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Frank Oppenheimer and the Exploratorium


Ernst Gombrich
Richard Gregory Scientist
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Ernst Gombrich was a great art historian, the greatest of several generations, and I was very fortunate to, to know Ernst. He was a grand old man, very, very formidable and we did this exhibition together at the ICA, Institute of Contemporary Art, and we did a book together, "Illusion in Nature and Art", and I knew him for, I suppose, the last ten years of his life, a bit more than that, 15 years perhaps, and I used to often pop in and see him. He was extraordinary because he was a tremendous expert, of course, in art itself and his books are widely, widely read, he also knew a lot about perception and he was one of the very few experts in art that I know of who actually bothered about what goes on in the mind or in the brain or how they work. Now, to my mind, not having any feel for that is like a violinist not knowing a violin has strings or a violin has resonances and surely what art is really doing is playing on the resonances of the mind through brain mechanisms so you need to know the strings and the resonances, the physiology in the software of the brain and the mind really to understand art and I would have thought to practice it explicitly. And that raises a very interesting question, that if an artists thinks too much, it may be they get put off, that they have to do it perhaps intuitively, implicitly and when it becomes explicit and they actually think what they’re doing, maybe the skill breaks down and this is true of many things. If you try and run upstairs fast thinking about each foot as you put it onto the treads of a staircase, you fall over or you go very slowly, consciousness gets in the way. And I really wonder, you know, whether consciousness gets in the way of art, whether it needs to be implicit, non-academic and it may be that the academic approach, which is certainly Gombrich’s, actually destroys creativity and art. It’s a very interesting question. It is. And how did Gombrich inform you? I mean thinking about his knowledge of art, how did it inform your knowledge of perception? Well, we worked very, very closely. I think in a way, I don’t what to be, you know, push it too far, but I think he was actually a little bit influenced by my views of perception but how far he’d already thought of them, you know, perhaps 30 years before because he’s older than me, and how far he was actually sort of following what I was trying to say, I never knew really, and, of course, he was an extremely urbane, civilised man. He would never sort of say, oh, I thought of that before, sort of thing, you know. He wasn’t like that at all but all I can say is talking about resonance, we resonated. I mean he was a much better scholar than me. I had infinite respect for him in every way, you know, and I felt like a sort of junior member of the tribe in many ways, but at the same time that exhibition was actually rather based on stuff that I’d written and done. So it was a jolly good collaboration. I always deferred to Ernst really as the senior partner.

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, 24 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2006

Date story went live: 02 June 2008