Festivals, Cultural and City Events

Science Festival interview with Richard Morris

Richard Morris is Professor of Neuroscience in the Centre for Cognitive and Neural Systems at the University.

He chaired the EISF event 'Fear and Resilience', a discussion of how the brain copes in a crisis.

The event featured former hostage Terry Waite, who reflected on his experiences in solitary captivity as a hostage of Lebanese militia from 1987 to 1991, and neuroscientist Sir Colin Blakemore. The event took place at 5.30pm on Thursday 9 April at Summerhall.

What can people coming along to your event expect to hear?

We hope to highlight the diverse aspects of people’s reactions to situations that they might find themselves confronting. This could include the resilience required of athletes, of a teacher in a deprived urban environment, or of those facing difficult negotiations with untrustworthy combatants - as one of our speakers faced in his daily work.

Sir Colin Blakemore will discuss what we know of the science of fear and resilience. Terry Waite will discuss his experience of five years in captivity. The audience will have the chance to ask questions, in what I suspect will be a truly fascinating discussion.

What do you hope audiences can get out of coming along?

Perhaps, above all, they can have a period of reflection. Both speakers have, in different ways, faced crises involving fear and calling upon all the resilience they and their families could muster. But numerous members of the audience will have had or be facing their own dilemmas.

So, this offers a time for reflection around the room - on what is said and unsaid, the experiences, emotions and moral values conveyed, and what we know of how the brain copes with such issues.

Why is it important for scientists to give the public an insight into their work?

There are numerous reasons, but I will highlight two. First, the giving is two-way. Scientists have much to learn from the public, and taking part in the Science Festival offers an opportunity for scientists to gain insight from others.

Second, while much of science is driven by curiosity in territories that are divorced from the everyday, it is astonishing how quickly scientific discoveries find application.

When Michael Faraday was asked by William Gladstone, “What use … is this electric force you have discovered?”, Faraday is reputed to have replied: “Sir, one day you will tax it.” In modern times, I find myself thinking about how quickly Alec Jeffreys’ development of DNA fingerprinting found application. As we reflect on the terribly sad recent plane crash in the Alps, this simple test may yet bring some comfort to grieving relatives.

What impact does your day-to-day work have on society?

It is not for me to judge. However, an aspect of my work has been in research towards the development of novel therapeutics for memory problems associated with Alzheimer’s Disease.

We are some way from new effective, safe treatments, but I hope that the work of my group constitutes a contribution to this large worldwide effort. British scientists are playing a big part.

What do you get out of engaging with the public?

A great deal. It’s always a challenge. When preparing for a public event, I reflect on the issue of priorities. Scientists can get dug into narrow tramlines of research. Engaging with the public digs us out of these and into thinking about what matters and what may bring real benefit.

It doesn’t always have to be a practical benefit. Landing a spacecraft on a comet recently caught the public’s imagination, as they realised humans are able to do such a thing ... amazing.