Science of Sunday roast and sex in space

February 21, 2003

Len Fisher has a mission to explain science to the public and he uses biscuit dunking, gravy absorption and love in zero gravity to make his point.

Scientists and non-scientists alike are intrigued by experiments that show the world operating in a counter-intuitive way. The presenters of Radio Four's Today programme are no exception, which is why several weeks ago I found myself shivering in my driveway on the coldest morning in January, demonstrating to an invisible radio audience that hot water can freeze faster than cold water.

The huge response reinforced my belief that there is a largely unsatisfied public fascination with science. It's a task I now spend a large part of my time wrestling with. Some scientists do this to persuade more children to take up science or to educate the public to make informed judgements on scientific issues. My own reason is much simpler - I love what I do and I want to share it.

This is not easy. Although our view of the world and our place in it is now dominated by the insights of science, scientists are seen as separate from everyday life and the rules they reveal beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals.

It doesn't have to be like that. Science belongs with literature, art, philosophy and religion as an integral part of our culture. It is not the only way of seeing the world, but what makes it different is that its pictures can be checked against reality. Scientists have frequently made important discoveries through observing everyday phenomena - the Anglo-American Count Rumford, for example, discovered the principle of heat convection after burning his mouth on a hot apple pie. Modern-day physicists are now using this principle to try to explain why hot water can sometimes freeze faster than cold water.

The effect was known as far back as Aristotle's time, but it is now called the "Mpemba effect" in honour of the Tanzanian schoolboy who rediscovered it in 1969 and persuaded scientists to take it seriously.

He found it when freezing an ice-cream mixture for a school project and, in the face of laughter from his teacher and schoolmates, kept experimenting until he was able to find conditions (similar to the ones that I used in my driveway) where the effect always occurred. Mpemba's example shows that real science need not be the prerogative of the specialist but can be accessible to anyone.

It would be silly to pretend that all of science is accessible in this way - not because you need to be a genius to understand some of the more abstruse reaches of science (although sometimes it must help) or even because you need to have mastered the tools (such as mathematics) to do certain jobs. There is a more fundamental problem - Nature does not always obey common sense.

This lies at the heart of the scientist's difficulty in sharing science with non-scientists. Progress has been made only by accepting a series of non-commonsense beliefs that have become ever more outrageous as we probe deeper into nature. It takes years for a professional scientist to accept these beliefs and to learn to use them. It is little wonder that people outside science cannot always understand what we are doing or why we are doing it.

What should be accessible is the picture of the world that emerges. Some scientists try to share this picture by simplifying it, sometimes to the point of losing its essential meaning altogether. My approach is different.

I show how the sometimes counter-intuitive picture of nature that science has developed applies to the experiences of everyday life. By doing this, I aim to make science available through that which people already understand and remove the fear factor often associated with it.

The media have generally been very keen to support my efforts. With their help, I have used biscuit dunking, gravy absorption by roast dinners, and even the art of making love in a spaceship to show how scientists see the world. The danger with this approach is that it may be seen to be trivialising science. That's easily avoided in interviews or articles that I write myself, but news stories are a different matter. Some sections of the media have certainly promoted the stereotype of the eccentric scientist tackling meaningless problems. Even then, the journalists concerned have taken great care to (usually) get the science right, and their stories still prompt letters from schoolchildren wanting to know more.

The stories themselves probably produced a somewhat negative image of science and scientists. But they also stimulated the interest of publishers and hence a book in which I was able to tell real stories of scientists and how they go about their business. The positive effects of that appear to have outweighed the negative effects of the original articles. The message for fellow scientists who wish to share their science is to get their message on paper - it's a solid foundation for whatever they wish to say.

Another effect of the publicity accorded to my efforts was the award of the spoof Ig Nobel prize at Harvard University. These were originally invented to show up pseudo-science, but they have increasingly been awarded to projects that "spark public interest in science". Thankfully, most journalists have caught on to the motto that now characterises the Ig Nobels: "First, they make you laugh; then, they make you think."

That has certainly been my motto in my attempts to make science a part of our everyday awareness. Laboratory experiments have repeatedly revealed that nature often operates in a counter-intuitive way. By showing that the same principles apply to the world outside the laboratory, I am increasingly optimistic that I will be able to share the sense of fascination and reward that I and my scientific colleagues are privileged to feel every day as part of our normal occupation.

Len Fisher is an honorary research fellow at Bristol University and author of How to Dunk a Doughnut: The Science of Everyday Life (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £11.99). He won an Ig Nobel prize in 1999 for his work on biscuit dunking.

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