2.15pm Amanda and Dr Cerusi will be explaining more about ‘negative space’ (lifted from design and architecture, not astrophysics :)) to help us understand interdisciplinarity in a fresh light. Bring lunch, meet L2s from other subjects, and ask us any questions!
Tues 14th Weds 15thTours
** Limited places only ** Sign up https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/10bn-talks-10964136447 for our ‘unseen spaces’ tour. Meet staff and students in the SU foyer by the info desk, and we will take you on a whistestop tour of a few special, hitherto unknown places on the campus.
Once you start thinking about ‘negative space’, how do we see the campus? What else does it have to offer? Where do we converge?
Thurs 16th AWEC
We have 2 x 30 minute tours of the Arthur Willis Environment Centre for a lucky few. Meet at AWEC reception at either 11 or 11.30 for a peek at their state of the art grodome and find out about our academics’ world leading eco research.
Fri 17th ART workshop
Explore negative space and the interdisciplinary campus in a practical workshop. This is for everyone – you really don’t need super art skills at all! Led by our guest Fine Art lecturers from Sheffield Hallam University, you will get the chance to chat, interpret, and design your thoughts with charcoal, board and other drawing materials.
Staff and students at The University of Sheffield are warmly invited to attend:
Who are the 10 billion? // Paul White & Tony Ryan*
Monday 13 Feb, 17:30-18:30 (SU Auditorium)
In this opening keynote lecture, Professor Paul White (Emeritus Deputy Vice-Chancellor) and Professor Tony Ryan (Professor of Physical Chemistry and founding Director of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures) discuss the demographics, dilemmas and opportunities of living in a world of 10 billion.
Universal healthcare in a world of 10 billion // Marco Viceconti*
Tuesday 14 Feb, 17:30 – 18:15 (SU Auditorium)
Professor Marco Viceconti looks at the role of technology in health care now and in the future. He will interrogate the uses and limits of technology in health provision, and will explore some of the ethical issues that may arise as technology is employed more and more by the medical world.
Join Professor Jackie Labbe as she wanders through the sultry smoke of London’s chartered streets with William Blake and Mary Robinson, witnesses the changing nature of Wordsworth’s countryside and looks out over Turner’s lively cityscapes in order to form a picture of the way people observed and experienced the changes of increasing industrialisation.
International Criminal Court (ICC) Judge Morrison will introduce the history of the International Criminal Court and discuss some of its challenges. He will talk about how an expanding population might lead to further international tensions, and discuss how international criminal law may need to expand to tackle environmental and transnational corporate offending.
Danny Dorling and Carl Lee discuss population 10 billion*
Friday 17 Feb, 16:00-17:00 (The Diamond, Lecture Theatre 1)
Professor Danny Dorling, formerly from the University of Sheffield and fellow author and University of Sheffield Teacher Carl Lee will introduce and discuss the demographic challenges posed by 10 billion, debate the reliability of current projections and address the socio-political implications of moving towards a more settled and more equal world.
Migration: The longer story, the bigger picture // Amanda Crawley Jackson
Tuesday 21 Feb, 11:00-13:00
Migrants are represented in a disparity of ways in both journalism and art. But what’s the truth? What’s the longer story? What’s the bigger picture? Dr Amanda Crawley Jackson (French Studies) discusses this ever important topic, bringing in findings from her own research on the representation and practice of space and the politics of mobility.
Debate: Can we have a fully renewable energy future? // Multi-faculty panel
Tuesday 21 Feb, 18:30-20:00 (Diamond Workroom 3)
Academics from a range of disciplines will take a look at the issue of renewable energy from different points of view (social, political and technological) and ask the question, ‘can renewable sources can ever fully provide all our energy needs.’
Alien life – is there anybody out there? // Simon Goodwin
Wednesday 22 Feb, 14:00-15:00 (The Diamond, Lecture Theatre 2)
We will soon have the technology to examine planets around other stars and even discover alien life.What sort of environments will we find? Is alien life common? What might it be like? Is the Galaxy full of Earth-like planets and advanced alien civilisations or are we and our planet incredibly rare and special? Professor Simon Goodwin (Physics) asks: ‘is there anybody out there?’
Water is essential to our life on this planet, so how do we ensure there will be enough clean water for everyone as the global population grows? The panel will discuss and debate these questions and more at this important event.
Friday 24 Feb, 10:00-12:00 (Firth Court Council Room)
This multimedia event explores visions of nature in a world of 10bn people. Dr Tom Webb will be sharing a range of academic opinion to present the spectrum of debate – in a world of 10bn people, should nature be shared, or spared?
Last week we had a meeting where we discussed the key themes and opportunities 10bn offers. One of the points which struck me as particularly important is the fact that it is a space for students to experiment and take risks.
I graduated in 2015, meaning I was the first year of students to pay the £9000 fees. I, myself, and every person I spoke to about this whilst at University, felt an immense pressure to achieve at least a 2:1 in their degree. This pressure and drive towards achieving a particular mark in every module, and assignment, meant that a lot of students tended to err on the side of caution to ensure they achieved this, both in terms of the modules they chose and the assignments they wrote.
Reflecting on it now, I wonder, did I miss out on learning experiences and opportunities by so often ‘playing it safe’?. With high tuition fees and the ever-competitive graduate jobs market, this pressure is not going away any time soon.
