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The art of a scientific opening ceremony
Matt Pickles | 30 Aug 12
Science was the theme of last night’s opening ceremony for the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
The ceremony paid tribute to landmark moments of science and innovation in the intellectual 'revolution' in Britain and Europe from 1550 to 1720, which was particularly interesting to one member of the audience – Dr Anna Marie Roos, a historian of early modern English chemistry and medicine at the University.
LOCOG will be pleased to hear that the event received Dr Roos’ approval. She says: ‘I thought the ceremony could be appreciated on a variety of levels.’
On the one hand there was the inspiring and touching poignancy of the athletes, on the other there were some clever cultural referents to the scientific and cultural achievements of Britain.
‘We have Prospero from the Tempest who uses his knowledge of the natural world as a means of transcendence, a wise Platonic philosopher-king displaying for Miranda the potential for human reason as a literal means of expanding our universe (i.e. references to the Big Bang), but also to expansion of our attitudes towards each other.'
She adds: ’We also have the brilliant choice of Professor Hawking to narrate the ceremony as the inheritor of the Newtonian legacy and, like Newton, a holder of the Lucasian professorship at Cambridge.’
Dr Roos has herself written about Newton’s reflecting telescope and provided some new insights about the metallurgy of the telescopic mirrors he used.
‘So you can imagine how pleased I was to see a large telescope in the ceremony as a symbol of enlargement of our understanding of the universe and of each other,’ she says.
The opening ceremony did not linger long on women’s scientific achievements and this, Dr Roos says, simply reflects conventional wisdom – something she hopes to change with her current research into the role of women in the 17th century scientific ‘revolution’.
‘Like the disabled today, women in the past were often not appreciated or credited for their achievements,' she says.
'My research into Susanna and Anna Lister, daughters of Martin Lister, the first arachnologist and conchologist, shows that this is unfair.
‘The Lister sisters did the illustrations for their father's scientific work, as well as one copperplate we know was used for a publication for the Royal Society.
‘Anna also used a microscope in her work in the 1690s, making her one of the earliest women to do so for scientific investigation.’
Dr Roos has curated an exhibition about Martin Lister and his daughters which is on display at the Bodleian Library until 30 September this year and she will give a public lecture on the same topic on 19 September.
Anyone whose interest has been kindled by the opening ceremony is encouraged to book a place – just don’t expect the lecture to include fireworks and floating giant apples.
Top image: Apples at the opening ceremony (Megan Trace, MegMoggington - Flickr); Bottom image: A sketch of a bear paw clam, copied by one of the Lister daughters from an etching by Wenceslaus Hollar, as they did not possess an original specimen