Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Big momma is watching you

I clicked onto the Newcastle University website today to find a pair of rather malevolent eyes looking into mine.  I was inclined to close the browser immediately.  Those eyes made me feel distinctly uneasy.  But I was interested to see that they related to some research carried out by Professor Melissa Bateson and Professor Daniel Nettle of the Centre for Behaviour and Evolution at Newcastle, and Ken Nott of the University’s security team.  Bicycles are regularly stolen from racks on the University campus, but by putting pictures of eyes and short anti-theft messages above the racks the researchers found that they could reduce the number of thefts by 62%.  Unfortunately thefts from racks that were not “guarded” by the disembodied eyes went up, suggesting that the thieves had moved elsewhere, presumably to an area where they didn’t feel they were being watched.  What would have happened, I wonder, if all racks had sported these off-putting glares?  Perhaps the bicycle thieves would have overcome their scruples and got out their bolt-cutters anyway.  But the research is interesting, not only for its potential effects on crime, but because it highlights our reactions to eyes, and the wider importance they have for us as human beings.  It surely can’t be coincidence that the panda, with its eyes so clearly emphasised by black markings, is such a popular image for conservation?  Big-eyed creatures such as bush babies are generally regarded as being particularly cute and owls, with their clear, forward-looking gaze, also seem to strike a chord in a way that other birds do not.  Human babies have eyes that are disproportionately large and we know that eye contact between mother and baby seems to be important.  It promotes the attachment without which a baby may not survive.  It seems then that being looked at can be reassuring as well as threatening.  So why is that stare from above the cycle rack so threatening?   Are the thieves perhaps worried that it might be their mum who is watching when they steal that bike?

Friday, 12 April 2013

Poetry, algebra and creativity

Does anyone else still read the Liverpool poets?  The Mersey Sound collection was published by Penguin in 1967, and for years afterwards it seemed as though everyone I knew possessed a copy.  When I took “O” Level English in 1972, Adrian Henri’s “In the Midnight Hour” even turned up as the unseen text.  We were all thrilled by this at my school, as we didn't think people like teachers and examiners had ever heard of such radical writers.  When, in that most intimate sign of commitment, I shelved my book collection side by side with my partner’s, we realised we now possessed two copies of The Mersey Sound.  We were married a year later.  In many respects the book seems stuck in a very specific era, but particular poems from the collection still pop up regularly in my brain.  Today I was thinking of Brian Patten’s “Prose poem towards a definition of itself”.  In particular, the line: “On sighting mathematicians it should unhook algebra from their minds and replace it with poetry; on sighting poets it should unhook poetry from their minds and replace it with algebra” resonates.  Interdisciplinarity hadn’t been invented as a term, and would have seemed novel as an idea, when Patten wrote his poem, but this is a line to prompt that kind of creative thinking.  It also encapsulates a notion that I believe in absolutely: that being bounced out of our normal rut, having our expectations circumvented can be peculiarly inspiring.  I’m always pleased when colleagues ask me to help them prepare presentations.  I’m easily flattered and it gives me a chance to proselytise.  I rail against the ghastly powerpoint presentation, urge them to surprise the audience with a poem when they are expecting algebra, to illustrate a quatrain with quadratic equations. Why?  Because, if they do, theirs will be the presentation that the audience will remember, it will be an island in a sea of indistinguishable bulletpoints.  Persuading academics, or indeed any professionals, to take this dangerous plunge is often difficult.  They would rather be unmemorable than risk looking foolish, particularly in front of their peers.  Sadly, it’s a fear that most of us learn early on.  But sometimes risks really are worth taking.  The Liverpool poets came in for some vicious sniping and criticism from the literary establishment, but few would now deny that they were part of a hugely influential cultural wave being surfed so spectacularly and creatively by The Beatles.  And, unlike most poets, they sold an awful lot of books: two are still sitting on the bookshelves in my house.