A New Day Is Dawning
In part I of this series I revealed my all-time favourite figures from Scientific history and why I admire them so much. In part II, I've decided to talk about the art of Science communication itself and what I consider the finest examples of the craft. Both my jobs are essentially: "explain Science to people who don't know the Science," so obviously this is something I care about a great deal.
I started compiling the list last week, but as I went along I began to notice something rather surprising...all the stuff I've chosen was created in the last few years. Initially, this made me feel like an uncultured swine, but then I realised something pretty exciting. I've seen Sagan's Cosmos and Bronowski's The Ascent of Man. I've read Darwin's On The Origin of Species and Levi's The Periodic Table and while I don't want to dismiss these towering works, I'm going to say something a little bold...I think Science communication is better today than it ever has been.
It's possible to respect the classics of an art-form, while simultanesouly recognising that contemporary material can outshine it. What's wrong with saying you prefer Stephen King as a storyteller to Charles Dickens? Why can't we admit that Shakespeare wrote garbage (The Taming of the Shrew) as well as genius (A Midsummer Night's Dream)? And why can't we dare admit that maybe, just maybe, Next Generation is better than The Original Series?
Absolutely we should honour the trailblazers which came first, but that doesn't mean we can't improve on them. In fact, isn't that what's supposed to happen with time? Shouldn't we learn from the flaws of the past and do better today? Well, when it comes to Science communication I think we're doing just that.
There has never been a better time to be a Science geek because people are getting more educated about how things work and as literacy improves, so does the quality of explanation. Consider how in the 1950 movie Destination Moon, the main characters walk around the lunar surface without helmets because the general public simply weren't aware there was no air in space. Or how in Superman, Kal-El reverses time by spinning the Earth in the opposite direction because people weren't aware that...it wouldn't work. You couldn't get away with those errors in a movie today because people are more informed. We're smarter than we've ever been, so I'm not ashamed to say that I think the best Science communication is happening right now. Without further ado...
Favourite Science TV Series (Non-Fiction): Planet Earth II
Perhaps it's because I'm not a zoologist and therefore less familiar with the animal kingdom, but every sequence from 2016's Planet Earth II had my jaw on the floor. Narrated by the voice of quality itself, David Attenborough (who writes his own scripts incidentally), Planet Earth II presented the most startling footage of animals and their environments I've ever seen. While Attenborough's recent Netflix series Our Planet is also worth a watch, Planet Earth II has a more optimistic tone. Our Planet puts an emphasis on how much we're screwing the planet up - I mean in fairness, we are - but Planet Earth II reminds us why the planet is worth saving in the first place. Also, Our Planet has an insufferable credits song while Planet Earth II has a score by Hans Zimmer. Planet Earth II wins.
Favourite Science TV Series (Fiction...Sort Of): Chernobyl
A bit controversial as it's not strictly about Science, but I think 2019's Chernobyl is still worth mentioning. Currently ranked #4 on IMDb (Planet Earth II is #1 by the way), Chernobyl shows, in agonising and brutal detail, how the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster occurred and how Soviet Scientists worked to contain and understand the damage, clashing with the political obstructions of their culture. It's a fictionalised account of the real tragedy but it's drawn from transcripts, eyewitness statements and court documents, so while it's not exactly a perfect documentary, it's pretty damn impressive. I started watching it one evening at 7pm and found myself so gripped I binged the whole series in one go, finishing around midnight. It's depressing as hell (the fact it was written by Craig Mazin who wrote Scary Movie 3 is kind of astonishing) but if you can stomach the graphic violence, Chernobyl shows you what Scientific honesty looks like.
Favourite Science Book: Behave by Robert Sapolsky
Robert Sapolsky is probably my favourite living Science writer and his books have genuinely brought me to tears from laughter and sadness. Behave is not only his masterpiece, it is the finest thing he (or anyone else) has written about Scientific knowledge. Sapolsky draws on his expertise in anthropology, primatology, biology, neuroscience, psychology, sociology and philosophy to tackle the human condition itself and figure out why we are the way we are. While it's easy to dismiss difficult questions like "nature vs nurture?" Sapolsky doesn't shy away from them or pull his punches. He gets right down to the nitty-gritty of what we know about behaviour and what makes us act the way we do, covering everything from war to religion to economics to education. I have never felt any book should be compulsory reading because forcing a book on someone will make them hate it, but I might make an exception for Behave. If there was one book every lawmaker, leader, preacher and teacher should read...it's this. Oh, and obviously my book. Duh!
