Geologists pave way for shoppers

March 15, 1996

Tomorrow, on the floor of Central Milton Keynes shopping mall, geologist Jill Eyers will be crawling around with a magnifying glass, trying to interest passers-by in its geological history. The floor is made of travertine, a calcareous rock packed with algae and little grains.

"People don't realise what they are walking on every day," she said. "The best example is in McDonalds." Dr Eyers is preaching geology as part of SET96, the national week of science, engineering and technology, which begins today. Around the country, university scientists are setting up in shopping malls.

In Reading, Hazel McGuff and Paul Wright, also geologists, will be trying to tell shoppers about the palaeogeography of the British Isles.

This type of work is time-consuming. Dr Eyers has worked "virtually every evening and weekend since Christmas". She has 40 people working shifts over the weekend in the mall. The work is squeezed into spare time and the funds are squeezed out of sources such as local businesses. Both Dr Eyers and Dr McGuff receive grants from the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science, of around Pounds 1,000.

The other cost is in nervous energy. "I'm in the middle of last-minute panic," Dr McGuff said this week. There is the fear that the general public might show little interest in the scientists' antics, as happened last year, during Dr McGuff's first attempt.

"We were rather poorly located in the supermarket. A lot of people thought we were trying to sell them double glazing." This year they are next to the National Lottery kiosk, so she is hoping for more attention. Even so, it is hard to attract those with no previous interest in science, "but some of them get dragged up by their children", says Dr McGuff.

What the scientists have in common is a zealous desire to improve the public understanding of science. Dr Eyers, who will be wearing a mud pack to illustrate a common use of clay, says: "I'll do anything for my science."

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