The importance of doing science

I am an English graduate. I didn’t study any science subjects after the age of 16 and I was happy with that decision, but I have always had great respect and admiration for scientists. I mean, in my experience they’re all smart people who talk sense and do work that aims to make the world a better place. How can anyone not be impressed by that?

As I’ve got older, I think I’ve started thinking more like a scientist than an arts graduate (though I do hate the emphasis on how divided those two are). I believe in evidence, research, double-blind studies, querying sources, abandoning superstitions and traditions that don’t have any logic behind them. It just seems like common sense to me. But I also believe in “pure science”, blue-sky research with no concrete application, because that’s how humankind develops.

It stuns me that people fail to grasp the point of fundamental science, that anyone can bemoan spending millions on a new particle accelerator or laser facility (especially considering how much has been spent subsidising banks or the car industry in recent years). I say this because today I read this hideous piece by Simon Jenkins, in which he attacks the entire scientific community but has particular venom for the LHC and the new UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation, and this rebuttal by physicist Jon Butterworth, in which he says that satirising Jenkins made more sense to him than just countering each point of idiocy one by one. And I sympathise, I do. Scientists must tire of respectable newspapers and journalists repeatedly pulling out this story whenever a new major science research centre is announced or opened, despite the overwhelming evidence that it is in fact a good thing. It must seem so obvious to them that Jenkins has no idea what he is talking about, but sadly, it is not obvious to everyone.

I was cornered at a family party recently and asked to justify big spending on theoretical science projects. So I began with the obvious: the internet. An accidental development from the sharing of scientific research that has changed the whole world phenomenally. Family friend was unimpressed. So next I told him about the laser. You know the story, right? It started as an entirely theoretical idea in one of Einstein’s later works. It had no practical application, it was just an experiment to create a beam of light in a laboratory. Blue-sky research. A laser beam was first achieved in 1960 (50 years ago this year), after decades of work. By that point some applications had been identified but it was a further 13 years before any were possible. Ever since, lasers have been continuously improved and developed and uses for them continue to be found everywhere in our daily lives, from barcode scanning and DVD players to medical treatments, precision cutting and welding, and satellite communication.

Family friend rolled his eyes and said that it doesn’t all end that way. Look how long they’ve been trying to make nuclear fusion happen. So I switched tack and talked about another aspect of pure science: it captures imaginations; it teaches us more about the world and indeed universe that we live in; it gets the kids interested, which is vital to get people into careers that are more obviously practical, like engineers and doctors. Tell a child that a giant machine in Switzerland is being used to figure out how the universe formed and they will be far more excited by that than the average adult. Which was proven when family friend changed the subject at this point, clearly bored and unconvinced.

I was and still am exasperated but I am trying to understand. Science is extremely badly covered in mainstream media. You don’t need to read Ben Goldacre to know that, though it’s a good start. Most people trust what they read in newspapers, particularly broadsheets, and sadly that means the perpetuation of ill-conceived opinion and half-truths, overshadowing the brilliance that is happening every day in science. But why? I found a clue when reading George Orwell last weekend. He went to highly respected public schools (St Cyprians, Wellington and Eton) and said that science was taught appallingly badly. Aptitude in science was likely to lead to disdain from teachers and pupils alike. The system required a thorough drilling in classics, good grounding in English literature and history, but little or no science. This is how the “great minds” of twentieth century Britain were raised, the people to whom current journalists turn for inspiration and wisdom. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of ignorance: intelligent, articulate men and women who can write knowledgeably about philosophy and classical music but haven’t a clue where the isotopes used in radiotherapy come from, or how particle accelerators are used to develop the ever stronger, harder materials that allow higher temperature (and therefore more efficient) power stations to be built. Or any of the other million ways in which pure science is improving our lives.

Tim has this pet theory about the food chain of science. Mathematicians come up with numbers and formulae that have no concrete meaning. Physicists take that maths and use it to model the real world, allowing them to understand the universe a little better. Engineers take that physics and use it to create a real-world device that ends up in your home or workplace. We need that abstract beginning.

There’s some great resources on this subject here: on benefits to society