When you think back to your science lessons at school, what did they feel like?
The chances are that some people loved them, but most didn’t. Bits of school science may have been fun but too many people have only a muddled memory of lots of things they had to learn by heart, livened up with the occasional bit of practical work.
Recent efforts at reforming school science are concentrating on the notion of the ‘Big Ideas of Science’. With changes to the curriculum, the hope is that students won’t drown in the detail but will have a clear idea of what they are learning and why. Continue reading →
What would life be like if British society had taken a different path in the mid-nineteenth century? What if science was seen as having all the answers, subjects like phrenology continued to be taken seriously, and other branches of knowledge were outlawed completely? A number of things might have gone off the rails: asking questions about meaning or belief in a deity could have been seen as so shameful they were made illegal, perhaps women would have been denied any kind of education, and people of other races might have been treated with even more suspicion than they were already.
People are attracted to science for a variety of reasons. These might include fascination, the satisfaction of meeting a challenge or the privilege of discovery, as well as more mundane factors such as the opportunity to work with your hands or have a very varied schedule. Inspiring and supportive family or teachers also play a large part in developing our curiosity about the natural world.
Harvey McMahon, a neurobiologist at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, is interested in how things work. Of course he wants to understand disease processes, but when I interviewed him he explained that “when you operate at the level of molecules you need to focus on smaller details most of the time”. There is also pride in good craftsmanship. At a day-to-day level, biology is often Continue reading →
One of the people who set Charles Darwin along the road to evolutionary theory was not a scientist, but the Governor of the Galapagos Islands, Nicholas Lawson. When Darwin and the Beagle crew landed on Charles Island, Lawson invited him to dinner. As they talked, Lawson mentioned that the giant tortoises for which the Galapagos chain was named varied noticeably between islands. In fact, said Lawson, if any tortoise was brought to him, he could identify which island it came from.
It turns out that the tortoise-naming party trick was not exclusively Lawson’s. Whether he was just repeating what the locals said, or had actually studied the tortoises personally, the fact remains that the person who set Darwin on the course of studying variation among species on the Galapagos islands was not a scientist.
John Bryant, the author of last week’s guest post, told this story during his lecture at this year’s Faraday Summer course, and I enjoyed it because Continue reading →
The main purpose of this blog can be illustrated by a single story: that of the theologian and the telescope. The theologian is a colleague from another department in Cambridge, and the telescope belonged to some friends of his. As we talked over lunch one day he mentioned that he and his family had visited these friends the previous evening. It had been a clear night, so they spent part of the evening looking at the stars. My colleague was an avid amateur astronomer as a teenager, but over the years he had lost his love for science. He had been involved in abstract discussions about science and religion for so long that he had forgotten that the experience of science itself can foster awe, wonder and – for people of faith – worship. His recent experience with the telescope reminded him how beautiful and fascinating the universe is. He rediscovered his love for science.
The joy of science is the freedom to wonder and ask questions – to exercise imagination and curiosity. It is also the joy of discovering new things, the shock of awe at what is found, and an enjoyment of its beauty. The theologian Austin Farrer said that Continue reading →
Encountering something new and terrifying is not an experience many of us seek out deliberately, but simple astonishment is usually a fruitful emotion. We have the opportunity to learn when we come up against the unfamiliar. Astonishment imprints something in our minds, and prompts us to ask questions. Take a child’s first encounter with a grasshopper: How can such a little thing make such a big noise without seeming to move a muscle? Why does it jump away so fast? How can it jump so high with such little legs? Such questions can lead to a lifetime’s fascination.
Theologian Jurgen Moltmann has written about the experience of wonder and its importance in both science and theology. The ancient Greek philosophers taught that knowledge begins in wonder. When we are open to something and give ourselves up to discovering what it has to show us, we learn. When we already ‘know’ what it is about we shut down our perceptions and it has nothing to tell us. Continue reading →
The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.
– GK Chesterton
A colleague helpfully sent me this quote a couple of weeks ago. When I followed up its source I discovered a fabulous piece of writing that is of great relevance to my work, and the work of any scientist.
In Chesterton’s essay Tremendous Trifles, two boys are playing in a tiny suburban garden that consists of ‘four strips of gravel, a square of turf with some mysterious pieces of cork standing up in the middle and one flower bed with a row of red daisies’. A fairy happens to pass by in the guise of a milkman and offers the boys, who are called Paul and Peter, each a wish. Paul chooses to be a giant, roams the world in a few strides, and finds that the world is not as exciting as he had hoped. Continue reading →