As a distinctly arts-oriented child growing up in a household of physics teachers (my brother also now has a physics degree!), mealtimes could be challenging.
I particularly remember the time when I burnt my tongue on the pineapple on my pizza, which led to an interrogation about why the pineapple burnt my tongue when the ham didn’t (for the curious uninformed, it has to do with the high specific heat capacity of water.) I think my parents must also have expressed sympathy, but I don’t remember that quite so clearly….
This was certainly not the only time that I was asked to think through the physics of everyday life, when I’d probably rather have been writing a novel or playing music. Though I certainly enjoyed doing experiments… like making hydrogen in the sink with my mum (to my dad’s horror when he discovered us in the middle of this potentially explosive activity!), or dying flowers two colours by dipping split stems in different dyes. I loved playing with my microscope and my chemistry set.
As it happened I didn’t study science beyond the age of 18. I was a creative wordsmith, but a careless mathematician and rather incompetent experimenter. I doubt I’d have contributed much to the world as a scientist.
But my upbringing did made me think about the physical world that I live in, and see how it could be understood as the product of simple rules. And it gives a richness to my life that I value. Every time I whizz round a corner on my bike, the exhilaration is enhanced by the dim memory having once worked out, using in a simple diagram of forces, the relationship between the vehicle’s speed, the radius of the curve and the angle of tilt needed to turn without skidding.
I’m not sure I could reconstruct that calculation now – my trigonometry is distinctly rusty with lack of use. But that’s not the point. I know it’s possible. I have a rough feeling for how it works. If I needed to, I could go and look it up. More generally I also learnt a respect for experimentation – for the ideas of repeatability, exclusion of observer bias and significance. (I’m not sure even at my most mathematically skilled I was any good at calculating significance, but at least I understand why it’s important!)
It’s sad that not everyone has the same exposure to this kind of basic science in its most practical and immediate form. It’s even sadder when people seem to be proud of their ignorance of basic science and maths. As if it’s unreasonably, wilfully difficult, designed to exclude all but eggheads.
I’m not ashamed not to be a scientist. Not everyone can be, after all. I only have one life, and science was never the thing I was best at. But I have a respect and interest in the way the world works, and a basic grasp on some of the excellent tools that humanity has developed for finding out.
As a child I respected science, but was rather scornful about sport. I was fairly incompetent at throwing and catching, and succumbed to the natural human tendency to despise disciplines I’m bad at. Which was a shame, as for many years it blocked me from discovering that actually I could learn to be good at physical skills. While I’m no great athlete, I can enjoy performing at my level and watching others perform at higher levels.
Most people are brought up in a way that reverses these attitudes to sport and science. They’re happy to be an interested, informed spectator of sport, and respect the expert participants. They don’t feel inadequate because they can’t participate on the same level – and they celebrate rather than denigrate the effort and talent required to perform at that level. Their childhood games of five-a-side or ballet classes gave them a feeling for physical activity, which helps them to understand and appreciate what it meant to be an athlete.
It’s never going to be possible to raise a nation of scientists. But it would make a huge difference if we could raise a nation of people whose attitude to science is similar to their attitude to sport – so that even if they’re not experts, they can understand and appreciate expertise.
For me the key to achieving that is focussing on the practical, simple questions that confront us every day. Giving people the opportunity to find out that investigating the world around them is entirely possible. And often fun as well as satisfying. That science is not something to be learnt but something to be done – an act of investigation, not of accepting on authority. Using the principles of experimentation to investigate everyday issues is a great way to develop confidence that these same principles will also work when applied to more complex and less everyday issues.
And if nothing less, we may have a population less prone to burning their tongues on unexpectedly hot chunks of pineapple….