Disenchanted

How British science broke off its love affair with a once adoring public – well with one of them at least. This is the text of a speech I gave to the “Generation Science Club” at the Edinburgh Science Festival…

It was 1979. Politics were raging. Music was exciting. British film making was about to enter another renaissance. Everywhere there was a thirst for new ideas. There were so many places you could go to explore and be creative but from where I stood, none of them were connected to science anymore.

On a June day in 1971, a cricket ball arced from the spinning fingers of Matthew Price, the school’s best, fast bowler and ricocheted off a cricket square as level as a potato field. My bat flailed uselessly in the warm dry air as a ball, as hard and weighty as granite, pinged like a Tiger Woods T shot off the bridge of my nose. A strange sound filled my baffled 10 year old brain like having a tuning fork planted on the apex of my skull. Distant voices muttered encouragement. “He’ll get off school for that.” “Do you think he’s dead?” The far-off cloudless sky, turned midnight blue

The world continued to go in and out of focus as our eager young headmaster whisked me in his shiny Vauxhall Viva to Salford’s Hope Hospital; a name which as an adult strikes me as wholly optimistic but as a boy whose favourite programme was Horizon it suggested an approach which lacked scientific rigour.

I wanted to be a physicist. I loved science. I had no desire to win a Nobel prize. I just wanted to find stuff out. As we drove I contemplated the shape of the lump in the ground; its corners and its resistance to compression and in what way did the ball strike it, and how did the rotation interact momentarily with the surface of the earth to change its direction, and what was the chance that all these things would contrive to cause me so much pain?

It later transpired that my blurred vision had as much to do with inherited myopia which had gone undetected for at least 3 years as it had to do with a sharp blow to the face; (that lack of rigour in the Mancunian Health Care system again). Despite my curiosity about the world my primary school career had shown little promise but secondary school was different. I’d opted to travel several miles further than my brothers because Worsley Wardley High School (now demolished) taught Physics, Chemistry and Biology as separate subjects right from the off; a grand and impressive idea.

 I flew at it from day 1! It was one of those moments when you wake up and the whole world has changed. I had space to dream and imagine all sorts of wonderful things. Labs weren’t smelly and obnoxious. They were extraordinary. Going through that door was like climbing through the back of the wardrobe into Narnia. In physics we pulled the universe apart in our heads then played with amazing little glass tanks with clouds in them and watched alpha and beta particles shoot and wriggle their way across inner space. I burnt my fingers on a tripod, absent mindedly lifting it after a making a test tube full of Perspex. But I didn’t cut myself when I had to smash the tube to extract the glossy colourless polymer.

At home the risk was more severe. I tested the affects of a screw driver on the inside of my Gran’s obsolete TV, and the effects of lit matches on sodium chlorate weed killer. I survived and went on to study A levels in pure and applied maths, physics, chemistry and something called general studies. But by the time I left science had lost its shine.

It was 1979. Politics were raging. Music was exciting. British film making was about to enter another renaissance. Everywhere there was a thirst for new ideas. There were so many places you could go to explore and be creative but from where I stood, none of them were connected to science anymore. From what I could see there was no room for the imagination. To a teenager who wanted to stretch his brain it was like watching a bunch of pre-enlightenment bishops who had arrived at a point of empirical nirvana, knowing all, seeing the one true path and deaf to all dissent. The laity had no voice. If you were not a qualified scientist, your doubts had no credibility. And just as it rose to a crest, this wave of confidence came crashing down on the cultural rocks of British scepticism. Pronouncements would be made that even the least scientific mind could see through. You would read that all permitted food additives were safe and could be consumed without ill effect. Meanwhile increasing numbers of parents knew their child would behave like a ferret in a glue factory if they consumed the wrong kind of coke. We all knew scientists were clever, that they knew more than us but the over blown confidence that science was infallible induced a collective neurosis that sent the great British public scurrying for tarot cards and crystal stress therapy.

It was the same public who once had loved science even when they hadn’t got a clue about it, and loved it more when they did. So how did it end in such an acrimonious divorce? Why did the stoically loyal, passive public run off to philander with new age philosophy just as a shiny new cave of scientific wonders was about to open? The confidence I remembered seeing science exude as a kid looked different now. There was something unattractive in its swagger.  Whereas in the 50’s people stood in wide eyed wonder as the Queen dressed in her best Norman Hartnells turned on the power at Calderhall nuclear power station, by the 70s those same grand boffins who had built an entire industry were viewed with increasing suspicion. Despite my growing unease I found myself arguing with people who couldn’t distinguish between a nuclear power plant and an atom bomb. To be fair, the way the industry was configured meant the distinction wasn’t so big. They may not have known the difference between a proton and a poptart but their understanding of the politics of science left me feeling feeble minded. That clean white lab coat was beginning to look a bit shabby.

