Monday, 29 June 2009

History of Science at the British Science Festival

The Tables Turned is just one of the sessions organised by the History of Science Section of the British Science Association for this year's British Science Festival in Surrey. See our webpage for further details of:
Tickets for all of these sessions can be booked at the British Science Festival webpages.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Miss Lizzy Lightman

‘Lizzy’ Lightman has been a practising medium for 3 years, making a living by performing primarily at private dinner-party séances. She has worked for the past year with Mr Brookes, as he has attempted to use scientific methodologies to prove the events of the séance. She is unforthcoming about her background, but claims she has always had this ‘gift’, that she herself is alarmed at her supernatural powers, and that her elderly father (with whom she lives) strongly objected to her displaying it when young. She defends her actions against the attacks of Wendell at the meeting, yet is enigmatic when asked to elaborate on how exactly certain effects were created, appealing to ‘spirit forces’, ‘magnetism’, ‘mesmeric’ or ‘hypnotic’ charges. It is unclear to what extent she believes her performance at the séance is ‘acting’, ‘chanelling’, or some mixture of the two.

Mr James Wendell, F.R.S.

A man of science working at the Royal Institution, Wendell attended the dinner-party séance to investigate the claims of the medium, and is presenting the results of his investigations to the Society for Physical Research. Rather sceptical of spiritualism, he argues that ‘Lizzy’ deceived the attendees, and is not really affected by magnetism, or channelling spirits to ‘rap’ on the tables. He cites instances from the film that contradicted or disrupted the events of the séance, such as where he has concealed a magnet, used instruments, or sat underneath the table. He clashes with Brookes over the findings of ‘scientific’ investigations, picking apart Brookes’ evidence. However, his own physical work – into invisible phenomena and ‘singing’ flames – is compared to the events of the séance: ‘The spirits were consulted, and I was pronounced a first-class medium’; the letters ‘p o e t o f s c i e n c e’ are spelt out. Himself interested in the ‘scientific use of the imagination’, he is perhaps not so close to a modern scientist as the audience might at first believe.

Wendell believes that science has established the main forces that govern the world and all it contains. There is no previously unrecognised force that science has failed to establish. A supernatural or spiritual force that ONLY occurs in the presence of a medium is not real because: The physical laws of the universe require that a force be present universally – not just in a drawing room in the presence of a medium and not just recently when not previously apparent. Any force should be measurable with scientific instruments. Thinks this is highly unlikely in the case of ‘spirit forces’. He (Wendall) would dearly like to take Miss Lightman into his laboratory but she says this would scare the spirits. Forces which come and go like this seem likely not to be real. His magnetic forces on the other hand are reliable phenomena which can be observed by anyone and made to perform at any time and they are measurable phenomena. An educated scientific man is able to investigate phenomena and by virtue of his scientific training his intellect can reason what is a genuine phenomenon and what is not. Seeing is not believing. From a distance St Pauls cathedral is measured as only inches tall. But reason tells us how to understand that evidence of our senses and know that this is not the case in actuality. The scientific training he has received means he has a fully clear but also sceptical mind.

Miss Arabella Cloud

A poet, essayist, and philosopher, Miss Cloud is something of a recluse and invalid. She is a longstanding believer in spiritualism, and claims, whilst on her sick-bed, to have experienced ‘liminal’ sensations herself, where she has been trapped ‘between worlds’ and given privileged insights into the workings of the universe. She believes the men of science have not approached the question of life after death with an open mind, and that there are limits to scientific knowledge – not only things about the universe that science does not know, but that it cannot know – there are ‘more things in heaven and earth’. Articulate and impassioned, she challenges the assumptions of scientific methodology as pronounced by Wendell. She remains unconvinced by some of the medium’s more theatrical claims, perhaps deriding them as ‘sensational’ parlour amusements, whilst believing in spiritualism and mysticism writ large.

Miss Cloud thinks that the hostile attitude of Mr Wendall and Mr Middleton is borne of arrogance and a need to impose their views on others. Why are they so scared that there may be forces at work that they had not previously known of? There are strange phenomena and special forces can only be divined by certain people. As a poet she understands that artists often experience the world in ways different to the common man – why do they deny this?

Mr Robert Middleton

A journalist, Middleton approaches the discussion of the séance with an open mind. He organised the evening’s events in an attempt to put spiritualism to the test, and to see for himself the actions of ‘Lizzy’ Lightman. He can be critical of blind faith both in spiritualism and in science, can see the potential similarities between the two, and is an advocate of first-hand observation, and of transparency and reportage to a wider public.

Middleton knows just how popular spiritualism has become with the public: hundreds of letters have been sent to the paper and plenty of articles are appearing about table turning. He thinks that it has become a bit of a craze and the public are probably just seeking entertainment – it is a very silly fashion. But by enthusiastically attending séances and allowing themselves to be entertained in this way there are:
1) Making fools of themselves and showing themselves to be less rational and more ignorant than they should be. It is a very said indictment upon the British education system that people would be such fools. Does not do the standing of Britain as a nation any good whatsoever. Britain has an empire and has to maintain authority over millions of people – this authority is predicated on the superior nature of British civilisation.
2) Lining the pockets of fraudsters.

Mr Arthur Brookes

Brookes is a well-respected chemist, editor of a leading periodical in the field, and is about to become internationally famous for his work on glowing tubes and invisible particles. He believes in the existence of spiritual phenomena; that the instruments of the laboratory and the practices of observation he uses in his day-to-day scientific work can be brought to bear on the séance, and will one day provide a natural explanation for the movements, noises, and apparations. Whilst seeing is not necessarily believing we should keep an open mind until we have actual proof that the evidence is not as it seems. Mr Wendell has not provided actual proof that there was not forces at work in the séance room that night – only his supposition. The evidence of his (Brookes') senses is clear enough: an open mind must be kept until either the cause is found or absolute proof provided of fraud. Wendall is confusing truth determined by scientific method with the expression of his own opinions. Many things that science now sees as fact were once upon a time seen as fantastic. Take the telegraph. Or Mr Wendall’s magnetic forces. The key characteristic of a scientist is objectivity, not qualifications, and objectivity requires an open mind on any question until proof in either direction has been found.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Filming begins...

Photos from filming The Tables Turned are now online here.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Dramatis Personae

The characters appearing in The Tables Turned will include the following:
  • Mr James Wendell, F.R.S.
  • Mr Arthur Brookes
  • Mr Robert Middleton
  • Miss Lizzy Lightman
  • Miss Arabella Cloud
  • The President of the Guildford Literary and Scientific Society
Watch out for further information coming soon...

British Science Festival Performances

The Tables Turned will be performed over Wednesday 9th and Thursday 10th September at this year's British Science Festival at the University of Surrey, Guildford. In the day will be performances for pre-booked school groups of Key Stage 4 and Key Stage 5 students. On Wednesday evening at 8pm there will be a public performance for all ages.

For further details on the Schools Programme for the Festival, and to pre-book, see here.

Booking for the evening performance for all audiences will soon be available here.