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Unleash your inner Einstein

Science needn’t be difficult and dull, but we must inspire people with its wonders

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

We have a strange relationship with science. It’s not a matter of denying its value: the response to the Covid pandemic has underlined the importance of science to everyday life, while, for example, every bit of electronic technology we use, from smartphones to LED lighting, was developed using a deep understanding of quantum physics. It’s more that science is often regarded as dull and not worth the effort to understand.

There are three problems here. One is school. Visit a year six primary school class, as I often have, and it is clear that the children are all excited by science. This enthusiasm carries on for a year or two of secondary school — but by the time the students are around fourteen, science has become a chore. In part, this is archetypal teen social behaviour. It’s not cool to be interested. But it is also related to the way that we teach science.

Most students will not become professional scientists. Yet the curriculum does not reflect this. At GCSE level, for example, the physics curriculum covers uninspiring topics such as forces and electrical circuits. There is usually no mention of quantum physics or relativity, two of the three fundamental pillars of modern physics. 

It would be far better if the curriculum took more of a popular science approach, picking out exciting topics that grab the students’ attention and adding history of science to give context.

For example, the special theory of relativity requires no maths to understand why it makes time travel into the future possible, and only GCSE maths to be able work out the numbers. The less inspiring essentials could easily be acquired in a few weeks by those wanting to specialise at A level and beyond.

The second barrier that prevents science from being more widely appreciated is the one identified by C. P. Snow at the end of the 1950s. Snow, a civil servant and chemist, made his “two cultures” speech in 1959. 

He highlighted the large and notably one way cultural divide between the humanities and the sciences. The establishment was (and still is) largely drawn from those who studied the humanities — Snow suggested that the prevailing culture amongst those humanities graduates was to look down on scientists, while exhibiting pride in their own scientific ignorance.

Snow noted that it was rare for the non scientists to have any idea about, for example, the second law of thermodynamics, which is crucial to understand everything from the fate of the universe to how cars work. He likened this to having never read any Shakespeare. It has been said that Snow’s view no longer applies, but I know very few scientists who don’t have an interest in the arts, but hardly anyone with a humanities background who cares about the sciences. 

The final barrier is the way that science is presented to the public. There are two dangers here. One is the Keats syndrome. In his poem “Lamia”, published in 1820, John Keats had a dig at Newton and scientists in general. 

He asked: “Do not all charms fly at the mere touch of philosophy?” Philosophy (meaning science in this context), Keats moans, “will clip an Angel’s wings”, “conquer all mysteries by rule and line” and “unweave a rainbow”.

Yet, by explaining the rainbow, Newton and his successors don’t do away with the beauty of nature, but rather add to it. There is nothing transcendent about ignorance. We can enjoy both the visual impact of a rainbow and the way that refraction and reflection of sunlight produces it.

Brian Clegg and Adam Dant’s How it All Works: All Scientific Laws and Phenomena Illustrated & Demonstrated is published by Ivy Press (£18.99)

It is still the case today that some prefer a sense of mystery, not wanting to understand things because doing so would disrupt a fuzzy, magic based view of the world. For example, there are those who, rather than marvel at the fascinating nature of a placebo, would prefer to believe in homeopathy’s claims, based on the magical concept that “like cures like” — so a very diluted version of a poison (which has gone through a magical ritual of vigorous shaking) will help cure a malady that produces similar symptoms.

A typical homeopathic remedy is diluted by a factor of 100, thirty times in row. The chances of there being even a single molecule of the original substance is about a million trillion trillion times less likely than the chance of winning Britain’s National Lottery with a single ticket. All that is left is water. For some, the romance of magic will always appeal more than science.

Unfortunately, scientists with the attitude of Richard Dawkins have not helped overcome the Keats syndrome and the appeal to magic. Although Dawkins once held a position of professor of public understanding of science, his disdain for those who hold beliefs that he doesn’t agree with has arguably put many people off engaging with science. 

Scientists can come across as smug in the way that they dismiss non scientific ideas, particularly in fields that many would agree are outside the remit of science, from religion to philosophy. Scientists need to be more understanding of their audience.

This requirement is relevant to the second danger in science communication: making scientific information accessible. 

The big advance in science communication that has come out of Covid is the way that the media have got better at presenting data in charts and graphics. Scientists are often not very visual people. They tend to think in words and numbers. Biologists, for example, pour out a litany of labels for species, organs, genes and more. Similarly, physicists, working in a discipline that is primarily driven by mathematics, often find it difficult to explain their subject without resorting to equations that are meaningless to the non physicist.

This is why it was interesting to be involved in the development of the book How It All Works with The Critic’s artist in residence Adam Dant. Although my job as a science writer involves covering complex science without any mathematics and making it fun and approachable, taking a visual approach does not come naturally to me. 

What Dant has done with this book is to make a purely visual presentation of many of the scientific laws and phenomena that lie behind our everyday experience, from what’s around us in the kitchen through a cosmic zoom out to take in the universe as a whole. Dant’s distinctive style works wonderfully in this context. This doesn’t mean that all art is useful in making science more approachable. There have been plenty of science based artworks that get in the way of understanding, rather than providing it. But Dant’s work underlines one way that we can help an otherwise reluctant audience to be genuinely enthused by science. Another example of breaking down the barriers comes from performance science groups such as Festival of the Spoken Nerd, whose highly entertaining adult science shows are both fun and informative.

We need movement on both sides. Scientists need to appreciate how non scientists see things and to take steps to bridge the gap. At the same time, we still have to go further to banish the two cultures divide and to transform science education that simply doesn’t inspire. It can be done, and popular science, in everything from book form to science shows, can help make it happen.

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