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.

__"Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."
                                                                                                                            Dr Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park

Just because science makes something seem possible, does that mean we should do it? Of course not, as this astonishing video about post-war DDT use shows:

_Until 1945, most wars had ended because of insect-borne illnesses such as typhus: too many soldiers were dying of disease for fighting to continue. The invention of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane – DDT – changed that. In the post-war era the chemists cashed in on the kudos they had garnered for themselves. Chemistry, its proponents suggested, could also change peacetime.

It certainly seemed plausible, and so governments invested in giant industrial complexes that churned out tons of chemicals for use in agriculture and city sanitation. US Public Health Department films show DDT being sprayed on happy children eating sandwiches in a public park, on others splashing in the municipal swimming pool, on mothers holding babies while watching community events.
The chemists were going to eradicate the insect pest. And, despite the fact that one of the insecticides used, tetraethylpyrophosphate (TEPP), was nothing but the refined essence of a German nerve gas compound, it apparently never occurred to them that these pesticides could harm other organisms too.
Another post-war civil use of chemistry was the augmentation of women’s breasts. Doctors had been trying it for decades, but our new chemical abilities changed the game. The creation of silicone led to injections of a newly-created chemical: liquid silicone to enhance breasts. The result was, in many cases, a need for mastectomy (this 1995 article in the Journal of Plastic Surgery shows the problem has persisted).
In 1962 the Dow Corning corporation began to offer breast implants with silicone shells (PDF). There are now many manufacturers of these prosthetics, and millions of women have had them implanted.
But let’s be clear, there are downsides. Here’s one disclaimer I found, on the website www.femaleplasticsurgeons.com:
If you are undergoing breast augmentation, be aware that breast implantation may not be a one time surgery. You are likely to need additional surgery and visits to your female plastic surgeon over the course of your life. Breast implants are not considered lifetime devices. You will likely under go implant removal with or without replacement over the course of your life. Many of the changes to your breast following implantation are irreversible (cannot be undone). If you later choose to have your implant(s) removed, you may experience unacceptable dimpling, puckering, wrinkling, or other cosmetic changes of the breast. Ask your female plastic surgeon about replacement issues. Breast implants may affect your ability to produce milk for breast feeding. Also, breast implants will not prevent your breast from sagging after pregnancy. With breast implants, routine screening mammography will be more difficult, and you will need to have additional views, which means more time and radiation. For patients who have undergone breast implantation either as a cosmetic or a reconstructive procedure, health insurance premiums may increase, coverage may be dropped, and/or future coverage may be denied. Treatment of complications may not be covered as well. You should check with your insurance company regarding these coverage issues.
It's admirably clear. What it doesn’t say is that, having risked all of the above, the surgery might not do the job you were hoping it would.
The medical literature (see here and here, for instance) says there is no evidence that breast augmentation surgery improves self-esteem. Women who have it are more satisfied with their breasts – but not with their general appearance.
Worse, as I wrote in the New Statesman this week (and I didn’t call for a ban, as the headline suggests), those seeking the surgery tend to be more vulnerable, with a range of psychological issues – issues that get worse, not better, after surgery. Add to that the fact that women who have had cosmetic breast surgery are around three times more likely to commit suicide than women who haven’t.
It seemed like a good idea to spray America with DDT in order to get rid of insects. Then we discovered that it was destroying the natural world. There was an outcry and the practice was halted.
There needs to be an outcry (not a ban) over breast augmentation surgery. Of course the issues run deep. We have a problem with the objectification of, and expectations placed upon, women by others, whether it be the mass media or porn-fed husbands and boyfriends. And, yes, there is a danger that any tightening of regulation would result in women getting surgery on the black market and coming to harm. But let’s be clear, harm is already being done.
_ A few years ago, a friend of a friend was at a party, talking to the local druid (actually, he’s a chief druid; he leads The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids). The druid broke off the conversation with a brilliant line: “Excuse me, but I can sense that someone is trying to get through to me on the telephone.”

The recipient of this snub reported it to my friend as evidence of just how sensitive, perceptive and spiritual the druid was. My friend reported it to me as an example of how being deluded about your insight has unexpected payoffs: who hasn’t longed for a way of brushing off someone in a way that would inspire admiration rather than irritation?

I would put Rupert Sheldrake in the same category as my local druid. He is utterly convinced he has insight, is not afraid to express it, and has won no end of admiration as a result.

Many scientists and science-lovers have been moaning over the past week about the publicity given to Sheldrake’s new book, The Science Delusion. It has been positively reviewed in the Guardian, and a gushing, uncritical profile in the Observer this weekend also drew exasperated sighs. But not from me: I have long since learned to accept defeat at Sheldrake’s hands.

The truth is, Sheldrake has cannily tapped into a very human foible. That’s why most people think that he is almost certainly onto something when he tells us about a mysterious force that pervades all of nature, something that connects us all. L Ron Hubbard managed something similar.

A few years ago, I tried to read Sheldrake’s seminal book, A New Science of Life. We were due to debate each other at the ICA in London, and I thought I should do him the courtesy of reading his work.