Favourite Science YouTube Channel (Non-Technical): Symphony of Science
This one is just plain old fun. Created by John Boswell, Symphony of Science is a series of music videos assembled from auto-tuned interviews with Scientists and documentary footage. It's kind of hard to describe (check out the one above) but if you want a distilled barrage of cool images set to funky techno-songs about Science, Boswell is your guy. While this series doesn't really educate or explain the facts as such, it encapsulates the fun and wonder of Science perfectly, as well as giving you tunes you'll be humming for days. Science can be playful as well as heavy and it's nice to remember that. Plus if you've ever wanted to hear Bertrand Russell rapping, look no further.
Favourite Science YouTube Channel (Technical): The Theoretical Minimum
So let's say you're wanting to get stuck into the complexities of how modern physics works. Let's say you aren't afraid of putting hours aside to dredge up your high-school math lessons and you want "just the facts ma'am". The guy you want to go see is Leonard Susskind, Richard Feynman's protege and probably the finest Physics lecturer out there. A few years ago, Susskind began a lecture series at Stanford University explaining Physics in full detail and stuck them online for anyone to watch. There's no frills or special effects, but by Thor's hammer, this guy knows his stuff. Be warned, it's "Physics with the hard stuff left in" and there isn't a whole lot of singing, but if you're wanting to be stretched, Susskind's raw approach is for you.
Onward to Optimism
In last week's blog, I talked about bits of Science I find challenging and how there's nothing to be ashamed of in getting stuck. We're all human and we all struggle (except for Michael Keaton who is too awesome to struggle with anything) so it's OK to ask for help when needed.
My aim in writing that piece was to encourage people to be open about their difficulties and not feel judged in admitting that sometimes they find stuff hard. It seems to have been a success and I want to say thank you to everyone who e-mailed me confessing to their own hated parts of Science. Nevertheless, I feel obligated to counteract the negativity of that essay and write something a bit more upbeat. What better way to do that, than to write about the bits of science I absolutely adore!
The challenge I faced this time was narrowing it down. There are so many things I want to talk about it wouldn't fit into one blog...so I decided to break it into several. I don't know how many parts there will (or when I'll find the time to write the rest) but I'm going to share my personal picks for the best bits of science ever. Is this going to be a tad self-indulgent? Probably. Sorry about that!
Favourite Scientist (Early) - Michael Faraday
Michael Faraday was the son of a poverty-stricken blacksmith and never got a chance to attend school. He routinely faced ridicule and scorn from wealthier echelons of 19th century English society for not being as well educated, but he was a determined investigator and a perpetual thinker who ended up having the last laugh when he invented the basis of pretty much all modern technology.
When the chemist Sir Humphry Davy (discoverer of seven elements) accidentally blasted his eyeballs apart during an experiment, Faraday was hired as his lab assistant and soon showed so much skill and intuition that Davy was prompted to declare Faraday his greatest discovery.
Faraday’s most significant contribution to Science was the theory of electromagnetism – the idea that electricity and magnetism are both facets of the same phenomenon and that we can manipulate or generate them given the right tools. The importance of this discovery is hard to over-sell. Pretty much every power station in the world runs on Faraday’s principle of inducing electrical current in a wire by spinning a nearby magnet, and almost all our communication techniques rely on controlling electromagnetic fields.
We have Faraday to thank for mains electricity, radio and television, mobile phones, wi-fi signals, infra-red remotes, X-rays, lasers and all of contemporary astronomy. For a guy who could barely do fractions, he more or less invented the modern age.
The main reason I admire him so much however, is not his profound discoveries but his personal character. Faraday believed in the work he was doing and did it purely for the good of mankind. He turned down the offer of a knighthood because he didn't believe in titles and he also refused to accept numerous financial rewards because he was not concerned with making money. He also started giving Science lectures twice a week to members of the public (free of charge) and permitted women and children to attend, because he wanted everyone to have the opportunities he had never been afforded.
Faraday believed in Science and he believed in the human capacity to understand it, no matter what a person's gender, race or age might be. As a Science teacher, I can't help but idolise the guy for that. Oh, and he invented party balloons. No, seriously, I'm not kidding. Faraday invented balloons!
Favourite Scientist (Modern) – Richard Feynman
Richard Phillips Feynman was in many ways at the other end of the spectrum to Michael Faraday. While Faraday was a dignified man of honour, Feynman was a charismatic rogue who delighted in pranks and parties (although, for the record, he thoroughly disliked alcohol and drug-use). While Faraday shunned glamour, Feynman swam in it - scooping a Nobel prize for physics, enjoying the “company” of countless women, and having red carpets laid out for him at weekly lectures.
