The British Science Association joined forces with the Edinburgh Skeptics on Thursday the 24th of March for SciScreen at the Banshee Labyrinth in Edinburgh. The evening featured an introductory informal lecture by Anna Temp, a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh researching the psychology of isolation, and was followed by a showing of Duncan Jones’ scifi thriller, Moon.
Anna’s talk was an excellent introduction to the film, Moon, which tells the story of a man who lives in a lunar space station and has been hired to harvest Helium-3, a futuristic energy source, from moon rocks. His only contact with Earth is through pre-recorded messages and his only companion is a computer called Gerty. When we first meet him he is only a short time away from being reunited with his family after a three year stint in space. I won’t give anything away and if you haven’t seen it, you absolutely should, but it gave an unreal insight into how prolonged isolation can affect the human psyche. The parallels we were able to draw between the character in the movie and those Anna discussed beforehand were quite remarkable.
Anna’s research is focused on studying how humans respond to prolonged periods of isolation. Her subjects are men and women of varying nationalities who spend a whole year conducting research together in Svalbard, an island archipelago approximately 1500 kilometers from the North Pole. These individuals are only permitted to return home for personal health issues. If anything happens to a family member, they cannot leave.
She introduced us to the concept of Isolated and Confined Environments, or ICE, which are physically dangerous, extremely challenging and cut-off from civilisation. But why are these environments so dangerous? Anna gave us three reasons. The first, is that given its location in the northern hemisphere and proximity to the North Pole, Svalbard is home to polar bears. While they are magnificent creatures, they are particularly unpredictable and tend to venture close to the research station. This means that researchers cannot go further than 200m without encountering one and therefore must be armed. The second danger is that the glacier they do most of their research on has deep crevasses that people could fall into, bringing a huge element of risk to their daily experimentation. The final danger is that staying safely inside is really difficult, mainly because spending such a long time housed in a single building makes individuals progressively stir crazy. They want to venture outside for reasons other than work, perhaps to go for a run or a hike, but it is often safer to stay indoors.
We listened to excerpts of interviews Anna had conducted in September of 2015 and later in January 2016, after the subjects had been exposed to the perpetual darkness of a Svalbard winter. It was astonishing even for someone like myself with minimal knowledge of human psychology how the attitudes of some individuals had changed. They became increasingly irritable, bored, lonely and one man even reported that he felt like he was losing his intelligence. “My last good idea was 2 months ago”, he said.
Following the film, the audience was encouraged to share their thoughts about both the lecture and the film. This was especially interesting because it allowed us to participate in a discussion not only between ourselves but also with Anna, someone who understands the complexities of the human response to isolation.
Finally, the turn-out was great! Thanks to everyone who managed to come along. We will be keeping you posted on upcoming SciScreens and other events hosted by the BSA. Watch this space!
Meghan Maslen, BSA Committee member