Do writers and artists have a responsibility to their audience, or just to themselves? Do scientists have a responsibility to the public, or just to the furthering of knowledge? And what can philosophy, literature and neuroscience tell us about 'self' and whether we are really who we think we are?
This March at the Royal Institution American-British playwright, novelist and critic Bonnie Greer and Hugh Montgomery, director of the UCL Institute for Human Health and Performance at University College London, discuss how the concept of responsibility informs their ethical and artistic decisions (16 March), and best-selling author Ian McEwan traces how ‘self’ has developed drawing on philosophy, literature and neuroscience (31 March).
Over the past 200 years, the Royal Institution has established itself as a heavyweight of the scientific world, having opened its doors to some of the most influential figures of modern science. The historic lecture theatre at 21 Albemarle Street has borne witness to the presentation of such landmark scientific discoveries as the announcement of the existence of photographic technology in 1839 by Faraday and the existence of the fundamental particle later called the electron in 1897 by J.J. Thomson.
Within this tradition, the Ri has a lesser known history of cultivating cultural, social and literary discussions with the leading thinkers and commentators of the day. The initiation of this tradition predates ‘scientists’ to the time of ‘natural philosophy’ and has included art historians such as Nikolaus Pevsner and Kenneth Clark; politicians such as Shirley Williams, the co-founder of the Social Democratic Party as well as writers, poets and artists such as H.G. Wells and Dorothy Sayers and in 2015, Grayson Perry.
Bonnie Greer said:
‘As a playwright, the question of responsibility is one I’ve been viscerally dealing with for a while now. I’ve just had a reading of my adaptation of Ibsen’s ‘When We Dead Awaken’ at RADA, with an all-black female cast. It seems to me that the Ri becomes an important place for investigation. Especially in the shadow of a great classic: what or to whom are you responsible? Investigation is what the Ri is about and I’m looking forward to sharing my investigation, and adventure there.’
Some highlights of the summer programme, to be released in April, include an exploration of the new ‘power paradox’ versus Machiavellianism by Dacher Keltner and a talk from Nobel prize winner and astrophysicist Arthur B McDonald. Upcoming in autumn is a series of talks guest curated by journalist, writer and broadcaster Samira Ahmed.