The Guardian Science Course

By Mark Trodden | June 29, 2008 9:30 am

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.

  • Dan Mitchell

    Your post today made me think again of perhaps the best teacher I ever met. (And I’m a college faculty member by profession, so I’ve met my share.) Mr. Hodges was the “science teacher” at the middle school that all three of my children attended. If any teacher understood the concepts referred to in your post (“Doing them means taking risks, getting stuck in, finding out for yourself — using your imagination.”), it was Mr. Hodges.

    No boring textbook experiments for Mr. Hodges’ students. They invented designs for bridges, constructed small models themselves, and then had a contest to see which would resist their best efforts to destroy them. The designed and built their own solar ovens and then used them to cook actual meals. The climax of the year was “boat wars” – after spending a month or more designing, scavenging materials for, and constructing cardboard boat the kids took to the school swimming pool with their boats and had, yes, a boat war. Not only were the kids themselves completely obsesses with the engineering and design issues, but the event was so popular that every other class was cancelled so that all students could go and watch.

    Ed would blow things up in class. (The smoke stains on the classroom ceiling are legendary.) Kids got to experiment with putting their hands in fire. They could get extra credit for trying to eat on a poverty-level budget for a week – and extra credit if they got a parent to join them.

    “Science” can – as you well know – be exciting and wholly engaging, but it will happen when there are more experiences like those that Ed created.


  • bob

    For those interested in the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lectures, note the recently published anthology:
    Christmas at the royal institution: an anthology of lectures by M Faraday, J Tyndall et al.; edited by Frank A J L James. Singapore, World Scientific, 2007.

  • Mark

    Thanks bob – sounds great!

  • Ijon Tichy

    Well, this is what you can get when you have a newspaper that isn’t completely driven by the market. The Guardian is run by The Scott Trust, a charitable foundation, and is a consistently loss-making newspaper, relying on cross-subsidies from other, profitable businesses run by the foundation. In television, the BBC is another great source of science and educational programs, as are Channel 4 and ITV; all are public service networks, funded and/or subsidised by the taxpayers. Rely on the market, and you get gossip magazines (print), reality shows (television), pornography (internet), and other monkey-related content.

    If you want science to be “an integral part of culture”, then you must have a strong government, and a public that supports strong government. Only a strong government can: fund the media outlets that will provide the science content, volume and quality you desire; force public and private schools to make science an absolute priority; implement and fund other projects that promote science, especially where it counts, i.e. among the younger generation. But if you eviscerate your government to the extent that has occurred in the USA (except for military spending), then you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that around 80% of your citizenry believe in creationism or intelligent design.

    Of course, a strong government is not enough; you also need the right sort of mindset from those in power. But without it, you are doomed.

  • Mark

    I agree with some of what you say Ijon Tichy (although it is worth pointing out that television reality shows come from my homeland). I don’t quite get what you mean by pornography on the internet. The internet is a big place and while there is certainly a lot of pornography, I don’t see how it is an obstacle to good science content appearing there.

    Of course, as a scientist, one can, like any other citizen, do one’s best to support the kind of government one would like to see. Many of us do a great deal on that front. One can also, independently, work to promote science education and knowledge, and praise others who do the same.

  • Charlie C

    Ijon Tichy, one could argue that China has exactly the kind of strong government that supports science as you propose. And although its methods in many areas may not be so admirable, one can’t help but wonder where China will stand in the technological world in another generation or two. With regards to science and technology, the objective of the Chinese government (and modern culture) definitely appears to be one of “shooting the moon”. (Pun intended) What’s that huge wave rushing towards us…. ?

  • John R Ramsden

    Tichy wrote (#4)
    > the BBC is another great source of science and educational programs,

    For all their faults, mainly an obvious lefty PC agenda, and vices such as europhilia, I must agree. It”ll be a sad day when David Attenborough for example, now 80, retires.

    Discovery Channel also shows some good documentaries, although these are often somewhat dumbed down for my taste. (But one can say the same of many BBC Horizon programs these days.)

    But another BBC blessing is the absence of adverts – Discovery programs are made almost intolerable by them, so much so it seems more like short program breaks between non-stop ads!

    The only way I can watch Discovery is to be busy on a PC at the same time and mute the ads, or else pre-record the program and fast-forward through the wretched things. Channel hopping is hopeless, as one ends up watching bits and pieces of several programs, and in any case ad breaks seem to be synchonized across many channels to discourage this.

  • Count Iblis

    The BBC used to broadcast the Christmas Lectures but they stopped doing that, I think in 1999 or so :(

    The best science documentaries are shown on NGC channel. BBC’s Horizon is also very good, but they only show a few programs per year. Also, the quality of the Horizon documentaries is not always as good as it used to be. Some appeared to have been dumbed down. Some others have been promoting fringe theories. The last few were ok. though.

  • Mark

    Hi Count. I haven’t been in the U.K. to see these for quite a few years, so can’t speak from recent personal experience. But according to Wikipedia (must be correct :))

    The lectures were televised by the BBC for several decades. However, in recent years the lectures have been shown on Channel 4 and now Five. They have become an established part of the ‘Christmas Tradition’ for many families, keeping children occupied during the days after Christmas when the presents begin to get old, and as such the decision by Five in 2006 to air Home and Away at the time the Lectures have been usually broadcast, 12 o’clock, caused widespread criticism, although the later time was felt by some to be more convenient.

    I can’t speak to whether the presentation changed for better or worse as a result. Maybe some of our U.K. readers can comment.

  • Dean Denesiuk

    I have recently discovered the Public lecture series at the Perimeter Institute Which incorporates Micro Soft Media Site Viewer that allows the user to zoom in on the slides independent of the video to appreciate the finer detail of the presentation. A wide variety of topics are available.

    Also there are scads of science lectures (Physics for example) on You tube that are quite interesting to science Geeks like me.

  • Dean Denesiuk

    Doh! MediaSite not by MicroSoft!. Is Versa Visual. So Sorry!

  • Sau

    Totally agree. Parents and teachers play a very crucial role in instilling a spark of curiosity about understanding the world. Another thing I have found inspiring is reading about the lives of great scientists, the best experiments… just the beauty and wonder of it drives you to creative frontiers farther than you think you can reach.


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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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