Talking Science - The 24 Hour Museum Goes To The Dana Centre

By Quin Parker | 21 November 2003
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Shows a photograph of the door to the Dana Centre in London. The centre's logo can be seen above the glass double door, while the red brick walls of the centre can be seen either side of it.

Photo: the Dana Centre, if it's a free-for-all, no holds barred debate on the kind of subjects your science teacher wouldn't have brought up in the physics lab... try this. Courtesy of The Science Museum, London.

Flexing his debating skills, Quin Parker marched down to the newly-opened Dana Centre to air some scientific views.

The Dana Centre, a taboo-free space, which aims to make prickly scientific debates accessible to the public, opened on November 19 with its first free debate about face transplantation.

The centre is backed by the BA (British Association for the Advancement of Science) and the European Dana Alliance for the Brain, a neurology research unit, and forms part of the Science Museum.

"Nowhere else in the world like this exists," said Lisa Jamieson, the Dana Centre's Project Co-ordinator. "We are looking to fulfil a purpose that is not being done elsewhere."

"For instance, to bring science to the people, we do theatre. Our in-house group is called Punk Science. They're very fast, funny and witty, and one of them was even trained as a clown."

Photo of Dana Centre Director, Lindsay Sharp standing on a balcony with a large video screen in the background. Lindsay is balding and a beard. He is wearing a dark suit with a yellow shirt and yellow tie.

Photo: Dana Centre Director Lindsay Sharp. Courtesy of The Science Museum, London.

On the night, five eminent guests from the fields of psychology, surgery and medical ethics spoke about face transplantation.

Each was limited to a three-minute speech by the very capable chair, Wendy Stainton-Rogers from the Open University. This was commendable, as it gave non-specialists and the public the same right to speak as the scientists.

First up was Sir Peter Morris, President of the Royal College of Surgeons, who had on the same day published a report into the ethics of face transplantation. He said: "The technical problems, such as rejection and medication, have been resolved. But the public is not ready."

James Partridge, chief executive of the support group for the facially disfigured, Changing Faces, had suffered facial disfigurement himself. But he was also unsure: "The surgery should be put through rigorous analysis and assessment."

The final speaker, Dr John Barker, from the university of Louisville, has been widely tipped to become the first surgeon to perform a face transplant.

The debate opened immediately. Of course, somebody had to ask: what actually happens if you have a face transplant, and your body rejects your new face?

Photo of Dana Centre web page. The background is yellow. There are red banners with the titles in white. The text is in black. There is a picture of a satellite dish in the top left hand corner.

Photo: can't get there in person? Take part in the debates via the www, by clicking here to visit the Dana Centre website. Courtesy of The Science Museum, London.

A ghoulish question, but a good one, to which Dr John Barker replied that you would revert automatically to your original face.

Some people in the audience vented their frustration at this. "It's nonsense," said Paul, a journalist. "If you scrape all of the skin and muscle from your face, and put on a new one, and it falls off... well, you're screwed really."

Other questions included whether people wanted face transplants so much that they would ignore any potential problems, whether patients were ready to take responsibility for the risks, and if the face donors' families should be consulted about having somebody walking around with their loved-ones likeness.

While the debate had no punch-ups worthy of Jerry Springer, it bumped along at a good pace, particularly towards the end as people frequented the Dana Centre's bar.

An electronic voting system was one of the highlights of the evening. In one vote, 44% of people in the room chose, from five options, their worst nightmare was losing their vocal chords. Whether that reflected the percentage of hacks in the room is another question.

Before the debate started, 52% of the room voted that they would donate their face for transplant. Afterwards, that figure had increased by 6%, which was surprising given the general scepticism that face transplantation received.

Photo of Delia du Sol, a contortionist. She is kneeling on a table in front of a scanner with her back arched and her head facing backwards and framed by her feet. She has blonde hair and is wearing a red dress. Standing next to her is a man in a black t-shirt, wearing glasses.

Photo: coming up at the centre, Delia du Sol, a contortionist, will be scanned to see how she manages to tie herself in knots. Courtesy of The Science Museum, London.

Some of those attending felt slightly disappointed, as the debate didn't quite ignite. A few blamed the cabaret-style table seating for causing too many pauses while stewards darted among furniture to give microphones to speakers.

Others believed the departure from the traditional amphitheatre was a good idea. "I don't want to go and sit in a lecture theatre after work," said Michelle, a curator. "It's better to sit down and have a drink. More informal."

The first night is always the time to try out new ideas, but free events happen daily at the centre. One of them is quite literally a combination between a circus and a scientific experiment.

Delia du Sol, a contortionist from the Manumission club in Ibiza, is to be examined in a hospital scanner, so scientists can find out exactly how she manages to tie herself in knots. Lisa Jamieson is proud the Dana Centre is hosting it.

"It was our idea," she said. "We want the Dana Centre to become known as the sort of venue where these ideas can be explored."

Delia du Sol will be in the scanner at the Dana Centre on November 28, at 19.00pm and 20.30pm. Tickets are expected to go quickly, so book as soon as you can.

Sorry all younger 24 Hour Museum readers, but the Dana Centre is for adults only.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned: