Encouraging dialogue, no holds barred

Museum: At London's Dana Centre, participants explore the whos, whats and whys of conspiracy theories, the Internet, sex and science.

Medicine & Science

December 22, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - The contortionist could have looked out of place. The conspiracy theorists could have been hushed up, and the discussion of new-fashioned ways to have babies could have been held without discussing - Shhh! - sex.

But not at London's newest museum.

The Dana Centre has joined the home of some of the world's greatest museums, but by design it stands apart. There are no long-winded lectures, no artifacts to match The British Museum's, or more contemporary pieces to match Tate Modern's, or even the thought-provoking discoveries and mysteries housed in Britain's Science Museum.

In fact, the Dana Centre has no artifacts, and it will never have a high-brow speaker lecturing in a suit - unless the audience can lecture back.

In a central London building whose exterior could easily be mistaken for an insurance office, the high-tech gizmos are not exhibits, but tools for visitors to use as an entree to discuss - interactively and in depth - the changes that science has brought, what it might bring and, mostly, what it all might mean.

This is a science museum specifically for adults. Events, including standup comedy and performance art, are held as the audience participators sip wine.

Science, in this venue, is not necessarily about atoms and dinosaurs and old rocks.

Instead: What are the real possibilities that entire faces might soon be transplanted? Why do so many people believe claims found on the Internet that man never really landed on the moon? What are the possibilities of mind control?

And about those babies - will technology soon be available to create them using any cells from two people, rather than the sperm from a man and an egg from a woman - allowing post-menopausal women or two gay men to become biological parents?

"We're not trying to be the Jerry Springers of science," says Stephen Bromberg, the museum's communications director. "But we have a blank canvas, and what we're putting on it is some different, very real topics that people can discuss without being inhibited by what children will think about it. The fact is, for a lot of people it's easier to discuss reproductive issues, for example, without a lot of children around."

The museum, which opened Nov. 20, aims to take science out of the vacuum of the laboratories, make it interesting and understandable, and then explore what makes it applicable to the lives of the masses.

Last week, Baroness Susan Greenfield, an expert on the brain and a professor of pharmacology at the University of Oxford, led a discussion on what technology can mean to the mind. But unavoidably - in fact, by design - the topic evolved into a discussion of how society may react to new technologies ranging from the Internet to a cure for Alzheimer's.

A British neuroscientist of high acclaim, Greenfield told the audience of about 75 people that technology will change not only day-to-day living habits, but how people think and feel and how they interact with others. Children who spend hours a day on the Internet, for example, without associating what they see to meaningful experiences, may have the physical structure of their brains altered.

Beyond that, the physical changes to the brain, Greenfield said, have huge implications about how people will interact with one another. "The more associations something triggers in you, the more significant it will become to you," she said. "If technology keeps bombarding us, will we lose the imagination we develop through reading."

The isolation the Internet creates, the thought and reflection that is so often lacking when people are clicking from one Web page to another, is creating fundamental changes to how people use their brains, she said. And she fears the change is for the worse.

Greenfield insisted she was not arguing against technology, but about getting people to think about how to use it. "I think we need to decide what kind of society we want and then harness the technology and the know-how, rather than sleep-walking into it," she said.

Technology's effect on thinking will likely be all-pervasive, she argued, as traditional views on sex and family relationships are shaken by developments that will allow people to live longer and healthier lives, blurring generational lines. What will happen, she said, as reproductive advances enable eggs to be created from men's cells, which some scientists predict could happen by the middle of the century?

"The event was just what we try to accomplish here," said Lisa Jamieson, the museum's program coordinator. "It looked at the impact of technology on our lives and got into the moral and ethical aspects of how we will reproduce and about how we will function with the new technologies."

When a contortionist came to the museum, the audience saw real-time scans of her internal organs shifting about. That prompted a discussion on how the body reacts to serious physical stresses.

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