Tony Buzan would often start a lecture with the question, “By a show of hands, who here is a scientist?” Typically, three or four people in a large auditorium would sheepishly raise their hands.
C.P. Snow, English novelist and physical chemist famously gave a 1959 lecture in which he criticised the British educational system, for over-rewarding the humanities at the expense of scientific education. He said, “I now believe that if I had asked … What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, ‘Can you read?’ – not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language.” Some progress has been made since the 1960s with posts such as ‘The Simonyi Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science’ at the University of Oxford. The chair was established in 1995 with an endowment from Microsoft software architect, Charles Simonyi. It was initially held by evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins until 2008 when the post passed to mathematician, Marcus du Sautoy, the present incumbent. Many other universities have similar positions and individuals such as CERN particle physicist, Brian Cox OBE (former keyboard player for the Band D:Ream) present science TV programmes and write popular science books.
[Richard Dawkins, originally posted to Flickr, Author Mark Coggins, Wikimedia Commons]
Despite the best efforts of the scientific community to communicate their ideas to the wider society, most people see science and mathematics as difficult and alien. The perception is that a scientist is a white coated, bespectacled, wild haired man (stereotypically male) with a brain the size of a planet. Scientists are often to be found in chemical laboratories surrounded by peculiar smelling, bubbling liquids in tubes, flasks and other glass contraptions. Alternatively, they are frantically scribbling unintelligible mathematical formulae and calculations on blackboards.
Scientists are portrayed in popular culture as eccentric, lacking social skills and even ‘mad’. These range from Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll to Doctor Who’s Davros, architect of the Daleks, created by screenwriter Terry Nation. A survey of 1,000 horror films distributed in the UK between the 1930s and 1980s found that mad scientists or their creations have been the villains of 30 percent of the films whilst scientists have been the heroes of only 11 percent. Little wonder then, that few people would identify themselves as such. Obviously, this is a gross distortion and making such associations destroys countless opportunities for personal development and living a more richly varied life.
Tony explained that in reality, a scientist is anyone who follows the scientific method. Scientific researchers propose hypotheses as explanations of phenomena, and design experimental studies to test these hypotheses via predictions which can be derived from them.
Every child is a scientist: Imagine a small child standing by a large puddle. She drops in a small pebble (experiment). The result is a small splash. The hypothesis is that a bigger stone will produce a bigger splash. Sure enough, dropping in a rock leads to a big splash. Second prediction, since she is bigger than a rock, if she jumps in there will be a larger splash. The prediction is confirmed. Massive splash, soaked clothes and parents covered in muddy water! However, far from being congratulated on her deductive reasoning she is berated and told not to jump in puddles. Scientific genius crushed!
[Amy splashing in puddles after a nice storm. originally posted to Flickr, Rain0975]
Everyone was once a child and all children learn by experimentation. QED Everyone is a scientist or was as a child. If you re-awaken your childlike, inquisitive mind you can confidently call yourself a scientist even without a PhD.Tony’s second question: “who here is an artist?” and his final question, “who is a poet” also reveal interesting truths but that’s the subject for another time.