The birth of Chain Reaction!

Beginning a Chain Reaction!

An image of a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) machine.Chain Reaction! is an attempt to do some creative science communication in a way that embodies approaches taken by historians of science.
On a simple level, it celebrates a piece of laboratory kit the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) machine, which is 30 years old in 2013.  By rapidly multiplying fragments of DNA into the kind of quantities necessary for experiment, the PCR machine has made possible all of the genetic science of the past generation.

And yet the PCR machine is an incredibly humble and simple piece of kit, essentially a water bath – a boiler – with a cycling thermostat.  As such, the PCR challenges many common assumptions about science.  Science is not all about fancy ideas; simple and basic graft is a vital part of it.  Or, as physiologist L. J. Henderson put it in 1917: ‘Science owes more to the steam engine than the steam engine owes to Science.’  Historians of science (starting with Steve Shapin) have sometimes referred to ‘hidden technicians’ – the army of workers and gadgets who make it all possible, yet are rarely noticed – let alone celebrated.

On 19 July 2012 the University of Kent, with support from the Creative Campus fund, will bring together artists and scientists to start a chain reaction of a related kind.  The scientists will teach the artists how to use the PCR machine, with the aim that the artists can begin to shed creative light on how science actually works – with all of its hidden technicians.

Conversation will be at the heart of the process.  We’ll be provoking artists and scientists alike with serious and cheesy icebreakers:

  • What got you into art/science?
  • What are the stages of process in one of your projects?
  • What kind of thoughts go through your head while you work?
  • Choose three words to describe your practice of art/science
  • If you were a chemical element which one would you be?
  • If you were a colour which one would you be?

… further suggestions welcomed!

Ultimately all of this will result in an art show at the Sidney Cooper Gallery in November/December 2013. Chain Reaction! is being run by Dan Lloyd and Charlotte Sleigh, the directors of the Kent MSc Science, Communication and Society.

Let the Chain Reaction begin!

The logo of the University of Kent's Creative Campus initiative.