Getting a word in edgeways
The wonderful World Service of the BBC has a great discussion programme, called The Forum. It's a rather less celebrity, but more leisurely and more upmarket, version of Radio 4's Start the Week -- featuring three guests, normally chaired by Bridget Kendall. The chat is about the guests' recent books or projects, and to break things up a bit half way through one of them presents a "Sixty Second Idea". This is supposed to be a slightly off-beat, zany idea for changing the world for the better, explained (as the title suggests) in just 60 seconds.
I was pleased to be one of the guests on the programme recorded last week (it'll soon be available on the website). The others were Carl Djerassi, the inventor of the pill (pictured right) and Harold Varmus, Nobel Laureate in Physiology.
I was down to do the Sixty Second Idea -- for which I proposed that prison be abolished for all but violent criminals, those who posed a real danger to their fellow human beings. But the main discussion was on reproductive technologies (Djerassi), open access, digital scientific libraries (Varmus) and Roman laughter (me).
So how did this discussion between me and the two science barons go?
I had done my preparation in advance, so I knew that the bee in Djerassi's bonnet is the separation of reproduction from sex. He doesn't mean the separation of sex from reproduction (that's what the pill did, by offering reliable contraception -- and allowing sex to be for fun not for making babies). He means that ordinary fertile couples might in the future (indeed should) use artificial technologies rather than 'natural' sex to make their babies. The idea is that ambitious career women who wanted to leave child-bearing till late(ish) would harvest and store their healthy young eggs when in their twenties. Their partners meanwhile would freeze their sperm (again nice young healthy sperm, none of the middle-aged man, almost time-expired variety). When they decided it was time for a family, they would fertilise the egg with a sperm (choosing the sex if they wished), screen the cells for genetic abnormalities, and then implant the tiny embryo in the woman's uterus. Hey presto, a baby.
To start with I thought he was joking, or that it was a nightmare scenario conjured up to warn us all about the dangers of unregulated reproductive technologies. But no. In fact, Djerassi even thinks that it will help people like me (ambitious career women) to have heathly children late in life and not interrupt our path up the career ladder. Never mind the appalling prospect of running around after toddlers at my age, I was busting to ask him why we shouldn't invest our money in better child-care provision etc so that women could have both babies and a career while they were in their twenties and thirties.
Varmus's idea was more mainstream. He (pictured on the left) was keen to develop a vast digital library of scientific papers, open to anyone anywhere. The idea was to free up scientific knowledge from the hands of expensive journals (though I got the strong impression that expensive journals thought otherwise). You could hardly object to the aims, though when I read the sentence in his book that said "We imagine a time when most people interested in an area of science would begin their day by logging onto one or more "Public Library of Science" hubs to learn what is new. . ." I began to have visions of a truly nightmare breakfast table.
So did I get my points across? Well, no -- not really. The problem was I could hardly get a word in edgeways, or even finsih very many sentences without interruption. I'm not usually a blushing violet and am pretty adept at inserting the arguments that I want to, even in the middle of a continuous flow of speech from my interlocutors. But on this occasion I was outclassed (or out-somethinged).
How on earth do we explain it? Age? Gender? Disciplinary divides? I'd love you to listen when it appears on the web (Monday I guess) and tell me what you think. Maybe I stood my ground more than I think I did. Lets hope so. But I fear I was silenced.