Not many people know that the Royal Institution caused the first one-way street in London. A night out at the RI was one of the hottest tickets in town. Charles Dickens, Prince Albert and every other Victorian celebrity fought to get front-row tickets to hear the pioneers of science. Their carriages clogged Albermarle Street so thoroughly that in 1808 they were instructed to proceed one way only.
Isn’t that a good question for a pub quiz? And perhaps that’s where popular presentations of science should be these days.
Traditional science lectures are still held with the goal of reaching out to the public and informing them about the latest scientific ideas, so that that society can make informed judgements about issues such as cloning and global warming. But the majority of people who attend them are already interested in and knowledgeable about scientific issues. Scientists are preaching to the converted. So the scientific community needs to think about alternatives to the traditional lecture format. The good news is that this is beginning to happen already.
Science in the Pub is an Australian format that does exactly what the name suggests (New Scientist, 26 August 2000, p 44). In 2001, I spent an evening in Sydney’s Harlequin Inn discussing Fermat’s Last Theorem, a subject that turned out to be easier to explain after a few pints. The Cafe Scientifique, which is spreading across Britain, is a more genteel version of the Australian format, whereby scientists discuss their ideas in a cafe. The objective for moving science out of the lecture theatre and into a cafe or pub is that a broader range of people will show an interest.
My own effort in this direction is currently focussed on presenting lectures in an arts venue, namely London’s Soho Theatre. But this is puny compared to what might be possible. Stephen Hawking regularly fills 1000-seat lecture theatres. So why doesn’t somebody arrange a run of such lectures in London’s theatre district, where he could reach a more diverse cross-section of the population?
I am still not sure, though, that such talks would reach those that science and scientists most need to interest: school students. Teenagers are, after all, abandoning science in huge numbers, and applications to science courses are falling drastically. Again, there are one or two positive signs. The Royal Institution is making a concerted effort to reach young people. Last year 24,000 children attended its lectures.
The British Government, for its part, recently launched its Science and Engineering Ambassadors programme, aimed at encouraging young scientists and engineers to spend time in schools talking about their research, helping with science clubs, and supporting teachers in a number of other ways. None of this would be necessary in an ideal world, but the fact is that there is a dire shortage of qualified science teachers, so the scientific community needs to help in whatever way it can.
Lecturing in a grand lecture theatre to an eminent audience is a great thrill for any researcher, but an equally rewarding experience and a more influential role could be played in a modest classroom. Working with schoolchildren is not something that every scientist would be capable of, but those who could inspire, should inspire.