Cambridge science festival

March 25, 2005

Fizzes and bangs on their own cannot substitute for fabulous storytelling

March 16-23

All over Britain, billboards and flyers are advertising events under the National Science Week banner - 1,076 of them in total, with titles such as "Fizz and Foam", "The Whizz Bang Assembly" and "A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life".

In the city where I live, Daleks, fire jugglers and creatures from outer space wandered the streets on Saturday, inviting children to build hovercrafts, understand both ice cream and the theory of relativity or to help isolate banana DNA.

This year's Cambridge Science Festival was opened by Konnie Huq, the Blue Peter presenter and Cambridge science graduate, and Alison Richard, the university's vice-chancellor, both chosen apparently to provide inspiring role models to draw more girls into science.

Certainly, there were more men than women but more girls than boys at the launch, though this changed dramatically for the later Einstein events.

Interesting, then, that the festival website, while offering excellent advice for young people on pursuing careers in science, still tells the story of Cambridge's scientific heritage as a timeline exclusively of white men running from Newton through Darwin to Rutherford, Whittle and Hawking.

It is not the only timeline that could have been chosen and certainly not the best one to attract women.

Since the professionalisation of science in the 19th century and the establishment, in 1831, of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, scientists have worried about the relationship between science and the public.

Nowadays, the problem that taxes sociologists is the so-called "deficit model" of public understanding that tends to treat audiences as empty vessels to be filled. Instead, critics argue, science communication should be a "mutual getting to know".

The organisers of Cambridge Science Festival certainly seemed to be working on entertaining mutuality in the number of hands-on activities on offer in Cambridge on Saturday. But does entertainment in science always lead to understanding?

My children, aged ten and 11, were certainly no wiser about relativity by the end of the day, although they had been convinced that science was cool and entertaining. Fizzes and bangs on their own cannot substitute for the fabulous storytelling and explication of a great populariser of science such as Thomas Huxley, who could hold an audience spellbound for an hour on the subject of deep time with no other visual aid than a piece of chalk.

At Cambridge this week, walls of table displays sought to tempt children into hands-on activities. But while noises and movement may have acted as magnets for children, it was the charismatic storytelling of the young scientists and PhD students that kept them from drifting away again.

These popularisers competed with one another to explain the science on their tables using metaphors and colour, not just talking at the children but asking them questions, turning learning into the exchange and excitement of curious conversation.

Surely, if we are to value the public understanding of science, we need to invest more in teaching talented young scientists such as these to communicate complex ideas, to translate them from closed discursively exclusive languages into open ones and into narrative and metaphor. And that is not easy.

Rebecca Stott is professor of English at Anglia Polytechnic University and the author of popular history of science books.

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