Feynman was basically the Han Solo of physics, known more for his antics than his actual Science. That's not surprising mind you, given his specialism was quantum field theory, something I can't do justice to in a single paragraph. Although now's probably a good time to shamelessly plug my book on quantum physics.
The best I can do in a few sentences is say that Feynman was the first person to make quantum physics work properly. Before him, quantum physics was a disheveled array of facts and question marks which nobody had synthesised into a single idea. Feynman was the guy who achieved that, by establishing the basic principles everything else sprang from.
The reason I admire Feynman much however, is not for his caddish personality or even for his outstanding contributions to physics. It's because of the way he approached scientific problem-solving. All too often in Science you’re fed a bunch of equations and jargon-words which don’t actually get you any deeper to understanding what's going on. It’s tempting to build on the work of others, but Feynman preferred to do things differently and insisted on working everything out from first principles until he arrived at the same conclusion.
Feynman would start with a handful of easy to understand facts and extrapolate one step at a time, never introducing a new concept without picking it to pieces. He believed that the only way you could understand a phenomenon was to ignore all assumptions and work from the ground upward. Feynman's approach to knowledge is probably best summed up with this quotation of his: “If I can’t explain it to a freshman, that means I don’t really understand it.” For Feynman, the art to being a good scientist was to simplify things, not make them more complicated. Something which is forgotten all too often.
Favourite Scientist (who was really more of a mathematician) - Emmy Noether
There's a good chance you've heard of Faraday and Feynman; they're pretty well known figures in Science history. But not many people have heard of Emmy Noether and that's a shame because she was probably one of the five smartest people of the last hundred years. Oh and if you're wondering how to say her surname, it should rhyme with "murder" with a soft d. Actually, the only word I can think of which rhymes properly is the giant flaming demon-monster from Thor: Ragnarok...so if you've seen that film, you're on the right track.
Born in Germany at the end of the 19th Century, Amalie "Emmy" Noether faced a lot of prejudice throughout her life, partly down to being Jewish and partly down to having a uterus. Naturally she was treated like dirt at University, with numerous male members of staff requesting she be expelled for the crime of...I dunno...being a woman who's good at math I guess? She had to work unpaid in her role as lecturer, and had to advertise her talks under a man's name. But, just like Faraday, Noether was able to confound her doubters by coming up with one of the most important physics theorems in history: Noether's theorem.
Again, it's pretty hard to summarise Noether's theorem in a few sentences. The general gist goes something like this however: in every law of physics there are certain things which cannot change. For example, in thermodynamics we make the assumption that energy cannot be created or destroyed. In engineering and mechanics we find that it's momentum which stays constant. In particle physics it's something called lepton number and so on. What Noether's theorem does is predict which things can and cannot change for any law of physics. Or, putting it another way, it's the foundational law of physics that everything is built on.
Although technically more of a mathematician, Noether's contribution to theoretical physics is so profound it underpins everything from why neutrinos exist to where the Higgs boson comes from. Oh and as if that wasn't enough, Noether was the woman who helped Einstein figure out the mathematics of his theories of relativity when he got stuck. Just think about that. When Einstein got stuck, he asked Noether for help. Not even Michael Keaton can claim that.
Favourite Science Author – Isaac Asimov
My two jobs are talking about Science and writing about Science. So when I’m planning a lesson or lecture or when I'm sitting down to write an essay, the man I most aspire to emulate is Isaac Asimov. In a career spanning 52 years, Asimov managed to write or edit over 500 books, getting published in 9 of the 10 Dewey Decimal non-fiction book classifications. Asimov wrote histories of the Bible, analyses of Shakespeare, books of limericks, biographies of poets and critiques of politics, not to mention a somewhat phenomenal career as a science-fiction author. For me however, his greatest talent was writing about Science for non-experts.
With his wolf-man facial hair, Asimov was a professor of Biochemistry at Boston University and wrote thousands of short articles and essays explaining Science for the general public. Although some people find his acerbic self-agrandising sense of humour a little obnoxious, I always admired him as a teacher because of his guiding principle when it came to explaining things: “Be clear”.
Asimov wrote on every scientific topic imaginable, from the validity of IQ testing to the nuances of special relativity and at all times he insisted that as long as his explanations were clear, he was succeeding. He didn’t pepper his writing with flowery prose or philosophical asides (something I am often guilty of), he just stated the facts in a logical progression. So talented was Asimov, that other Scientists would challenge him to write articles on increasingly complicated and difficult-to-explain subjects, but Asimov always won because he knew something important: if you can say it with Science words, you can say it with regular words too.
