This week we met up with David Kirby to find out more about the research bubbling away in the Science and Entertainment Lab at the University of Manchester. The Science and Entertainment Lab is a research group made up of David Kirby (Principal Investigator), Amy Chambers and Ray Macauley, and is part of the University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM). David’s research interests include the interaction between science, religion and entertainment, how scientific visuals are appropriated by entertainment, and the use of animals in entertainment.
Here, we find out more about the Playing God Project, and how David reaches out to a wider audience with his research.
What it the Science and Entertainment Lab?
It emerged out of the grant I got from the Wellcome trust called an Investigator Award. The project was exploring the intersection between Science, Religion and Entertainment, called the Playing God Project. One of the reasons why they funded me, and I was doing this, was that the research is on an understudied area of science, and in this case particularly bioscience, and entertainment media. One of the first things I did along with my two Postdocs was to think about how could we study science and entertainment, and do it in a way that the public could engage with it. Blogs are a funny animal in many ways because the public should be able to read these but we’re also talking to our colleagues. The general idea behind the science and entertainment lab is that we in are a humanities centre but we are taking our model from the sciences. My PhD is in molecular evolutionary genetics, and so I wanted to have a sort of research group, a lab essentially, so we consider ourselves a lab even though our laboratories are our offices, and even though our research subject is TV, movies and comic books.
Who works within the lab and what research areas do they look at?
Well science and entertainment that’s what we all look at but we all have different projects within that. As part of the Playing God project I’m examining the ways in which movies were censored based on their science. Some people know that movies had censorship back in the 1930’s to 1968, but they think of it and they think ‘oh yea sex and violence’, they were the 2 things people cared about, but the reality is that everybody had to send their scripts to these organisations: the Hayes office in U.S. the British Board of Film Censors in the U.K. and something called the Catholic Legion of Decency, and they were looking for anything that they thought was inappropriate in the ways that science might be used. I’m looking at censorship because it’s a direct way of religious groups to control these stories about science. They can say I don’t like that, change it to this, and they have the power to do that.
Once censorship ends, they’re searching for other ways to control these stories, and my Postdoc Amy Chambers is looking at that period from 1968-1977. How do religious groups try to control these things still, even now that they can’t directly do it? They do it through a lot of [film] reviews, trying to affect how audiences perceive the stories.
One of the things I was thinking about when I was putting together this grant is one of the ultimate controls is to just make your own movies, so that’s what Ray Macauley is looking at, how the Christian entertainment industry, rather than be under control of the mainstream movies, said well let’s just make our own, appropriate what we think are appropriate movies.
I have some PhD students who I consider part of the lab. Hannah Kershaw is looking at the way that aids and HIV are handled in children’s media. My other PhD student Jia-Ou Song, is looking at Chinese museums and the ways in which culture impacts the way they deal with science.
What made you transition from a PhD in Molecular Genetics to Science in Films?
I got a tenure track position at a university in Washington DC in their biology department. I spent 5 years there and during that time it was a sort of push pull, in the sense that I got a little tired of doing scientific research, even though I loved the science, the research just got to me after a while. So that kind of pushed me a little bit. But then there was also the pull that I got interested in science and media, in particular science and fiction, so I realised if I was going to be doing this seriously I needed some retraining. So I left that job and I went to Cornell University and did a retraining Postdoc to work in the Department of Science and Technology studies and the Department of Communication at Cornell, to look at this particular question. That taught me what research was like in the humanities and the social sciences, and that’s when I began the work for what became my book, Lab Coats in Hollywood. I’ve met other people who have made this transition before with a similar story, and we would have just left if we didn’t love science. We’re fans of science, but we didn’t want to do science any more.
People have asked me “what do you do?”, and I told them and they said “oh you have the best job”. I hear that a lot from people, and yea I love my job and I love what I do but it’s a lot of hard work, it’s not just sitting back with a beer and just watching movies. It did require a lot of hard work to make that transition, but ultimately I think it was worth it for me.
What type of engagement activities have you been doing to involve the public in your research?
I’ve done stuff with the Manchester Science Festival, the British Science Association’s Science Week and I give talks at various places. I’m going to something in St. Petersburg, Russia, called the Geek Picnic in June. It’s a science and art get together. I’m doing a keynote for them on science and movies. We’ve also done a film series for two years, and in this case particularly around science and religion, and that’s been very successful. It’s brought in a lot of people in an unusual way to tackle this particular issue. It’s about talking about our research but it’s also a way of getting people to talk about the topic of science and religion as well.
Religion and science always seem to be portrayed as quite contentious topics. How do you think entertainment media helps to pick apart that relationship?
One of the things I would say is that that’s the public’s perception, that it is always contentious, but it’s not as contentious as people think. There are certain areas that are contentious like creationism for example, that is clearly an area where there is a lot of contention, especially in the U.S., but once you have a dialogue they have a similar answer. And entertainment does a good job in the sense that you can have your contestation narratives, and frequently you can get that type of thing where there’s a movie where a scientist is trying to do something and a religious person trying to keep them from doing it, for example in the movie Contact, but within the same movie there are also what I would refer to as reconciliation narratives as well, where especially the way the movie ends gives a kind of spiritual sense of ‘where will science take us at the end of the day’.
What research plans do you have plans for the future?
Well we are publishing our books and we will keep working on it. The follow up book will probably be looking explicitly at films that deal with the intersection between science and religion, so that’s part of their explicit plot. I’m trying to talk about things that the science and religion community, people who study this, should be interested in, and I’m using entertainment to get at questions that people haven’t asked before. Science and religion people often come from an elitist perspective, this stuff is coming from below in many ways, so I’m interested in that, but my overall interest is more in the science and entertainment aspect.
For more information on the Science and Entertainment Lab visit: http://thescienceandentertainmentlab.com/
Or you can follow them on Twitter: @SciEntLab
The next in the Playing God Film Series is [Rec]2, showing at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation at 6.30pm on 26th May. For the full series schedule, visit: http://thescienceandentertainmentlab.com/pgp-film-2016/
David is also compiling a film series as part of the Climate Control exhibition at the Manchester Museum. For information about the event, keep an eye on http://www.museum.manchester.ac.uk/whatson/exhibitions/climatecontrol/