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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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Walking down the street the other day, I saw a kid with proper NHS glasses. It took me right back to my primary school days, when the kids who needed glasses had no other option. It got me wondering whether, as budgets nosedive, we'll now start to see more kids having to wear the most basic of spectacles. And then I got to thinking about how this might not be a problem:  1970s NHS-style frames have become cool - even Mr Timberlake wears them. This is, of course, tied to the rise of the nerds. But here's an interesting thing: the whole nerd subculture is something of a myth.

I'm getting this from my new favourite researcher, Hanke Korpershoek. In 2008, she published a study about whether the “nerd” stereotype of the male science student was justified. The paper, published in Pedagogische Studiën, 83, 141-156, is in Dutch:

Korpershoek, H., Kuyper, H., & van der Werf, M. P. C. (2008). Zijn bèta’s nerds? Verschillen in persoonlijkheid, sociale contacten en vrijetijdsbesteding tussen jongens met natuur & techniek en jongens met andere profielen

The translation: Are male science students nerds? Differences in personality, social contacts, and leisure activities.

When I asked her about this study (primarily based on questionnaire responses from 1812 boys in secondary education), Korpershoek kindly wrote me a summary, which is what I’m working from here (direct quotes are in italics).

This study dealt with the stereotyped image of male science students as “nerds”. We sought to discover whether science students in fact represent a certain type of the student population. Based on a literature review, we hypothesized that:

(1) science students have lower scores on the personality factor Extraversion than other students

(2) science students have less social contacts than other students

(3) science students spend more time using a computer and other media than other students

(4) science students spend less time on sports, relationships, and social contacts than other students.


So, which of those do you think is true?

(1) is true. Science students are less extrovert

(2) is also true, but only because the "science boys" (that’s what they called them in the study) had fewer female friends than non-science boys. The number of male friends was no different – and it’s worth noting that the lack of female friends was only PRE-UNIVERSITY. Once they were in higher education, the female friend quotient lifts back to “normal”.  Stick with it, nerd boys, it all comes good in the end …

(3) is not true. Science is not a route to social oblivion.

(4) is true: science boys indeed spent less time on sports, relationships, and social contacts than other boys. But the differences between the two groups were (very) small. 

Korpershoek’s take-home summary? “The results suggested that stereotyping male science students as nerds is largely unfounded.”

Looks like the nerd thing is a myth. So who created it? Was it the geeks trying to carve themselves an identity? It seems to have been extraordinarily successful as a social construct.

btw, Korpershoek is preparing a new paper (in English) with new data, so watch this space....


 
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IN A BIG WEEK for awards, we’ve had the Nobel Prizes and, last night, the MOBOs. The singer Jessie J walked away with four MOBOs and has the attention of schoolchildren up and down the country. The Nobel laureates, I would venture, are not quite so appealing to the youth.
 
Ask a child to draw a scientist and you will almost without fail be handed a picture of an old or middle-aged man with facial hair and glasses. He will be wearing a lab coat. Astonishingly, adults asked to draw a scientist invariably follow the same pattern. Even more astonishingly, so do scientists (PDF).

Looking at the pictures of this year’s Nobel laureate scientists you can see why. These are the only scientists whose photographs penetrate the world’s media to any degree, and they are almost all old men – many with beards and glasses.

The thing is, their greatest work as scientists was usually done decades before these photographs were taken. Daniel Schectman was just 40 when he discovered quasicrystals (he is 70 now). Adam Riess, 41, was just 28 when he began his leadership on the project that discovered the accelerating expansion of the universe. Ralph Steinman, who died last week aged 68, was 30 when he made his prize-winning breakthrough.

If your idea or discovery is revolutionary enough to win a Nobel Prize, it will almost certainly takes decades before colleagues accept it. Schectman’s quasicrystals simply shouldn’t have existed, according to all the normal rules; he was told he had brought “disgrace” on his research group, and was asked to leave. Riess was told by a colleague “in your heart, you know that this is wrong” when he first presented evidence for the existence of dark energy. Ralph Steinman’s colleagues insisted for a decade that he was mistaken about the potential of dendritic cells.

Even when the idea has become established, further decades pass before the Nobel Academy feel secure enough about it to make the award. And by that time, your looks have faded.

While sports and pop stars get exposure in their teens and twenties, our best scientists – the people we’d really like our children to emulate – are invisible until they are too old to be perceived as role models. And, when it comes to inspirational role models, looks matter, however much we'd like them not to.
 
On Twitter today, Schectman said, “if you're a scientist and believe in your results, then fight for them.” Can I ask that you also put aside a nice photo of your young self to give to the Nobel Academy’s publicity department? Just in case.

 
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.
 
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So, while a few people rail at me for glamourising drug-taking on the Today programme this morning (I didn’t - you can listen to what I did say via Tom Feilden's blog), let me just clarify and expand. I’m making the case that scientists aren’t dull, timid, introverted, risk-averse people – at least, the good ones aren’t. The ones that really push things, the Nobel Prizewinners, are risk-takers.

Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse (NOT pictured, left) is a case in point. He said during the interview that he didn’t remember taking drugs in 40 years of research (carefully put!), but he is still a self-confessed “risk-taker”. Nurse rides motorcycles, flies planes and describes himself as an “adventurer” type of scientist.

My concern is that this kind of personality will be an endangered species in science if we don’t tackle the issue of the socialised, extrovert children dropping science subjects as soon as they get the chance.

How do we do that? Certainly not by making out that science is only done by dull people with no ambition.

Is it wrong to tell children that David Pritchard lets hookworms burrow into his skin in order to research allergies? That Barry Marshall drank a beakerful of bacteria to prove a point about stomach ulcers? That Francis Crick was so desperate to be first to discover the structure of DNA that he stole data from his colleagues?

Should we be worried they will go away and play copycat? I seriously doubt it.

I probably would stop short of telling primary school students about the role of LSD in some people’s creative thinking (even though Steve Jobs, the creator of their iPods, says taking LSD is one of the most important things he ever did in his life). But I’m not averse to telling my kids that scientists are more impressive – and do wilder and much more rock and roll things – than the pop stars or sports stars they consider so cool. I want them to know that science is not the exclusive property of the socially inept.

We need to create a society where science is valued as more than something that delivers new technology. That’s not going to happen while scientists perpetuate the myth that they are just humble servants who carry out careful, logical, methodical experiments then faithfully report the results while remaining objective and dispassionate. Does anyone really think that’s the way to get people to fall in love with science? I don’t, for two reasons.

First, it doesn’t ring true (for good reason: it isn’t) and so makes people sceptical – their guard goes up. Second, because it makes people see science as nothing more than a service they have paid for. That way, science (and technology) becomes something people take for granted, like dustbin-emptying or supermarket shelf-stacking. Do I have to point out that these are not careers that most children aspire to?

I’m not here to tell science teachers how to do their job (my wife teaches science, and I wouldn’t survive long if I did that). I’m just suggesting that when we talk about science, we don’t have to pretend it’s a purely rational, logical, carefully methodical process. Like any creative process, it has its moments of anarchy as well as its months and years of arduous toil.

Get that right, and we could then teach students that if they learn to use the tools of science well, they might be able to spend their lives paid to express their own creative urges through scientific discovery.

By that time, they’ll be able to choose for themselves whether taking drugs would help.

That drugs study is here, by the way.