Scientific spectacles

October 8, 1999

Biscuit-dunking, IgNobel-winning physicist Len Fisher wonders if popular platforms can get across the real wonders of science

Harvard University's Sanders Theatre was packed last week for an event for which tickets had been sold out months in advance. Famous names gracing the stage were pelted with paper darts and beach balls by a disrespectful audience. As the event progressed, viewers of the live internet TV broadcast saw the famous names begin to return the audience's fire.

This was the ninth annual presentation of the IgNobel prizes, where science is treated as a spectator sport. The famous names were five real Nobel prizewinners, four of whom were dressed as sheep for their parts in a mock opera on human cloning. The fifth was given a broom and charged with sweeping the stage.

The original idea of the IgNobel science prizes was to use satire to show up the difference between pseudo-science or trivial science and real science. That is still part of the purpose, expressed in the citation "for research that cannot or should not be reproduced". The concept has developed, though, also to "honour the unusual and the imaginative and to spur interest in science".

I had a particularly good view of this year's ceremony because I was on stage as joint winner of the physics prize for my highly publicised project on the physics of biscuit dunking. It was the first IgNobel prize for a project purposely designed to spur interest in science.

Projects such as mine, using "the science of the commonplace" to make science accessible, have a long and honourable history. Even Michael Faraday, discoverer of electricity, was not above promoting interest in science by lecturing to fashionable audiences on such subjects as "The chemical history of a candle". But are such approaches still relevant in these media-oriented days?

I am beginning to have my doubts. Partly this is because it is too easy for journalists to use such examples to reinforce the myth of loony scientists doing pointless things, such as the journalist who wrote of me that "most scientists are busy solving the world's problems ... Dr Fisher has spent the past six months dunking biscuits".

Most journalists, though, were supportive of my efforts to make science accessible and took considerable pains to get the story right. It is not journalists and their approaches that I now question - it is scientists like myself, and what we should really be trying to achieve when we publicise science.

Too often, we are content to teach the content, through either simple example or simplified explanation. This works well with the self-selected audiences who come to our talks, read our books or visit our museums, but is otherwise a total failure. Just think of it with regard to other ways of looking at the world, such as literature, art or music. Would you rather read a critical analysis of a novel or read the book? Literature, painting, music and the rest of the arts are an integral part of our lives because they are cultural spectator sports. We can enjoy them, and even feel that we are participating in them, without having to know how their creators go about it. Science also needs to become a cultural spectator sport, where non-scientists can enjoy the picture that science gives of how the world works without having to know how to draw such a picture for themselves.

The difference between science and the arts, though, is that in science, the act of creation is an integral part of the picture itself.

It is this act that we often hide when we give our simplified explanations and examples. Part of my interest in the biscuit dunking, lost in simplification, was to find that a simple equation could explain such a complex process and to make mental links with many other complex processes (such as oil extraction from sandstone) described by the same equation.

The reality of living science lies in such mental processes, which make its progress more like the flow and development of music than the stillness of a portrait. At the deepest level, such processes lead to new beliefs about the nature of the world, almost akin to religious beliefs. Religion is an integral part of our culture. So should science be. Len Fisher is an honorary research

fellow in the physics department at the University of Bristol. He conducts his research into biscuit dunking in his free time.

Are the IgNobel prizes the best way to publicise science?

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