Curious Minds – An Idea is Hatched
From its beginnings in the 19th Century, PSNS ran a series of Friday evening lectures for members and their guests. The talks were originally held in the Society’s own museum on Tay Street but, when the PSNS collections were gifted to the new Perth Museum in 1935, the meetings moved to the museum lecture theatre. Talks featured speakers from the Society’s active sections, the Perth Mountaineering Club (an early PSNS spin-off) and guests from other learned societies. Many speakers presented research on the natural history and archaeology of Perthshire that would go on to be published in academic journals.
Fast forward to 2015. As PSNS approached the 150th anniversary of its founding the era of the amateur scientist was long gone. The society had stopped publishing its own Journal. Friday night lectures still featured on the agenda but attendance numbers had declined. PSNS had to decide what its role was in modern Perth? Round about the same time, Perth Museum was undergoing a similar period of change with the formation of Culture Perth and Kinross.
PSNS met with the new CPK management and the idea for a collaboration was hatched. CPK and PSNS would work together to bring contemporary, cutting-edge science, from Scottish Universities and Laboratories, to the people of Perth. PSNS would provide the speakers and organize the events. CPK would help with marketing and technical support. Curious Minds was born. The talks would be open to the general public, to schools, to college students. They would reflect local interests, when appropriate, but they would also tackle some of the most advanced and ground breaking research being conducted in Scotland.
The first season of 12 talks kicked off in October 2016 and was an immediate success. Our first speaker was a safe choice. Mike Robinson is a well-known local figure as CEO of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. His subject was also a safe choice. Climate change. We quickly developed a structure for the evenings. Our speaker would talk for up to 1 hour. We break for tea and coffee then re-convene for a Q&A session that developed into a genuine audience discussion. Often, this was the highlight of the evening. Our audience quickly stabilized at around 100 people – with regular capacity crowds. It would take too long to describe all of the lectures so let’s just pull out a number of highlights. In November 2016 we were lucky to entice the World-famous palaeontologist, Dr Steve Brussatte, to come to Perth and show us his most recent discoveries – dinosaur footprints on Skye. Steve was welcomed by the Provost of Perth and, of course, his talk had something for everyone from the serious fossil buffs to families with kids clutching their favourite dinosaur toys.
In February we turned the science knob up to 11 with Professor Wendy Bickmore, Director of the MRC Human Genetics Unit in Edinburgh who gave us a guided tour of the human genome. But the final talk of the year will never be forgotten. Professor Jim Hough, from Glasgow, is a long-term collaborator on the LIGO project to detect Gravitational Waves. Jim was literally on his way home from the USA when he gave a talk in Perth. He brought with him his laptop which had, on it, the first recording of the “sound” of a gravitational wave. 120 people, in a lecture theatre in Perth, were among the first to hear the “chirp” of two black holes colliding!
Season 2: The PSNS 150th Anniversary
In the Autumn of 2017 the Society organized several events to mark its150th anniversary. (Link to another article). We invited Dame Evelyn Glennie to open our second Curious Minds season. Dame Evelyn overcame profound deafness to become a World famous percussionist. She brough along her musical instruments and explained, and demonstrated, how she feels music through her body. Remarkable and inspirational. She was joined on stage by members of the Perth Youth Percussion ensemble.
The second season built on the first with a similar mix of local and global topics ranging from archaeology (the search for the tomb of James I under Perth), through the physiology of seals in the Tay, to Vulcanology in Iceland to the discovery of the Higgs Boson in CERN. The Higgs Boson talk filled the auditorium to overflowing. Victoria Martin, from Edinburgh, works at CERN and was both a student and colleague of Professor Peter Higgs. Before the talk we told her “Don’t dumb it down” – and she didn’t. But the reaction was amazing. At the interval she was immediately surrounded by school students eager to ask her questions. She was like a – rock star.
But don’t get the impression that Curious Minds is all about sub-atomic particles or impenetrable formulae. Far from it. Our next talk was by a local Perth artist and musician, Jon Hoad. Remarkably, from his studio in central Perth, Jon produces illustrations of Dinosaurs in their Jurassic environments. Jon creates images for Museums, publishers and for Steve Brussatte. We were treated to an update on the Skye footprints project with musical accompaniment from Jon on his guitar.
Season 3: 2018/19 – In Our Stride
Season 3 confirmed that we were really hitting our stride. Word of the lecture series had spread through the Scottish Academic community. Speakers didn’t have to be persuaded to travel to Perth on dark Winter evenings. We began the season with a “close to home” talk by Dr Alison Sheridan of the National Museum of Scotland. The PSNS Archaeology and History Section was set up in 1948 and Alison’s lecture marked its 70thanniversary. She described how, 5000 years ago, beautiful jadeite axe heads were quarried from a rock high in the Italian Alps and, eventually, turned up in a farmer’s field in Perthshire. A remarkable detective story.
The season continued the eclectic mix that we established over the previous years. We heard about searching for exoplanets, the causes (and cures?) for dementia, Gorilla communication, the physics of musical instruments and more.
One highlight was a talk by Professor Luke Bisby on Fire Engineering. Luke had been involved in studying the World Trade Centre after the 9/11 attacks. Why did the buildings collapse? He and his team modelled how the build up of heat melted and buckled key structural components – with catastrophic consequences. Luke also contributed to the expert report on the Grenfell fire. A fascinating evening – made more memorable by the arrival of the active-duty fire crew from Perth Fire Station – in full uniform – complete with fire engine in the car park!
Season 4: 2019/20 – Consciousness and Covid
By the time season 4 came around in 2019 we were confident in our format and we began to broaden the range of topics that we felt would be of interest to our audience. In addition to some great mainstream science talk covering subjects like antimicrobial resistance, to engineering in space and radiocarbon dating, we enjoyed a talk from Professor Bruce Whitelaw of the Roslin Institute on the gene-editing technology, CRISPR. We also included talks to explore subjects such as sensory perception, Artificial Intelligence, optical illusions and, the big unanswered question “What is consciousness?”. Professor Michael Wheeler is a Philosopher from Stirling who had stepped in at the last moment in Season 3 when one of our speakers cancelled. Mike introduced us to his own work “The Extended Mind”.
He talked about the relationship between our mental processes and the tools that we increasingly use to interact with the external world. We asked Mike to come back and talk about Consciousness. At first, he was reluctant. It is a difficult and contentious subject. But he agreed to come along and give us a neutral view of current ideas on the subject. The auditorium was completely sold out. This is clearly an interesting subject. Mike gave a great and clear explanation and, eventually, hinted at his own belief.
Our final Curious Minds lecture explored another new direction for PSNS. Professor Aude le Guenec, a fashion anthropologist, talk about how a parent’s choice of children’s clothing influences their social and emotional development. That was on March 6th 2020. A few days later our World changed as Covid-related restrictions made such events impossible. 2020/21 was a wash out. We look forward to Season 5 when it becomes possible with, we promise, no talks on viruses, vaccines or pandemics!