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The philosophy behind The Exploratory


The Exploratory
Richard Gregory Scientist
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We started the exploratory in Bristol, which was hands-on science centre. It was quite an ambitious project. It was the first in Britain but not the first in the world, I hasten to add. The first one in modern times really goes back to Bacon I think actually, in the 17th century, you know. He only imagined it. He imagined it, absolutely, it was an imaginary island. He imagined it but at least he imagined it, which is something. Absolutely right. Well, the first chap who really did this actually was Frank Oppenheimer who was Robert Oppenheimer’s brother who, of course, did the atom bomb in the war. Frank was his younger brother who was also a physicist, and a delightful man actually. Well, I actually gave a lecture in San Francisco in 1969 to the new Eye Research Institute, it was called the The Smith-Kettlewell Lecture, I gave the first one which was The Smith-Kettlewell Eye Institute. Now, this is the sort of important thing in my life really. Frank went to this lecture which was all about illusions, perception and knowledge in the brain, all that sort of stuff, it was a sort of philosophy of perception. Frank was a physicist but he really liked this because it had phenomena, you could make measurements and it was sort of philosophy but linked very much with science and it appealed to him. And I got to know Frank extremely well, we travelled around America a lot together and he had just got his exploritorium going the year before actually, which was at that time just an empty shell really, a huge great building. I don’t think there was anybody in it yet; he’d just got the thing there. So anyway we did a lot of discussion on how to get perception into a science centre so that people going round the exhibition could do experiments on themselves and on their friends, link what was going on in their minds and their brains to physics, and he really liked this a lot and I got interested in his physics and he got interested in my perception so it was a very sort of happy situation, quite honestly, and it’s really what got The Exploratorium going. Actually, I think I had quite a significant effect in the way it was planned and designed and developed actually. Well, then ten years later, I sort of started to think of myself, I was coming near retirement, why don’t we start something like that in Britain, you see? So we did. We started The Exploratory, I dropped a syllable, I started with the Exploritorium and then it became The Exploratory, which was in Temple Meads, the Brunel railway station here, before that in the Victoria Rooms, it ran for quite a long time in Bristol, about 15 years, and we had two million kids round in ten years at Temple Meads, that wasn’t bad, and it was really, I thought, really quite successful and it was great fun. They could do their own thing, they could do experiments, they could try out their own ideas, it was very much hands-on, very little money but it didn’t matter, I don’t think.

The late British psychologist and Emeritus Professor of Neuropsychology at the University of Bristol, Richard Gregory (1923-2010), is well known for his work on perception, the psychology of seeing and his love of puns. In 1978 he founded The Exploratory, an applied science centre in Bristol – the first of its kind in the UK. He also designed and directed the Special Senses Laboratory at Cambridge which worked on the perceptual problems of astronauts, and published many books including 'The Oxford Companion to the Mind', 'Eye and Brain' and 'Mind in Science'.

Listeners: Sally Duensing Adam Hart-Davis

Sally Duensing currently is involved in perception exhibition work and research on science and society dialogue programmes and is working with informal learning research graduate students and post-docs at King's College, London. In 2000 she held the Collier Chair, a one-year invited professorship in the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Bristol, England. Prior to this, for over 20 years she was at the Exploratorium, a highly interactive museum of science, art and perception in San Francisco where she directed a variety of exhibition projects primarily in fields of perception and cognition including a large exhibition on biological, cognitive and cultural aspects of human memory.

Born on 4 July 1943, Adam Hart-Davis is a freelance photographer, writer, and broadcaster. He has won various awards for both television and radio. Before presenting, Adam spent 5 years in publishing and 17 years at Yorkshire Television, as researcher and then producer of such series as Scientific Eye and Arthur C Clarke's World of Strange Powers. He has read several books, and written about 25. His latest books are Why does a ball bounce?, Taking the piss, Just another day, and The cosmos: a beginner's guide. He has written numerous newspaper and magazine articles. He is a keen supporter of the charities WaterAid, Practical Action, Sustrans, and the Joliba Trust. A Companion of the Institution of Lighting Engineers, an Honorary Member of the British Toilet Association, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Society of Dyers and Colourists, and Merton College Oxford, and patron of a dozen charitable organizations, Adam has collected thirteen honorary doctorates, The Horace Hockley Award from the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators, a Medal from the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Sir Henry Royce Memorial Medal from the Institute of Incorporated Engineers, and the 1999 Gerald Frewer memorial trophy of the Council of Engineering Designers. He has no car, but three cycles, which he rides slowly but with enthusiasm.

Duration: 3 minutes, 30 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2006

Date story went live: 02 June 2008