We’ll keep something like a Wellcome in the hillsides

Marcus-post-small-headerWe sat in a small cafe on the high street on a glum day in May, me and the landlady, a typical resident of the small valleys town of Ystrad Mynach (‘why-strad my-natch’), a few miles down the road from Tredomen (tr ‘tree dominated men’) puzzling over the concealed but very real nature of her racism.

“Would you put up signs saying ‘no Pakis, no Blacks, no Irish, no Poles’?” I asked.

“Absolutely not,” she said. “But I do hate them. Much more than people did 30 years ago.”

The puzzling nature of the landlady’s racism is thrown into relief a moment later when an Asian woman comes in and receives a genuinely warm greeting from our interviewee. After the Asian lady moves on to the counter, I raise a confused eyebrow.

“I know,” says the landlady, clocking my upward brow. “How can I be racist when some of my friends are from racial minority groups? But I definitely am. I know I am.”

I try to get her to explain further.

“It’s a feeling isn’t it? You just know.”

“So this is why…” I trail off, uncertain where I’m going. The landlady completes my sentence.

“This is why Hillside is such a godsend. I want to know where it comes from and what the hell I can do about it.”

I want to know why. It’s a refrain you hear all over town, and all over the surrounding hillside towns. “Why can’t I bring up my children properly?”, “Why am I attracted to voting for bad political parties?”, “Why is the snow on Mynyddislwyn mountain only lasting as long late February and only coming down as far as the Church, when it used to last into very late February and come down as far as the Church Inn five metres further down, and what can I as an individual or as part of a concerted movement do about it?”, “Why am I wrong? On absolutely everything?“, “Or at least, why am I wrong on at least half of things?”

Such intense curiosity is the reason why I’m here in the South Wales valleys. When a science centre strong on policy-relevant research was first proposed it was thought sensible to situate it next to a high calibre seat of learning – Cambridge, say, or Northampton or Exeter. But as news of the project spread something extraordinary started to happen. The de haut en bas approach (from on high) was ditched as areas all over the country began to petition for the centre to come to them. Such was the holler, eventually only a poll could decide it: how many for, how many against in whatever region it happened to be. With a 97% favourable vote from an insane turnout of also 97%, Tredomen won the day. Hands down. The call couldn’t have been louder or clearer.

And tonight, as I sit in the cafe area of the brain section, I am fully cognisant of the fact that the answer matched the call. As are the great and good who’ve come from Edinburgh, Manchester, London, Bristol, Cardiff – even from as far as the continent – to converge for the launch of the UK’s biggest, most prestigious science and policy centre in over three decades. Who? Professor Brian Cox, Noel Fielding, Dara O’Briain, Alice Roberts, round the back of Ben Goldacre, Helen Czerski and Jim Al Khalili, through Robin Ince, Adam Rutherford and Russell Brand to Lily Cole, Dappy and Vivienne Westwood. Eminence grises lighting the place with an energy and enthusiasm for the empirical arts in a manner unseen since the ad-lib parties surrounding the recording of Professor Cox’s ‘Galaxy from Above’.

Such was the buzz, at 7pm, after dinner, it was spontaneously decided to inaugurate a competition to devise a scientific breakthrough specifically relevant to South Wales. Coffers, handed out among the prestigious attendees, reached a thousand pounds in 45 minutes. Then, when it was proposed a documentary should be made following the progress of the competition, aiming for limited cinema release in March next year, the one thousand pounds became seven in the decay of an anti-proton.

For me, however, the most important feature of the evening, relevant to those worryingly receding snow levels up Mynyddislwyn mountain, was the publication of the Ethan Etal et al paper. As many climate sceptics never tire of pointing out, global temperatures haven’t risen for something like eighteen years, but what they fail to examine is why this should be the case. Where heat is actually going apart from the air is a question they’d rather not think about. Fortunately, Etal et al have thought about it, and detail their findings in an extraordinary paper launched on tonight by none other than the magnificently climate-concerned comedian, Russell Sproud.

And the landady?

We caught up over cheese and biscuits. She’s still very much a racist, apparently, but even just being here, she said, was causing her to feel it ebbing away.

UPDATE: it’s been five days since the centre opened, and believe it or not, it has already produced solid science. Our own Adam Connolley was involved and reports here.





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