Mixing With The Stars
A visit to the Dana Centre on 30th November 2006, 19:00 - 20:30

The Dana Centre
165 Queen's Gate
South Kensington
This article first appeared in Matrix
“Is there wine?” said my friend when I emailed her about going to the Dana Centre. “If they’re going to talk about science then I’ll need wine.” “Yes,” I said, “there’s wine. But it’s not just about science tonight, it’s dealing with the interaction between science and art, and, like, you know…all that.” “I’ll definitely need wine,” she said.

And so, despite cynical alcoholic misgivings, we found ourselves at the Dana Centre on a mild November evening to learn from the experts involved how data from the STEREO solar observatory is being used to create Art.

The Dana Centre is a purpose-built extension to the Science Museum in London’s South Kensington. It’s “a place for adults to take part in exciting, informative and innovative debates about contemporary science, technology and culture…blending the best from science, art, performance and multimedia to provoke discussion and real engagement with the key issues of the day,” says their website.

Which is why I took a couple of self-described science ignoramuses along with me to the “Mixing It With The Stars” event: to see what they made of this laudable effort to re-engage grown-ups with the system of thought upon which our entire civilisation is built (although we did manage to sample the wine, too).

The Dana Centre is easy enough to find, being just a few minutes walk from either Gloucester Road or South Kensington tube. It’s well worth reserving tickets in advance as many of its events are surprisingly popular, and although security at the door is pretty laidback it’s often a case of “If your name’s not on the list then you’re not coming in.” Most events are free though, and the ones that aren’t usually include a meal in the price.

The first thing you notice about the Dana Centre’s main area as you go down the stairs is that it looks a bit like a trendy bar. It’s been designed to be very cool indeed, but without being forbidding (as “cool” so often is) – indeed it’s very relaxed and informal, with plenty of chairs scattered loosely about a few tables, the absolute antithesis of the draughty lecture theatre. The bar itself wouldn’t be out of place in Soho (only the friendliness of the bar staff gives the game away) offering a fashionably limited selection of beverages, plus a few bits of food and free internet access. The bar is open Monday to Friday until 6pm, and late till 9pm on event evenings.

We arrived about 30 minutes before Art and Science were due to collide: time enough to get a drink, a seat and a friendly chat with a few other early arrivals. Most of the evening’s speakers had already arrived and were mixing freely amongst us, setting up PowerPoint presentations and other such supports. It was very encouraging to see so many different people there: young, old, geek, non-geek; and so many women, too - not just because I’m a man, but because science is so traditionally dominated by the Y chromosome. I’ve seen the same mix at the Dana Centre on a number of occasions now, so it wasn’t a freak occurrence; in fact, earlier in the year there were even a number of dating nights held there.

So, what of the “informative and innovative debates,” et cetera?
Tonight there were four guests: Chris Davis, a physicist connected with the STEREO mission; Jade Hamilton, musician in residence at the Royal Observatory; Don Kurtz, an astrophysicist (recently seen on The Sky At Night), and Semiconductor, a pair of multimedia artists. Each was allowed to briefly introduce themselves and speak about their areas of expertise, then returned to the floor to talk to us. We the audience were encouraged to circulate around the room and engage with the guests, who would enthusiastically explain in more detail what they did, whilst patiently fielding any and all questions.

It was a fantastic experience, a real eye-opening night. Not being a scientist, I almost never get to speak to real-life scientists about what, how and why they do what they do, so this hour of “free association” gave a unique perspective into their world. The artists were similarly intelligent, down-to-earth people, all fascinated by what science could show them, and perhaps more importantly, how they could then pass that knowledge and beauty along to us, the ordinary public.

My friends and I, as well as most of the rest of the audience, stayed long after the event was supposed to have finished, still chatting and asking questions. In the end the management had to dim the lights and ask us all to leave, and there can be fewer higher recommendations for anywhere than that.

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