Sometimes you read his work and think, “why didn’t I think of saying it like that? Ot’s really simple,” and that is the mark of a good teacher. Someone who can make even the most complicated ideas seem obvious. Frankly, he puts most other science authors to shame, myself very much included. Obviously, I know I will never be as good a writer as him...but you've got to have something to shoot for.
In 1999 the Canadian non-profit organisation Companies Committed to Kids ran a television campaign aimed at boosting children’s self-esteem with the slogan: “Nobody’s good at everything, but everybody’s good at something.” By contrast, Public Service Announcements in the UK are about wearing a seat-belt so you don’t kill your dad in a car crash. I mean, they’re both important messages but as a teacher I’m more interested in the first one. It’s rare that I crash a car inside my classroom but I frequently come across students doubting their ability to do STEM (Science Tech Engineering Maths).
That’s to be expected, of course. I mean, let’s be blunt about this…STEM is hard. There’s no such thing as an intellectually perfect person (with the obvious exceptions of Spock and Data from Star Trek) so naturally everyone struggles from time to time. In a perfect world there wouldn’t be any shame in admitting this, but for all sorts of reason we’re often reluctant to advertise our cognitive shortcomings, and this presents a real dilemma for educators.
As both a teacher and author I want to make sure my students/readers feel they can trust me to “know my stuff”. But at the same time, I want them to see me struggle so they don’t feel bad about running into difficulty themselves. If people perceive me as infallible they’re less likely to ask for my help because they’ll be worried about me judging them, but on the other hand if they see me as useless they won’t ask for help in the first place because they won’t believe I can provide it. How do you get that balance right?
I’ve been contemplating this question a lot over the past week with the start of a new academic term, when it struck me that the simplest thing to do would be write a public declaration of various bits of STEM I find difficult. I’m not one for subtlety (check the title of the blog) so, without further ado here’s a list of the top STEM areas you don’t want me teaching you. How's that for a Buzzfeed-worthy title?
Almost All of Biology
This one’s no secret to anyone who has seen me teach the subject. I know virtually nothing about animals, I’m not 100% sure what a chromosome is and I can’t tell you what the pancreas does (something to do with diabetes???). Biology has always been the weakest of the three natural sciences for me, and it's almost a running joke in my department that I'm not allowed to cover a Biology lesson.
It’s hard to pin down why I lost my way with Biology (my high school teacher was actually really good) but for some reason I got turned off to the subject as a teen. By the time I realised it was cool, I was a busy adult and could never find the opportunity to sit down and learn the basics.
On rare occasions when I do have to teach the subject, I read over the material the night before, follow a detailed lesson plan on my desk and by the following night I’ve typically forgotten everything I said. Really, students in my Biology classes might as well just read out-loud from the textbook…that’s more or less what I’m doing.
There are a few exceptions to this rule - I’m fairly well-versed on the brain, the biochemistry of medicines and drugs, and I know a disturbing amount about the composition of plant-matter - but other than that I’m typically worse than a rank amateur. I really wanted to put a Biology metaphor in there but I don't know any! That's the problem!
Basic Mental Arithmetic…that most children can do
I’ve got a tense working relationship with mathematics. The kind you have with a work colleague after you send an e-mail to everyone in the office mocking the shape of their ears, only to realise you accidentally copied them in as well.
I can use mathematics when necessary, but it’s not something I seek out. I only like it when I’m using it for chemistry or physics and if I go outside that comfort zone I’m immediately drowning in symbols. And, without a doubt, the area of maths I’m most clumsy with is basic mental arithmetic.
I’m serious here. I, a thirty one year old STEM teacher with a Master’s degree and a couple of bestselling books to my name, have difficulty doing simple sums in my head. I’ll muddle fractions, I’ll miss decimal places, I’ll get powers of ten in the wrong order and I can’t even sum a series of two digit numbers without writing them down first. I can never split the bill in a restaurant, I am lousy at calculating percentages and I can genuinely see myself getting hauled in front of a judge some day for tax fraud because I’ve accidentally forgotten to carry the one or something.
This can be quite embarrassing in front of a class when I’m struggling to work out 107 - 9 in my head, but there it is. I can explain all four of the Maxwell equations at the drop of a hat, but ask me to work out 60% of 50 and I’m going to need a minute.