This is why 10bn is an unmissable opportunity. It offers a non-assessed space for students to participate in a debate on an exciting and uncertain topic, which has no definite answers. This is a chance for disruption, for stepping outside of your discipline and extending your learning. It is an opportunity to explore interests and discover new ones.
10bn will empower students to explore and discover concepts and points of view that they may never have thought about or even heard of. By exposing students to approaches and concepts from different disciplines, students will return to their own discipline with fresh insight and thoughts.
The skills associated with playing with, and questioning, ideas on an inter-disciplinary topic, will inspire a unique kind of personal and professional development. Being receptive to new concepts, and bringing new thoughts to the table yourself, are qualities valued by staff, employers and other students alike.
The space for risk-taking and potential for academic exploration that 10bn offers should be seized with both hands by students at the University of Sheffield – what have you got to lose, and what are you waiting for?
I came to bird song rather late. As a child, my enthusiasm for birds was almost entirely visual. I would spend hours copying pictures out of bird guides, but knew few other than the obvious, onomatopoeic calls. Over the past decade or so – with a conscious effort, and with considerable direction from my partner, whose ear is much more musical than mine – I’ve managed to tune in to the more common songs you’re likely to hear in Britain. I’m nowhere near able to deconstruct a full dawn chorus, but at least now unfamiliar songs stand out, often a sign that something interesting is around.
Here’s a funny thing though. I’ve never really been one for bird lists, but on more exotic trips they’ve seemed like a worthwhile exercise. And my few such lists distinguish between birds we’ve seen, and those we’ve only heard. The ‘only’ there is deliberate – for a long time, I considered hearing a bird as less of a ‘tick’ than seeing it; perhaps because I lacked confidence in my ear, but also I think because seeing felt more real. Which is silly really – for many songbirds, their song is far more striking and identifiable than their little, brown appearance. Now that my walks are invariably in the company of small children, with no time to stand still and look for the source of a song, I think I’m finally happy to give song equal billing – to come home content to have experienced that blackcap, or skylark, or curlew, to believe it was really there, sight unseen. (That’s if I can ever hear a bloody thing over child-borne cacophony…)
This musing on the nature of experience, and the experience of nature, has been triggered by two events – one recent, the other imminent.
Just before Christmas Danny Copeland, a recent APS graduate and former dissertation student of mine, came back to Sheffield to talk to our current undergrads about his burgeoning ‘unorthodox career in conservation’. Danny styles himself as a multimedia expert, specialising in underwater work, and with a special passion for mantas and other mobulid rays.
Among his recent projects, he has created a remarkable short film about diving with rays. Shot in 360º (using ‘basically 6 GoPros taped together’, as Danny self-effacingly puts it), and viewable with a VR headset, this film offers an immersive experience, as close as I’ve been to scuba diving for almost 20 years. This short film explains the how the team got this amazing footage:
The resulting film was powerful enough to help win new protection for mobula rays at the recent CITES meeting, and viewing it sitting on a stool in the University Arms, I was astonished quite how powerful the sensation of being elsewhere was.
This was my first go with VR, and I was hugely impressed; as the technology improves, both for filming and viewing natural history films in this way, it could well offer us glimpses of experiences we will never personally have. But although I came away feeling that I now had a much better idea of what diving with giant rays would be like, of course no part of me actually thinks that I have had that experience. Visually it was spectacular, but none of my other senses got wet…
The second, imminent experience is a research cruise I am scheduled to participate in, led by my friend and collaborator Craig McClain, into the Gulf of Mexico in March. I am childishly excited about this – I’ve been calling myself a marine ecologist for long enough, but the shameful truth is that I’ve never spent more than 24h on a boat. The focus of this cruise is the deep sea, in particular the unique communities that develop on wood which finds its way into the deep either naturally (fallen trees washed out to sea by rivers) or, in this case, via benthic elevator from our ship. This offers unusual opportunities for experimental macroecology, as we discuss in a new paper using data collected from Craig’s last cruise. This time we’re going to chuck a load more wood overboard to test some more fun hypotheses. Expect many breathless progress reports on here in due course…
What’s interesting in the context of this post, however, is our planned use of ROVs – Remotely Operated Vehicles, robot submarines if you like. ROVs offer numerous advantages over manned subs. They are safer and much cheaper, for starters. But also, as Craig (a veteran of both manned and remote missions) has told me in the past – you get a much better view on multiple widescreen displays from an ROV than you would ever get from the porthole of a sub; what’s more you can enjoy these views while stretching your legs, and even have a coffee without worrying about the inevitable uncomfortable consequences. Put simply: you have a richer experience of the deep sea using ROVs.
But of course you don’t need to be at sea to have this experience – some missions are now livestreaming visuals, so anyone anywhere can share that sense of discovery. Will that make the experience on board theRV Pelican any less ‘real’ for me? That probably depends on my sea legs. It does though, I think, raise some interesting questions about what ‘experiencing’ nature really means. Is anything mediated via a screen a real ‘experience’? Does it matter how far from the actual action we are? Carry that thought further: Is watching live footage on springwatch a natural experience? Does looking down on Earth on a screen from a windowless spaceship actually really count?
I dunno. But here’s to new experiences anyway, however they come.