Sunday, 27 September 2009

Science literacy – getting more people into science, innit

Part two of a two-part blog on science literacy: Science for grown-ups

The serious bit

We have seen in part one how education can be a pretty good way to become more science literate. But what if your science studies are but a dim and cobwebby memory? How can you keep up with the kids, if you have them?

Professor John Holman, the science education adviser to the government says that parents should spend time with their children watching science programmes on TV, read popular science books – “there are some brilliant popular science books around now by people like Simon Singh” – read science stories in the papers, read science blogs, and take an interest in their children’s science homework.

Even if you’re not a parent, how do you simply keep up with what’s going on in the world around you as it is rapidly and inexorably changing?

What was that saying; Ignorance is bliss? No, no, “There is no darkness but ignorance”. See the statue of Shakespeare to the left. It’s in Leicester Square. I like this because one of literature’s great, or greatests, is saying something so relevant to knowledge, or lack of, of modern science.

One of the problems is that ignorance is quite a contented state. It’s easy to walk around not understanding the technology that you use every day, or for example, how a TV or other devices would not function without quantum physics.

Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist, says in his book Parallel Worlds: “Gamow [a scientist]… realised that radioactive decay was possible because in the quantum theory the uncertainty principle meant that one never know the location and velocity of a particle; hence there was a small probability that it might ‘tunnel’ or penetrate right through the barrier…” The concept of tunnelling explains the properties of electronic devices, including the cathode ray tube in old-fashioned, boxy TVs. Fascinating, no?

But how do we interest and engage the public, especially people whose attitude to science could best be described as apathetic?

The opinion bit

What science needs is a tipping point. Scientists should be celebrated as modern-day heroes instead of Z-list celebs. Geek should be chic (sorry to stereotype – it’s a kack-handed compliment). Lab coats should be worn by Dalston and Hakney trend-setters.

And for this to happen, I don’t see any way forward apart from scientists stepping up and revelling in their brainyness, or for the trendy types to acquire a passion for science to match their sexy nerd looks.

For those of us that aren’t scientists, even if we are only marginally cool, we could lead the way and spread the science gospel. If you are excited about something scientific, don’t just sit there twiddling your thumbs: Tell your friends about the enthralling news, preferably in a way they understand.

And then, one hopes, that a generic curiosity about science will lead to an interest into the mechanics of science, allowing people to be able to scrutinise it for themselves. Award-winning science blogger Ed Yong writes: “This difference, between "Science: the Details" and "Science: the Principles", is crucial to me. Lacking the former deprives you of knowledge; lacking the latter deprives you of the tools with which to acquire knowledge.” More on this from Yong here.

Here are some ideas for getting your friends into science:

Take them on a tour of scientific institutions in London. This is what we did with our MA group and we all learnt stuff. At least I think we did. And a fun time was had by all. We went to the Wellcome Trust’s exhibitions (above, this is some of us looking dashing at the Wellcome), The Royal Society, and the Royal Institution.

If you think your friend might start to get a bit snarky about being taken on a tour, just lure them in with the prospect of Peyton and Byrne tea and cake at the Wellcome or even a nice glass of Malbec at the RI. I haven’t sampled any culinary delights at the RS but it is worth going just to be amazed by the stunner of a building in London, designed by Nash in a Roman classical style.

At the Wellcome Collection’s Medicine Man exhibition you can point these out to your mate: Florence Nightingale’s moccasins; Darwin’s cane, which has a skull on the top – not a real, shrunken one I don’t think; a mummy, a scold’s bridle, used to punish women by gagging them; phallic amulets and all types of fascinating objects.

The Medicine Now exhibition has all kinds of brilliant artwork on display, such as a blobby sculpture commenting on obesity ‘I Can Not Help the Way I Feel’ by John Isaacs. Also, there is a poem by Michael Symmons addressed To John Donne that rues the de-mystification of the beauty and romance of a woman’s body by knowledge of DNA code. Another moving piece was a mosquito net installation called “Veil of Tears” by Susie Freeman and Dr Liz Lee, a sad reflection on malaria.

Exquisite Bodies was both grotesque and absolutely awesome. It’s a temporary exhibition, only there until 18 October so catch it while you can.

The best reason to drag a friend along to the Royal Society or Royal Institution is probably their excellent talks - you might even get to meet a real scientist. Otherwise, the RS has a good exhibition showing instruments used by famous scientists like Faraday and Tyndell. Your buddy will realise how grateful to them we should be for civilisation as we know it. The library at the RS will become a public lending library after renovations that will be completed in Spring 2010.

Other ideas for the stoking of a scientific interest include:

  • Watching cool science programmes on TV. Recently these included Adam Rutherford on The Cell and Michio Kaku on Visions of the Future, both shown on BBC 4. Bang Goes the Theory is kinda fun.

  • As Prof Holman said at the top of the page, and I must agree, there are loads of fun and elucidating science books out there. Reading Bad Science by Ben Goldacre is a must, and you could do worse than starting with the Royal Society’s book prize shortlist for this year. Or simply pick a topic and find a book in your local bookshop. Stem cell or string theory? Oooh, decisions.

  • Get jiggy with science on the internet. There are some excellent science blogs out there – some of which are handily aggregated on – as well as magazine websites, such as or

  • If you are on Twitter follow science magazines, science journalists and scientists who will sometimes link to interesting or funny science stories.

  • If you have a spare half-hour in your day, such as on a dull commute, what better way to brighten your day than by than listening to a sci podcast? Recommended: The Guardian’s Science Weekly, Nature’s podcasts, The Naked Scientists, Brain Science Podcast.

  • A final, outlandish, yet brilliant suggestion, is to actually do some science yourself. It is easier than you might think. Get a telescope and peer at the cosmos. Attempt an experiment. Or my favourite suggestion comes from Bad Science, in which Goldacre suggests getting a microscope, one from a large toyshop will do just fine, and check out your sperm in a slide. If you’re a woman you might have to get your hands on some sperm for this one.

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