There is a mental condition called dyscalculia which is a bit like dyslexia for numbers. I have no idea if I’ve got it (I wouldn’t be surprised) but either way, it doesn’t seem to be something I can avoid. That’s actually one of the reasons I respect people who work in retail. I’ve got no clue how to count my own change, let alone someone else’s.
I’d like to claim this one is just a “fiddly topic” everyone struggles with, but the whole point of this blog is that different people struggle with different things, so I can’t let myself off easy by saying everyone finds this topic hard. But...for the record…they totally do.
Fluid mechanics is the physics of how gases and liquids move and although I can massage my ego by reminding myself that lots of people find it tough, I still suspect I’m much worse at it than most physicists.
You may have come across the entry-level stuff in school yourself. Things like Archimedes’ principle and buoyancy, terminal velocity and air-resistance, gas pressure and expansion etc. They’re all topics I feel edgy when teaching, so if you're in my class and I look a bit nervous talking about these things, it's because I am!
In fact, to give you some idea of how lousy I am at fluid mechanics, I once managed to foul up a calculation so badly I ended up proving the Atlantic Ocean was 3 centimeters deep. Spoiler alert: it isn’t. Clearly this is a topic I’ve never been particularly…wait for it…fluent in! Ha ha ha! Fluid/Fluent? What an amazing use of language! I’m so freaking hilarious! OK, but seriously, buy my book.
And Finally, My Arch Nemesis
If Physics was a 90s video game, the boss at the end of the last level would be (for me at least) the topic of circular motion. Batman has the Joker. Sherlock Holmes has Moriarty. Kanye West has rational thinking. I have circular motion. My ancient rival, tormenting me since before time began.
Circular motion is, as the name suggests, the physics of things moving in circles. Anything from the moon orbiting Earth to balls going round on strings. It’s counter-intuitive, it’s fiddly, it’s mathematically fiendish and it kicks my butt every single time I grapple with it.
With most of the subjects I teach and write about, I understand them deeply enough to explain them in lots of different ways, but when it comes to circular motion I basically just know the facts. I don’t feel like I truly grasp them in my gut. I just cannot get my head round it (I’d like to claim that pun was intentional but it wasn’t. It was, in fact…pun-intentional).
I first encountered this jackass of a topic while studying A-level physics myself at the age of 17. I knew right away it was going to be trouble and the exam I sat on it was so horrible I remember coming out of it and making the joke to one of my friends: “well, there go my University options”. In fact, my score on that exam cost me the top grade at A-level because I nailed all the other papers but bombed that one hard.
This experience of learning circular motion has scarred me so much that I can barely listen to Circle of Life without feeling deep bitterness, and every year when we’re carving up the syllabus to teach, my head of department knows “Don’t give the circular motion topic to tim!” because I’ll go on strike if I have to teach it.
There Is Nothing To Be Ashamed Of
Everyone likes to feel smart. We place a huge value on intellect and it’s no wonder people never want to admit when they can’t do something. But I really think we need to change that mindset. STEM is a vast subject encompassing everything from how lions breed to how computer networks function. Given the sheer amount of information and skills that fall into STEM, it would be weird if you didn’t suck at at least some of it.
There’s so much out there to learn, it’s ridiculous to set yourself the target of being good at everything you ever study. Sometimes you can be smart and still suck at something. That doesn’t mean you’re slow. It simply means you find some stuff hard. Like everyone ever.
I have to remember that just because I can’t do certain parts of STEM with ease, doesn’t mean the bits I can do are suddenly tainted or devalued. In fact, I think this is one of the most important things to remember about the scientific community in general: it's a team effort and it has to be. We're trying to figure out the Universe, nobody can do that on their own!
I’m not very good at Biology but that’s OK because there are plenty of doctors and zoologists who have me covered. I’m not very good at mental arithmetic, but that's OK because Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace invented the calculator! I’m not too hot on fluid mechanics but that's OK because there are so many chemical engineers out there I don’t need to worry about it. Circular motion…that’s a thing which exists.
While I’ll always strive to better myself and face intellectual challenges as they come, I can accept that some parts of STEM I need other people’s help on. And that’s a good thing. That’s what makes STEM so awesome; the collaborations it leads to. Being good at everything has its advantages but it isolates you quite a lot. Being human is much better because it means not only can you help other people when they’re stuck, they can help you too. Not only is there something for everyone in STEM, but there’s someone for everything.
Good luck to all the students out there starting new courses and to all the fallible educators doing their best to help!!!
I love science, let me tell you why.