Open data: of woodcuts and genomes

By Jill Segger
October 26, 2018

Edward Bawden was a remarkable artist-craftsman-maker, skilled in many media. He was a fine water-colourist, printmaker and designer. Having no private income, he was of necessity versatile and workmanlike across the diverse creative fields in which he made his living.

Advertising posters for Fortnum and Mason and Ealing Studios, wallpapers and textiles, book illustrations, tiles for London Underground and the mid 20th century masthead of the Observer newspaper all came from his studio.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited an exhibition of his work, entitled 'Edward Bawden at Home', mounted by the small and quirky Fry Gallery in Saffron Walden. Among the delights to be seen here was a striking woodcut of a cat with one paw on a ball of wool. But what most arrested my attention and engaged my imagination was the small painting above it – a depiction of the original woodblock surrounded by a neat arrangement of all the tools involved its making.

This owning of means as well as result is rare. Our culture tends towards impatience and off-stage groundwork is often ignored, except perhaps, by biographers and students. This is our loss: 'show your working' is not just for mathematicians. It reminds us of the skill and precision which is required to produce the beautiful and the valuable. It roots the creator in that which can be shared by the less skilled and encourages us with its modelling of honesty and generosity.

Such show and share has the power to bring people together across a variety of disciplines. Last week, I attended an event put on by the Public Engagement team of the Wellcome Genome Campus. This was 'show your working' on an inspiring scale. The mapping of the human genome is a massive task in which rapid progress has been made possible by advances in computer science. The European Bioinformatics Institute, (EMBL-EBI) based at the Genome Campus just outside Cambridge is currently sequencing around 7000 genomes a year, including those of  plants, parasites and bacteria. The potential for tailored medical intervention, to name just one field, is immense and all the biological data is made freely available to the scientific community.

EMBL-EBI explains its inter-disciplinary approach to open data thus: “We maintain the world’s most comprehensive range of freely available molecular data resources. Developed in collaboration with our colleagues worldwide, our databases and tools help scientists share data efficiently, perform complex queries and analyse the results in different ways. Our work supports millions of researchers, who are wet-lab and computational biologists working in all areas of the life sciences, from biomedicine to biodiversity and agri-food research.”

The gear, tackle and trim which makes possible this work for the common good was also on display to the enquiring public. We could see machines at work sequencing DNA, handle the slides on which these samples are fed into the system and look at printouts of the strings of letters which show the sequence of neucleic acids within the DNA. That which was abstract, unseen and a little mysterious to most of us was made visible. A great step in understanding had been offered through sharing and showing.

Members of the Public Engagement team, several of them scientists working on the genome project, answered questions from children and adults, those with scientific knowledge and those without, with expertise and real enthusiasm. From my conversation with an expert in proteins, for whom my scientific limitations were unimportant, to a discussion on the work of the Institute’s ethics team, I felt that same tingle of intellectual and emotional excitement that Bawden’s painting of woodcut mechanics had given me in a very different environment. It is in this matter of touching each other’s minds and imaginations that human beings are at their best because the drawing aside of concealment is to open the way to wonder. We cannot live well without it.

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© Jill Segger is Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. You can follow her on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

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