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.