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The psychology of science


George Porter
Richard Gregory Scientist
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Another person I greatly respected was George Porter. He became Lord Porter, who was the director of the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street, and he was really a great man too. He worked with lasers, very, very bright flashes, very short, and worked on brief chemical reactions, particularly photosynthesis, I mean how leaves get energy from the sun, use the sun’s energy to be converted into energy and he had the idea, you know, that you could solve the problems of energy on earth by having artificial photosynthesis so there was a sort of practical outcome to this and photosynthesis in plants is pretty inefficient, I believe it’s less than 10%, so his work was really aimed at increasing the efficiency of those processes in industry, if you like, for getting energy from the sun, but he was also a theoretician. I mean he understood chemistry, this kind of chemistry, in a way I just haven’t any grasp of at all but again he was a leader. He ran the Royal Institution, which is very much aimed also at the public, the lectures go on still, which was started by Faraday, a lovely little lecture theatre, and it’s a wonderful organisation and George was its head for, I suppose, at least 20 years and I did lectures there, a lot of lectures. I gave Christmas lectures and about seven discourses where you were locked into a room just before the lecture and having to gaze at a crystal ball while you get your ideas together. There were all sort of customs like that in the Royal Institution. That was a great thing. And I think it’s worth mentioning here, how far should life, particularly in science, be completely informal, not wearing a tie, not bothering about any sort of conventions, how far should it be constrained, you know, by conventions? If you were in a Cambridge or an Oxford college, you have to wear a gown and you have to be fairly formal, at the same time you have informal discussions mixed up with the formal ones, it’s a sort of mixture, and I think this is an interesting thing, that the customs and your sort of having to wear the right sort of tie at dinner and this sort of stuff, in a way, imposes discipline and links you to the past with its people that one can look back on and admire. At the same time it can be a bit irritating, oh, golly, have I really got to put a black tie on tonight? And I find that sort of mixture, particularly in English life, rather interesting. One the whole it works well and somebody like George Porter who ran the Royal Institution really had it right. I mean he could put on his dinner jacket or his white tie, which we used to have, and at the same time he could be informal and just have, you know, joke with the boys or go sailing in his boat with them, this sort of thing. And it’s that mixture, I think, which is really important.

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, 19 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2006

Date story went live: 02 June 2008