Why is Science Important?

By Mark Trodden | July 19, 2009 4:06 am

If the world contained more teachers (and certainly more physics teachers) like Alom Shaha, I, for one, would be delighted. Shaha teaches in an inner city school in London, and I’m sure he does an excellent job there. But remarkably, beyond this, he clearly pours all his available free time, wherever overworked teachers find that, into public science education. As far as I can tell he focuses on television, and works very closely with scientists to bring their work to his students, and the general public. And he is wonderfully successful at it.

I feel like I should have known about Shaha for a long time, particularly looking back at some of his earlier projects, such as an early film (which I think I saw, but didn’t know who was behind), three years ago, about the LHC. But he’s on my radar now because I’ve just finished watching his half-hour film Why is Science Important?

The clip I’ve embedded above is just the very beginning of the film – the entire thing can be watched on its website, in HD. It contains interviews with scientists, science educators, science communicators, and others; all giving their personal take on the question posed in the film’s title. The responses are diverse, as are, refreshingly, the participants. But if there is a common theme it isn’t that science can tell us how the universe evolved, or what describes the behavior of protons. Rather it is that science is about how to go about seeking the answers to questions, and how to evaluate the claims of others. This last point is hammered home repeatedly, not least in Shaha’s opening monologue above, where, after walking over a bed of glowing coals, he says

“You’ve just seen me walk across red hot coals, at a temperature of over five hundred degrees Celsius. I could tell you that I’m an expert in an ancient form of meditation that lets me block out pain at will. I could then tell you that you could lead a happier life if you follow my teachings. For a small fee, of course.

Or, I could tell you the truth; that walking on hot coals doesn’t require any kind of magical powers. It’s just the case that the coals are a poor conductor of heat, and I walk so quickly that there’s hardly any time for heat transfer to take place.

Separating truth from fraudulent mumbo-jumbo is just one reason why science is important.”

Projects like this don’t change the world on their own, of course. But as part of a common goal of bringing a passion for science to the public, and allowing them to see that its practitioners and enthusiasts are drawn from all walks of life they play an important role; not only for science, but for our increasingly science-dependent society. It doesn’t hurt that Shaha is young and good-looking, but what shines through is his infectious energy and enthusiasm for science and the important role of skepticism. And that’s what I hope anyone watching this film takes away.

  • http://quichemoraine.com Mike Haubrich, FCD

    I haven’t read Unscientific America yet; so I will just ask whether or not Chris and Sheril address this sort of approach to popularizing the need to understand science.

    It seems to me that this is another example of the ways in which science communication is being spread through social media, and that the problem doesn’t lie with science communicators but the amount of attention that science communication competes with.

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  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    I’ve no idea Mike – I haven’t read the book.

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  • Mandeep Gill

    Mark- thx for the post, way cool, i only watched the clip above, but it’s clear that Shaha is doing great good in the world in disseminating good info through ‘edutainment’ — something that’s *sorely* needed to oppose the pop culture that so often disses science as boring, dry, nerdy, irrelevant etc. perhaps *especially* true in the US, land of glorification of ignorance — viz. the last 8 yrs of our political culture. Praise God (or the FSM) that this is changing dramatically with the new Admin.. efforts like Shaha’s will only help, too!!


    Why did you remove my comment?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Re. 6.: I couldn’t make sense of it. I’ll gladly reinstate if I’m missing something.


    Well, then please do so!

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  • http://pchsfysicstchr.edublogs.org Mr. Jody Bowie

    Fantastic! Well made video, by a PHYSICS teacher no less. I love that there are other physics teachers spreading the good word. I will definitely be making this a part of my nature of science discussion at the beginning of each semester.
    Students really engage with this type of discussion. There’s nothing like a good discrepant event. Thanks for recognizing him!



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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

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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