I’ve been glancing over with some enjoyment and much nostalgia a multi-part Science Course that The Guardian ran back in late April and early May. Created in association with Science Museum and split into seven parts, this is an attempt to provide, extremely briefly, a snapshot of human scientific knowledge.
The seven sections are: The universe; Life & genetics; The earth; Humans; Energy; Building blocks; Experiments for kids, and each section is split into a host of different subtopics which span pretty much all the major subjects (although, as with any such endeavor, I’m sure there will be people who feel that something vital is missing).
There are a number of things that struck me about this effort. Perhaps foremost is that it is just wonderful to see a national daily newspaper devoting this much time, effort and space to science. Another notable feature, as far as I could see, is that they have chosen to focus on the science and not on the scientists. While I’m not against reporting that serves to show the public that scientists aren’t the humorless automatons they are often portrayed as, there is something refreshing about getting the egos and the myth of the lone genius out of the picture and focusing on the remarkable truths about the universe that the collective efforts of humankind have revealed. There is a real sense of wonder here.
But I think what grabbed me most, and what stirred those nostalgic feelings in me, was what a kid might take away from this. The vast scope of science presented here; the feelings of awe; the idea that by grasping some portion of this one would actually understand why things are as they are, and not have to rely on the authority of others. These all take me back to reading the newspaper as a child; to watching the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures; to reading science magazines; and to my parents gathering my brother and me up for our weekly trip to the library. These were some of the first experiences that I concretely remember thinking of as revealing the excitement of knowledge. I never got over it.
It doesn’t matter if all the details of what you are reading or watching are perfectly correct, and it doesn’t matter if you know who did what and when. These are details you will sort out later if they become important. What matters as a kid is that you be able to grasp why scientists do what they do, and understand the power of the scientific method. In her introduction to the Experiments for kids section, science writer Gabrielle Walker writes
Real science isn’t about textbooks, it’s about experiments that
are surprising, exciting and — yes, even a bit dangerous.
Doing them means taking risks, getting stuck in, finding out for yourself — using your imagination.
Kids should do scientific experiments too, for the same reason that they should write stories as well as reading them or do sport as well as watching it. Experiments encourage kids to be curious, creative and confident. Jokes make us laugh because the punchline takes us by surprise. The best experiments do the same.
And it’s true. Science is a part of culture, and as a child, while I did my fair share of reading and writing stories, and playing and watching sports, I loved mathematics, but also derived tremendous enjoyment from my little chemistry set, and the toy microscope I received one Christmas. If you could make something go “bang”, change color, or both, it was always a lot of fun. Science is something you do.
There are many influences that can cultivate one’s desire to understand more about the world, whether one becomes a scientist or not. Curious parents who care about education and decent, enthusiastic teachers are most certainly important, and I was so lucky to have those (definitely the former, and mostly the latter). But the ways in which science and scientists appear in our culture have a major influence. Science news shouldn’t be a quirky niche area. If it weren’t, perhaps more people would be able to develop informed opinions about some of the major issues facing society. Wouldn’t it be a step forward to read about, and have people understand, the scientific challenges and issues surrounding nuclear power, biofuels, solar energy, genetically modified foods, evolution, etc.?
We’ll only ever get there by making science an integral part of culture, rather than an obscure art. Although I think most scientists will find some flaws with its approach, the Guardian Science Course brought a smile to my face as I remembered the easy access to popular science I had as a kid growing up in England, and the way this access influenced how I viewed science. They should be applauded for trying to play their part in recognizing science as a central part of society.