The First International Conference on ‘Science Matters’: A Unified Perspective. Ericeira, Portugal, May 28-30, 2007.

This was the first conference, the aim of which is to draw together participants from a wide range of disciplines to discuss different aspects of Science. The proceedings will be published in 2008.


The venue, a small Atlantic resort just outside Lisbon, formed the setting for a small conference of about 40 participants. The multidisciplinary mix of speakers promoted lively debate, which was often heated, but always friendly.


Religion and science are always a heady mixture. Ever since Descartes proposed the idea that the soul was to be found in the Pineal gland there have been variations on this theme. More recently, the idea has been put forward that religious experience (and even religion itself) can be explained in terms of neural activity in the brain. Alfredo Dinis (Catholic University of Portugal, Braga) took a long clear look at both the evidence put forward and the arguments proposed, many of which were found to involve dubious logic.


By focusing on specific religious experiences (e.g. praying) and tying this in with neurological effects in the brain, the multidimensional aspect of religion is overlooked – such as altruistic behaviour to others. Also, the personal history of the subject – such as previous mental problems – is an important factor, which is not properly accounted for in many studies.


Science has always inspired fiction from Mary Shelley, George Eliot and Jules Verne to Bart Simpson. Paul Caro, a former Director of Research at CNRS, France, documented the changing face of science in literature, and how science is embedded in our present-day culture.


It is not often (maybe even never before) that a speaker at a science conference performs a dance for the audience. It is perhaps a sign of the unique nature of this conference that such an event not only occurred, but was also vigorously applauded in the name of science. The speaker (and dancer) Leonor Béltran (João de Deus Teacher Training College, Lisbon, Portugal) linked the creative natures of both science and dance, weaving the history, culture and human expression in dance with the awareness and understanding of nature through science.


Probably no area of philosophy of science has more direct impact on people’s lives than philosophy of Psychoanalysis. As Isabel Empis (Miguel Bombarda Hospital, Lisbon, Portugal) reminded us, when Sigmund Freud arrived in America in 1909, as his liner entered New York harbour, his fellow invitees and disciples, Carl Jung and Sandor Ferenczi, exclaimed that they were bringing enlightenment to the New World.  Freud replied glumly that they were really bringing the plague.


The “plague” was a plethora of pseudo- Freudian interpretations which created “guilt” and “victims” embedded in a puritanical ideology of judgement, sin and suffering. Empis’s message was for psychoanalysts to focus on a patient’s inner power of transformation, rather than the labelling and classification of diseases, which can have the effect of increasing the suffering of patients, rather than helping them.


Gilbert Fayl from the European Academy of Sciences and Arts debunked the myth –as he describes it – of describing our society as knowledge-based. Yes, it is – but what else would it be. According to Fayl it is imagination and creativity which are more important than knowledge. He describes the spending on research and development (R & D) in Europe as pitiful. The Barcelona target of 3% of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) to be spent on R & D he sees as a useful incentive to prod politicians to allocate more resources to R & D spending. In the end spending too little on R & D is harmful to the economy and there has to be an element of risk in backing projects, some of which will turn out to be extremely important.


According to João Nunes (Coimbra University, Portugal), there has always been a creative tension between science and its history, surrounding the unity and disunity of science. The latter term is not as negative as is implied by its use in this context, but refers to specifity or diversity within science. Rather than a choice between narrow sciences or meaningless holism, Nunes charts a middle course which regards science as a knowledge-producing activity and the history and methodology of science as “ecologies of practices”, which recognizes diverse scientific activities as a creative tension in society.


The development of Chemistry, and in particular the synthesis of valuable chemicals such as dyestuffs, pharmaceuticals and innovative materials, has had a chequered interaction with society in general. According to Bernado Herold (IST, Technical University of Lisbon, Portugal), progress has been driven primarily by the exigencies of war and economics, but in the post-war period there have been other interactions with society in a more pluralistic way.


The study of complex systems has been very fruitful in recent years. In integrating History with Physics, Lui Lam (San Jose State University, California, USA) is trying to promote a new discipline, which he labels “Histophysics”. There are no laws, no objective truths in History, but in treating historical events as a complex system, Lam tries to bring to bear the study of dynamical systems to try to tease out quantitative laws. He uses, as an example, the lifetimes of Chinese dynasties and uses these data as input to an interesting stochastic model.


The Chinese contribution to Science has been important in the past and is of increasing importance at the present time. China is one of only two countries which have passed, or are in the process of passing a law for the Popularisation of Science and Technology.   In the United States a Bill entitled: “The Scientific Communications Act of 2007 (HR 1453)” was introduced by the US House of Representatives on 9th March, 2007.  Its purpose is to provide for communications training to improve the ability of scientists to interact with policymakers. In China, there is a law on “Popularization of Science and Technology”, which was adopted June 29, 2002. This Law is enacted “for the purposes of implementing the strategy of invigorating the country through science and education and the strategy of sustainable development, redoubling the efforts to popularize science and technology, raising the citizens’ scientific and cultural level and promoting economic and social progress.” Three speakers at the conference considered different topics related to science in China.


Dun Liu, President of the Chinese Society for the History of Science and Technology, traced the process of globalisation in China as far back as the early 16th century. It was not just migration and colonialism, but economics and culture which formed the backdrop to China’s engagement with the rest of the world, which was a bi-directional process. In China today the History of Science is seen as a new subject with a long tradition.


In his talk Daguang Li (Graduate University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China) explored the History of Science Communication in China from the 16th century to the present day. He also described the long-term project in China to raise the science literacy levels of the population over the next forty years to match the national economic and cultural development.


In his view of Philosophy of Science and Science in China, Bing Liu (Tsinghua University, Beijing, China) discussed the differences in evolution of science in the west and China and how this can be reconciled in terms of a unified model.


Physiognomy, the systematic relation of psychological characteristics to facial features or body structure, has had an extremely negative past. Many aspects of it have been discredited and it is associated with Nazi ideology. Brigitte Hoppe (LMU, Munich, Germany) explored the historical roots and development of Physiognomy in terms of Science, Art and Sculpture from antiquity to the present day.


Ethics in Science applies to all areas and covers basic values as well as national sensitivities. In the European context, Maurizio Salvi (European Commission of Ethics and Science) explained how ethical considerations form an important part of the decision process for funding from the European Union for projects as varied as stem cell research, nanotechnology in medicine and biobanking (the organised collection of biological samples and associated data).


Biochemistry applied to medicine provides a theoretical model for biological processes in the human body. In her contribution, Maria Burguete (Coimbra University, Portugal) explained how a different approach to chemical phenomena from the point of view of complex systems gives rise to a model of information exchange among all living beings at their own different levels.


I have not been able in this short digest to include all the speakers at the conference, and I apologise to those that have not been listed. Further conferences, every two years, are envisaged with the next planned for 2009.


Nigel Sanitt