It would take the next ten years for the love affair to turn truly sour. We were all to fight bitterly over BSE and MMR, organic farming and global warming. Global warming was the thing of cranks when I was at school and now it’s mainstream. A progression which neatly encapsulates the problem. What is scientific fact for one generation is quaintly and absurdly wrong for the next but this potentially energising, inevitable mortality of thought is hidden away like some dark, shameful secret.

The indispensable need to be open minded has never been fully embraced by the scientific establishment. In 1794 Ernst Chladni tried to convince a disbelieving world that shooting stars were actually little pieces of rock falling from space, burning because of their friction with the air. He wrote later that it was scientists who “thought it necessary to throw away or reject as error anything that did not conform to a self-constructed model”. Chladni had made the bold mistake of thinking creatively.

Spats between scientists are one thing. The promise for humanity of cheap, highly nutritious food without the need for pesticides should have found an eager, receptive audience among the increasingly environmentally conscious public but concern took root in a long held traditional suspicion of big business which now appeared to be chasing profits at the expense of the entire planet. There were subtle and complex arguments building and emotion was never far beneath the surface.

First the public weighed in with moral panic and fear: Back came the counter punch from science. Instead of trying to understand the public and discover the rationale beneath the fear, the scientific reaction of was to point out their ignorance with all the charm of Gordon Ramsay entertaining a party of vegans with nut allergies. I’m not saying that all the challenges ought to have been dignified by a full and detailed response but you would be hard pushed to find on record a decently conducted mainstream public debate addressing genuine concerns being raised around risk and benefit. It’s not that complicated but interested people without science qualifications were still dismissed as lacking the capacity to understand. They were marginalised and as they wandered off into the wilderness they took most of the UK population with them.

Back in the scientific bunker a new hegemony of knowledge took over led by white-coated guardians of the new certainty; the final and only truth. It was as if the battles fought by Copernicus, Newton and Darwin to persuade people to open their minds to new ways of thinking were what scientists used to do rather than what scientists do. As if the quest to understand the Universe is nearly over. If history teaches us anything, anyone who suggests we are at the end of that historical quest is probably going to eat humble pie sooner or later.

Contrary to the popular stereotype Britain has always been a land of radicals. It was the birthplace of free trade, of trade unionism, of universal suffrage and it’ll probably be the last bastion of monarchy. We found shelter for Karl Marx and created Adam Smith. Even in land of science, Humphrey Davey lambasted the young pretender Michael Faraday when he designed the electric motor. Geologist and master of Trinity College, William Wherwell refused shelf space in the college library to Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”. But these rows went on among a small group of learned people. In the 21st century, science is a vast industry. It directly affects the lives of all of us and as long as we have the freedom to discuss and debate and as long as there is democratic accountability we need science to retake its place in civil society. What lost me in the 80s was not a disagreement with what science was doing but its resolute lack of engagement with a wider society who dared to ask difficult questions.

Since 1979 much has changed. You don’t hear of too many free thinking individuals desperate to get into politics. Music isn’t exactly storming up the radical road to innovation although I suppose British film making is rediscovering itself in yet another renaissance.

As we wrestle with global warming and a simultaneous energy crisis, as we wince at a chronically inept food supply chain that leaves 2 billion people choosing between eating and schooling and as we begin to scrap over an emptying barrel of drinking water we really need a public who understand science. If the professionalisation of science has led to great discoveries it has also created an exclusive club. You’re in it or you’re out of it. This has to change.

It’s not tenable to ask whether someone is qualified to ask a question.

We need scientists who will engage with legitimate difficult challenges from an interested public. But it’s a two way deal. It’s incumbent on all of us, and I mean all of us to understand science. We should all be scientists in our own lives. We should be rational and count and observe and pose questions and act when we discover something.

And let’s not forget dreaming.

Einstein dreamed that he was travelling on a moonbeam. Imagining looking back on where he had come from, he became inspired and changed our understanding of almost everything. Science is a creative endeavour. As the man himself said “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”

I don’t hold with this idea that university should turn out a fully perfected high tech workforce. It’s not possible and it’s not desirable. We do need graduates to join industry but if the major employers are honest, they want bright well educated people who they can mould. A good education will still be useful in thirty years time. Work changes so quickly these days that if we focus too much on vocational training its relevance will be lost within a year. Universities are for dreamers and creatives who love the rigour and discipline of academia and who can imagine new ways of seeing. This is just as true in these desperate dark days of a recession as when the sun is shining and we’re all making hay.

On a spring day in 1727, Voltaire stood witness to the state funeral of Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey. He heaped praise on a country that honoured a mathematician as others would honour a king: Newton who grew up asking that most inspired of questions “What if…?

Well it’s our job now, to inspire a new generation to do the same, to challenge the way we think until they discover something we can’t even conceive of.