Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Superstition in Science

The Manchester Museum hit the spotlights recently thanks to a mysterious spinning statuette on display. The statuette in question has been filmed turning 180° over the course of several days, seemingly of its own accord. The story hit headlines all over the world, and news film crews showed up for several days on the trot to get a piece of the action. I have been working as a demonstrator at the Manchester Museum, which is part of the University of Manchester, for the past year or so, and since the media storm over this unexplained phenomenon, all my students who have visited to attend a science session have wanted to see the famous statue and speculate as to the explanation. Several teachers have even surreptitiously sidled up to me and quietly asked me what the trick is.

The Statuette showing us its prayer for beer and bread...
 The statuette, which by all accounts is nothing special, has only recently started turning, since it was moved a couple of metres from its previous position to a new display cabinet. Other objects in the same cabinet don’t move, and it only spins during daylight hours.

You can see the time-lapse video of the spinning statue and get more information here:

The University of Manchester’s resident ‘voice on all things physics’, Professor Brian Cox, quickly spoke out with his logical explanation for this mystery motion. He cites differential friction, between the stone surface and the glass of the shelf, which is causing the figurine of Neb-Senu to vibrate and therefore rotate, when visitors walk through the gallery. However, lots of tweeters, visitors and bloggers have asked how this can explain the fact that the statue only rotates half a turn, and doesn’t move in any other direction.

Regardless of what Brian Cox, or anyone else thinks about the explanation, one thing’s for sure: the buzz around the museum has been very tangible of over the recent week or two. The ‘mystery’ has sparked intrigue among some of our young visitors who might have otherwise rushed through the Ancient Worlds gallery to head to the more interesting snakes and frogs in the vivarium, or the stuffed polar bear in the Living Worlds gallery. It has probably also increased traffic through this jewel in Manchester’s crown. While some people have claimed this must be a publicity scam - if more people bother to go to the museum, isn’t that a good thing?

This got me thinking about the role of superstition in science, and in our lives in general. Although I’m a staunch scientist I’m also superstitious. It sounds contradictory, but I knock on wood if I’m hopeful that what I’m talking about will come true, and I always pick up a penny off the floor and hand it to whoever I’m with, since, as the saying goes, “Find a penny, pick it up, all day long you’ll have good luck. If you give it to a friend, then your luck will never end.”

Whilst I’ve never noticeably experienced any improvements to my day when I find a penny on the floor, my rationale is that at least the person I’m with ends up slightly richer than before, and no harm was done. My boyfriend, who is the most frequent recipient of my treasures, is used to me arriving home, rummaging in my pockets and retrieving a grubby 1p for him, with an expectant grin on my face. He graciously thanks me for the offering, and has learned not to ask what oily puddle it came from. On a good day, the coin is silver, and on rare occasions sometimes my beady eyes spot a £1 coin for him!

I decided to look into this issue of superstition and science a little more deeply. Unsurprisingly, there’s very little research out there into the crossover between scientific evidence and superstitious beliefs. The two are understood to be polar opposites, and proponents of one seem to be harsh critics of the other. There is, however, one brilliant book by Bruce M. Hood called ‘The Science of Superstition’. Hood begins the book by writing about houses which local authorities destroyed following revelations that horrific murders took place inside them. These unfortunate properties are notoriously difficult to sell at their actual value and are targeted by twisted fanatics who want to catch a glimpse of the site of such terrible events, and maybe even take a souvenir for themselves. I’d never thought about this issue before, but I certainly wouldn’t want to live in a house where victims had been tortured, killed and buried, and I don’t think many people would.

To an extent we all value a connection between an emotion and an inanimate object. Perhaps your childhood teddy holds too many good memories to be thrown away. I’m sure that if da Vinci had dusted off an old canvas and painted an EXACT copy of the Mona Lisa a few years after the first, the duplicate - although identical in every respect - wouldn’t be nearly as valuable as the original is today. There’s a restaurant in Cornwall that sells food leftover by its famous patrons. Granted the sales are in aid of charity, but isn’t that a little bit disgusting? Hood calls this connection to objects, which we create in our minds, the ‘Supersense’. While on holiday in Peru last year, I saw a surprising number of people (all of them tourists) climbing onto or reaching to touch cordoned off Incan objects. Groups of hippies can be found meditating on the stones of Sacsayhuaman on a daily basis; guards must be employed to prevent wandering hands from touching the Intiwatana stone at Machu Picchu. It seems people love to feel the ‘energy’ of these important objects.

Ed and me, looking excited about reaching Machu Picchu!

There’s a great deal of superstition in the scientific practices going on around me in the lab. Some colleagues will only label tubes in a certain direction, or arrange equipment in a particular order. It’s not uncommon to inherit a protocol someone else has optomised, only to find that shaving out steps makes no difference to the outcome whatsoever.

Humans naturally place significance on objects or behaviour. The very fact that the statuette in Manchester Museum was found buried with a mummy makes it special and valuable. We wouldn’t have museums displaying these artifacts if we didn’t care about their connections. Just next to the Egyptology gallery is a room dedicated to objects relating to excavations of settlements of ancient humans in Britain. Take it from me, as someone who has pored over these cases for some time, most of the stuff on display is little more than rocks. If you squint, you can just about see how these inconspicuous lumps have been modified by ancient hands for a particular purpose, but if we applied nothing but pure, Vulcan logic to these stones, we wouldn’t care toffee for them. It’s all well and good for Prof Brian Cox to dismiss the mystery of the spinning statue with an explanation, but personally, I like that there are some things we can’t explain. As the French say, “C’est pour faire parler les curieux” (‘it’s to make the curious talk’). In other words, if the mystery can’t be reasoned but it excites a discussion, then it’s worth it.

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