ANSoL is about questions that don’t yet have answers from science. Sheldrake helpfully provides a near-universal answer: “morphic resonance”. Morphic resonance is an influence that allows cells to develop in the myriad necessary ways, gives people a psychic connection to others, enables dogs to know when their owners are coming home, and so on.

This is the passage that caused me to stop reading:

“Morphic resonance is non-energetic, and morphogenetic fields themselves are neither a type of mass nor energy. Therefore there seems to be no a priori reason why it should obey the laws that have been found to apply to the movement of bodies, particles and waves. In particular, it need not be attenuated by either spatial or temporal separation between similar systems, it could be just  as effective over 10,000 kilometres as over a centimetre, and over a century as an hour.

The assumption that morphic resonance is not attenuated by time and space will be adopted as a provisional working hypothesis, on the ground of simplicity.”

It's such a ludicrous assumption, based on something explicitly designed to be untestable by science, that there’s really no point going any further.

When the debate came, although I hadn’t finished reading Rupert’s book, I had read many refutations of his science and experimental reports, and was confident that I could persuade the audience that Rupert really wasn’t a voice worth paying much attention. Which makes it all the more galling that, really, I came off quite badly.

We talked about his experiments, and I tried to point out the flaws in his design and thinking. I was obviously successful because two-thirds of the way through the chair, Vivienne Parry, took an audience poll. “Who’s feeling sorry for Rupert?” she asked. Almost everyone in the audience – my wife included – put up their hands.

I had to laugh. Maybe I'm deluding myself, but it seemed clear the audience weren’t interested in what’s logical or rational, or about how a scientist should go about these experiments and exercise caution about drawing extraordinary conclusions. They were there because they were interested in being told what they wanted to hear.

Thanks to evolution, we have a hard-wired sense that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. That’s why people want to feel connected to everything else in nature, past, present and future. Morphic resonance taps into this. Science fights against it, to try to establish what is really the case. But if people don't want to expend that effort, they won't.

Afterwards, when Sheldrake and I sat side by side for a book signing, his queue went out of the bookshop and round the corner. Mine wasn't really a queue, just a gathering of half a dozen people.

Of course it’s frustrating to be less popular than Rupert Sheldrake, but I have learned to relax: you can't beat the astrologers, you can't beat Deepak Chopra, and you can't beat Sheldrake. Plus, it won’t last long. Rupert Sheldrake is the Cliff Richard of pseudoscience (non-Brits, forgive me). He is getting old and irrelevant, and so are most of his admirers. Just as no one covers Cliff’s songs, no one else will pick up Sheldrake’s scientific mantle. Mistletoe and Wine is already a thing of the past, and Morphic Resonance will soon go the same way.

_So, when US viewers watch the sublime Frozen Planet on the Discovery Channel, they won’t see the episode about the dangers of climate change. It's a terrible shame - a missed opportunity. But if you want to blame anyone, don’t blame the BBC. Blame the scientific establishment for being too patrician.
Here’s a shocking statement:
"the words 'science' and 'scientists' are now actively avoided at the Discovery Channel because 'they are perceived as elitist.'"
Discovery Channel will have taken on that attitude after focus-grouping their viewers. And if the viewers of the science-friendly Discovery Channel think science is elitist, something has gone badly wrong.
The above quote comes from a fascinating discussion that’s ongoing at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. If you are interested in how people view and interact with science, I recommend you read it.
For my money, a large part of the “elitist” problem comes from scientists focusing on trying to convince the world that they have a better way of gathering useful knowledge than any other. I happen to think they are right, but I also think it’s a message that is difficult to receive gracefully.
Here’s what Royal Society bigwigs were saying to the BBC about science coverage in the post-war period: “Can we sometimes forget war and atomic weapons, industrial advance or productivity ... and say something more of the history and growth of science, of the great solution wrought by the introduction of the experimental method?’ (That's taken from Timothy Boon’s book Films of Fact: A History of Science in Documentary Films and Television, a treasure trove of material on science’s relationship with broadcasters).
Science saw itself as the “great solution”. The Royal Society was able to exert some influence in getting this message across by controlling the supply of scientists for the cameras. During the 50s and 60s, the public image of scientists, on the BBC at least, was of upbeat and optimistic scientists who trumpeted that their work would make the world a better place.
It’s a message that scientists are still trotting out today – Channel 4’s recent series Brave New World with Stephen Hawking had Hawking’s trademark Voice of Wisdom declare “we will show you how science is a force for good” at the beginning of every episode.
Few people doubt science is a force for good. But scientists repeatedly telling us this does smack of elitism. And every time science feels under threat, or undervalued, we hear the refrain again: “we’re making a bigger contribution than anyone else – why does nobody appreciate us?”
Re-imagine it as a husband talking to his wife: “You don’t seem to appreciate how much I contribute to this household.” It sounds awful, doesn’t it? Even if it’s true, there’s little to be gained from saying it out loud.
Scientists and the public are, in many ways, trapped in a bad 1950s, Mad Men-style marriage. This may be one problem that scientists are not qualified to solve. Does anyone have the number of a good marriage guidance counsellor?

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....

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’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?

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.