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In the film of the English Patient, Ralph Fiennes' character Almásy can't be separated from his copy of Herodotus' Histories. But in our ever more pressured efforts to educate future generations, is it time to leave the Greeks behind?

Last night, I was witness to a chromosomal abnormality at the Royal Society that speaks to this situation. In one of its rooms, the L’Oreal/UNESCO Women In Science Awards were handing £15,000 each to four young researchers, to spend on “whatever they may need to continue their research, from buying scientific equipment to paying for childcare or travel.” A few paces away, in another room, an all-woman panel and a female chair discussed the merits of Athenian democracy.

It’s lucky the unusually large number of women didn’t create a queue outside the toilets. That would have given them a chance to cast their eyes over a display showing off the Royal Society’s 44 new fellows for the year. Just two are women.

When that was announced back in April, Cambridge University’s Athene Donald, chair of the judges for the Women in Science Awards, declared it “deeply disappointing”. But the scientists should take heart: at least the Society is helping to address this imbalance. It’s not clear that the Athenians are much help to the beleaguered heiresses of their tradition.

While last night’s prizegiving was in progress, an audience invited by the University of Durham’s Institute of Advanced Study listened to enraptured discussions of the unparallelled public involvement in the running of Athenian society. The audience also enjoyed the irony that the five enthusiastic classicists leading the discussion on this pioneering democracy would not, being female, have been allowed to vote.

The classicists believe the merits of the Athenian system – its ethical codes, its theatre, its citizenry – illustrates exactly why schoolchildren should be studying classics. Perhaps, though, Labour MP Andy Burnham had a point on the BBC's Question Time programme when he criticised Michael Gove's idea of an English baccalaureate that “found room for Latin and ancient Hebrew, but not for engineering or ICT". With a limited timetable, should we spend more time looking where we have come from than where we are going?

That depends on the merits of each. The Athenians are certainly fascinating – especially to someone like me, who knows his superconductors but not his Sophocles. I’m left wondering, though: is there any evidence that studying them has shaped our world for the better?

We heard much last night about how Athens gave us drama and the theatre. Panellist (and classicist) Charlotte Higgins, chief arts writer at the Guardian, declared when theatres want to do something dangerous, or politically subversive, they go back to the Greek plays, which teach moral lessons to do with leadership, responsibility, accountability and good decision-making. But our political classes, I would suggest, seem to have evolved immunity to such proddings from the stage.

A fixation with the Greeks may even have done harm: Higgins confessed she had spent the day writing about the misogyny of the London stage; female actors are struggling to find work. The spirit of Athens lives on in the arts, then: the original Greek actors were exclusively male. The actors' union, Equity, has asked 43 artistic directors of theatre companies how they are planning to improve the lot of female actors. Only eight bothered to reply, a response Equity has described, perhaps channelling Athene Donald, as “disappointing”.

Perhaps it’s a scientist’s bias, but I don’t see that the answers to modern dilemmas will necessarily be found in the study of ancient societies. Modern science owes a debt to millennia of thought in which the Greeks played a crucial role. Modern political, moral and philosophical thought owes a similar debt to the Greeks. But application is key: it’s no good knowing it all, but not putting any of it to work to change – if I may use a classical phrase – the status quo. That’s why I have to applaud the Royal Society – which is actively working to make science more female-friendly – L’Oreal (while urging them to stop putting chemicals in animals’ eyes) and UNESCO. Four female scientists are today finding the playing field a little more level than it was yesterday. My suspicion is that London’s female actors will still be fighting for equal work opportunities for a long time to come.

 
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“I once bicycled across a gap in full view of the Germans, having foreseen that they would be too surprised to open fire.”

This was nearly the epigraph to Free Radicals, because it seems to sum up the mindset of the best scientists. Good science happens when a scientist has an idea that wanders across their mind, and they just can’t shake it. They simply have to test it out, just to satisfy their own curiosity. Even if that means putting themselves at risk.

The quote is from biologist JBS Haldane, whose rather dashing picture is above. Haldane actively enjoyed the First World War, according to fellow scientist Peter Medawar:


"The First World War seems to have been the happiest period of Haldane’s life…Haldane described life in the front line as ‘truly enviable’; he enjoyed the comradeship of war and even (if what he says is anything to go by) the experience of killing people: ‘I get a definitely enhanced sense of life when my life is in moderate danger'."


Haldane is famous for having experimented on himself for wartime science. He and his father investigated the effects of exposure to chlorine and mustard gas. JBS pioneered the science of scuba diving and decompression sickness, his experiments inducing crushed vertebrae, panic attacks and perforated eardrums (through which he could blow smoke). He was truly courageous, and his science made a difference in wartime events. British commandos applied Haldane's research to their diving routines, and the knowledge allowed them to defend and hold the crucial stronghold of Gibraltar when Hitler tried to take it.

Haldane was not alone in self-experimenting. “A good many biologists experiment on themselves,” he once wrote. Dying while trying to work out the mechanism behind communicable diseases is “the ideal way of dying”, Haldane says. It’s so admirable because scientists know that they are working with incomplete knowledge. “I have no doubt that the theories to which I entrusted my life were more or less incorrect,” he says. Nonetheless, the working hypotheses were good enough to enable him to make reliable risk assessments.

Those quotes come from a gem of a book Haldane published in December 1927. It’s called Possible Worlds, and is a collection of essays he wrote for publications as diverse as the Rationalist Annual and the Daily Mail. Haldane says he wrote most of them during train journeys, and they do come across like that: a great mind that has spent years observing how science (and the world outside science) works, jots down a few musings while en route to his next adventure. “Many scientific workers believe that they should confine their publications to learned journals,” Haldane says in the Preface. “I think, however, that the public has a right to know what is going on inside the laboratories.”

And that is exactly what he tells us, with a unique perspective. Of course, Possible Worlds is a reflection of its time: the chapter on eugenics certainly raised my eyebrows. But many of the topics are timeless: “What use is Astronomy?” is a witty summation of the value of apparently pointless pursuits.

“What makes a scientist?” is equally relevant. Haldane encourages amateur science with the claim that “any man possessed of the patience and leisure necessary to watch a cricket or baseball match, and sufficient intelligence to solve a crossword puzzle, can make quite definite contributions to scientific research.” Is that still true? I think it is. We do such big science these days that it can seem that the days of the amateur are long gone. Nonetheless, as Andre Geim showed in a Nobel-worthy experiment using an HB pencil and a roll of sellotape, small science can produce world-changing results too.

My favourite chapter in the book is entitled “The Duty of Doubt”. It is an overview of the value of taking a sceptical stance on everything – science included: “science has owed its wonderful progress very largely to the habit of doubting all theories,” Haldane points out. Haldane strides across some great moments of science in which doubt played a central role, then expands his theme to encompass religion and politics.

When a politician calmly goes back on a policy, “his enemies accuse him of broken pledges; his friends describe him as an inspired opportunist,” Haldane says. It is only a “pre-scientific” thought process in the electorate that create this dilemma for politicians, Haldane argues: if we were to allow politicians to use the scientific method, a politician could say, “I am inclined to think the tariff on imported glass should be raised. I am not sure this is a sound policy; however, I am going to try it. After two years, if I do not find its results satisfactory, I shall certainly press for its reduction or even removal.”

Perhaps this should be filed under “Impossible Worlds”. But in the current political climate, food for thought, nonetheless. And this from the era when Laurel and Hardy were just becoming popular, and the first Model A Fords were gracing the showrooms. Maybe we should spend more time reviewing old books, rather than just the new ones…