I’ve had two thought-provoking encounters this week. The most recent first: yesterday, I met Miss Intercontinental (England) after a screening of the IMAX film about the Hubble Space Telescope. “I’d never even heard of Hubble,” she told me.
Let me be clear, I don’t hang out with beauty pageant contestants. I had some time to kill in Valencia, and the nice people at the Science Museum - what a setting - let me watch the film for free (I gave a lecture there the previous night). It was rather surreal to watch the entire troupe of Miss Intercontinental hopefuls sashay into the theatre, especially when the man in charge referred to them only by their nation – “Venezuela, come here; Singapore, sit there, next to Kazakhstan.” Sadly, they all had to leave halfway through “because they had to do some TV stuff,” England told me later.
I didn’t exactly interview "England" (Stephanie Hodson, actually); I just buttonholed her when I came across the troupe again, this time at the World Rice Congress that was taking place next door to the Science Museum (I did say I was killing time).  I told her I worked for New Scientist and was interested to hear what she had thought of the film.
It was “amazing,” she said. She wasn’t “into science and all that stuff,” and her dad, apparently, wouldn’t believe that she’d watched a science film today.
I’ve made her sound like a bit of an airhead, haven’t I? Are you ever so slightly shocked because she had never heard of Hubble?
I was – and then it occurred to me that I’d never heard of “Miss Intercontinental” until today. It’s not wilful ignorance on either of our parts; it’s simply that we inhabit different worlds. Yesterday, somewhat bizarrely, those worlds collided.
Of course, a quick Google search would have told Stephanie all she could ever want to know about Hubble. A quick web search certainly told me about Miss Intercontinental and Stephanie. She speaks three languages fluently. She’s no airhead. She’s just not into science.
It’s easy to see a lack of interest in science as an active decision, as wilful ignorance. After all, the information is out there if you look for it. The question we science types often forget to ask is, why would they look? Truly ubiquitous things – X Factor, celebrity news, manufactured pop music – require only passivity. They are fed to us through multiple media and we only have to do nothing for them to fill all available space in our attention.
I was struck during the Hubble film by one of the astronauts declaring that he got into science because he would always see his dad messing about with some piece of equipment or other. It was almost like he absorbed science by osmosis.
And that brings me to my second encounter. On Tuesday I had a meeting with Graham Brown-Martin about speaking at the Learning Without Frontiers conference in January. I’m not going to go into the details; Graham’s life and work makes me feel like I’ve done nothing in all my years. But he is buzzing with ideas and opinions – a very stimulating and inspiring guy to spend time with.
There’s a word Graham uses a lot: disruptive. He spends his life being disruptive – in fact, he’s a professional troublemaker, paid by businesses, government bodies and professional associations to challenge their assumptions and ways of doing things.
It seems to me that the world needs a bit of disruption from science types. I like the idea of guerrilla action to put science under people’s noses. After all, science is like crack: once you get involved with it, it's quite hard to live without it. And no one should have to wait until their twenties to hear about the Hubble telescope. So, I think we should start performing random acts of science.
We know that, as with obsession over looks and celebrity, an obsession with science is most easily instigated in the young. If you’re a parent, a godparent, an uncle or aunt, do something subversive and offer to take those kids to a science museum. Or learn a few simple experimental demonstrations you can whip out at a moment’s notice. Or start leaving the innards of some electronic or mechanical equipment lying around, Banksy-style, for curious eyes and hands to discover. Whatever you do, it would be even better if you could schedule it to be disruptive to the mainstream: override a viewing of X Factor, for example.
By the way, the Hubble film, if you haven’t seen it, is incredibly moving (there’s a Wired review here). It’s simply a transcendent experience to fly into nebulae, zoom through star nurseries see Earth from space and watch human beings perform extraordinary feats from the space shuttle. It stuns me to think that just a few decades of human ingenuity has made it possible for us to explore the entire universe. It’s hard to imagine it being the same human ingenuity that came up with beauty pageants, but each to their own, I suppose.

I just read an interesting post on the Teaching Science blog about trying to understand why perfectly able students give up on physics.

I have my own thoughts on this, motivated by the work of Hanke Korpershoek, the author of a Dutch study into the relationship between a student’s personality and their subject choice at school. She wrote a really fascinating paper, and showed that introverted, socially awkward students stick with science subjects, while extroverted, highly socialised students drop maths and science subjects at the first opportunity. (@JoMarchant did a piece for New Scientist on it here).

The study related only to Dutch schoolchildren, but the astonishing thing is that this hasn’t really been studied elsewhere: we don’t know if it’s a global phenomenon. I think someone should rectify this asap. There is good reason to believe that significant, revolutionary scientific breakthroughs are generally achieved by personality types that could be classed as adventurers and risk-takers. So having most of them discard science at the first opportunity is the brain drain we should really be worried about.

What motivates the dropout? That’s not clear, either.

It’s well-established that extraversion is related to social and enterprising interests. Korpershoek’s studies have found that many non-STEM students in higher education had negative preconceptions about STEM subjects – that they wouldn’t fit their self-perception, that these subjects are too difficult, or that they would make them too narrowly-focussed.

But, she points out, these studies show correlation, not causation. So it’s difficult to say whether introverted students tend to explicitly choose STEM subjects over, say, politics (though it wouldn’t be a big surprise), while extroverts do the opposite.

My own view is that the generally-accepted but thoroughly misleading Brand Science depiction of scientists as earnest, cold, logical, ultra-rational thinkers doesn’t do a lot to entice the more ebullient students into the subject.

For my money, any scientists moaning about students giving up on their subject ought to do an audit of how much time they spend publicly talking about how careful and rational scientists are and how people should trust them more, then compare it to the time they spend communicating their passion for their research or displaying an enthusiasm for the beauty and awe of nature and the cosmos.

In public at least, I think Sagan and Feynman (and these days Attenborough and Cox) had (or have) the balance right, and very few who have come into close contact with them and their work can bear to walk away from science.
Peter Ritchie-Calder (picture: National Library of Scotland)

THIS MORNING I spent a very enjoyable hour or so with Robyn Williams of ABC's The Science Show. We were recording an interview to promote Free Radicals (launched in Oz at the end of August). He told me about the very first episode of the show, which featured Robyn quizzing a member of the House of Lords about energy issues and ending up with a warning about the climatic effects of burning fossil fuels. So, let's play guess the year:

Lord Ritchie-Calder: In the course of the last century we've put 360,000 million tons of fossil carbon into the atmosphere...Now remember, this is coming out of the bowels of the earth, and now we are taking it out and we're throwing it back into the atmosphere, and into the climatic machine, the weather machine, where it is beginning to affect the climate itself. Now this is a very serious matter, and to me there is no question that our climate has changed.

Robyn Williams: Do you expect the limitation to this ever-expanding use of fossil fuels as an energy source to be due to either running out of them or to this second question of climate effect?

Lord Ritchie-Calder: I think what is going to be definitely the factor will be governed by environmental factors, that you will simply be confronted with a situation which will make life virtually intolerable.

You can read the full transcript of the show (some pretty interesting stuff) here.

The year?

1975, people. 1975.

Now I know that Peter Ritchie-Calder wasn't the first to be talking about climate change from burning fossil fuels (see this from ClimateCrock for some older examples). But let's remember, this is not a professional scientist spouting; this is someone who was bringing it up in the UK political arena in 1975. Do we need any more evidence that, without a major catastrophic event or some serious civil disobedience, governments will never act?