Friday, 9 February 2018

The Crick Institute

1 Midland Rd, Kings Cross, London NW1 1AT

Thursday 8 February 2018

I'm finding it rather hard to write about this visit. Linda did not agree with my view that the Crick Institute is the ugliest building in London, but we were able to share amazement at its huge size, stretching the whole width of the British Library, from Midland Road to Ossulston Street, and reaching up many storeys.  We know that it also reaches down a long way, because we saw it when it was an enormous hole in the ground. 

It is indeed a cathedral of science, as various people have named it.  It is a partnership between a number of scientific institutions, whose names and logos appear in a number of places:  MRC, UCL, Wellcome, Cancer Research UK, Kings and Imperial.

The outside is very accessible, with ramps wherever the level changes, and press buttons for the revolving and other doors.

And the outside is adorned with an enormous art work by Conrad Shawcross.  It is called 'Paradigm', referencing Thomas Kuhn's theory that scientific discovery does not proceed in a linear way but rather by radical shifts in comprehension and application.  The sculpture is huge. I never know what estate agents mean by 'deceptively small' or indeed 'deceptively large' but it's only when you are very near it that it feels 14 metres high.  It's made of piled tetrahedra when grow in size, so that it is 5 metres wide at its maximum, but sits on a base less that a metre in diameter.  The weathering steel of which it is constructed is apparently a reference to the Industrial past of the area.

We caught our breath as we stepped inside the massive atrium, and looked up at the bridges which enable the 1200 scientists who work here to visit each other and share ideas. 

But we had come to visit the Manby Gallery, which is open to the public from Wednesday to Saturday, and has a cafe and other useful facilities. 

The exhibition is called 'Deconstructing Patterns' and involves information about the whole genetic end of science, interspersed with art works. And this is why I said I was 
finding it difficult to write about it.  Some of the science was comprehensible to a member of the general public like me:  little magnifiers and microscopes to enable me to examine my finger tips in their uniqueness.  And of course a model of a double helix is something which we all recognise even if we don't entirely believe it possible that all that is in every cell of every living thing.  But quite a lot of what we saw was beyond me, and the art works did not help my understanding.

We saw a display about scientists collaborating to unpick the patterns which underlie our genes, and heard recordings of scientists talking about their work.  
One of the art works was a film of a scientist's hand gestures as she describes the development of vision cells in fruit flies.  We were interested to note that while we could tell the scientist was female (her jewellery) we could not tell what she was describing.

Every now and then we came to historical exhibits, mostly from the Wellcome Collection;  looking at details in close up is not something new, though obviously easier with modern equipment. Santiago Ramon y Cajal was making meticulous drawings of fly eyes in 1911.

 The Institute feels it necessary to explain its policy on the use of animals in research:  'replace, reduce, refine', while stating that almost all their work is dome with frogs, fish, flies, rats and mice.
At this stage we came to another of the art works, some photos of clouds and of white objects against a background of stainless steel but, if there was an explanation, we did not find it.  

We did enjoy the hand drawn family tree attempting to explain why some of the family had inherited the normal sense of smell where others hadn't.  Even ignorant people like me are aware of recessive genes, even if we don't actually understand them.

There was a fascinating time-lapse film of metamorphosis, with the scientist explaining how cells move and then settle where they belong, with the microscope film of what was going on inside the insect alongside one of the creature in its pupa and then emerging.

Another of the art works was somewhat puzzling:  The students of 1A Arts Holborn Community Association had spent a day here, and there was a film of some of them doing photocopying, going in and out of the building with cups of coffee, and sitting in the auditorium, but all that we felt we learned from that was that they had fun. 
 At the very end,  there were postcards of some of the patterns made by the cells being studied in the place, which were pretty but not entirely explained.

Then we sat in the entrance hall and watched some time lapse film of the building going up, and of 'Paradigm' being constructed and installed.

The building is certainly worth a visit, and I am embarrassed that I was unable to make more sense of the science presented to us in such attractive forms. A visit on one of their open days when scientists explain things may be called for.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful though the Crick Institute is seeing it always gives me a twinge of sadness. The land on which it stands was once designated for the final phase of the new British Library which would have finally allowed all the collections to be brought together. A government decision not to bother and worse sell off the land means that this is now unlikely to ever happen.