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16/09/2014

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Correspondence

‘So skewed’

Howie Firth objects to the labelling of science as ‘not culture’

Well done to Roland Jackson for having the courage to take on the establishment about the use of the word ‘culture’ as synonymous with ‘the arts and heritage’ (People & Science, March 2012, pp14-15). Such an arbitrary labelling denigrates some of the greatest achievements of the human spirit.

Howie Firth objects to the labelling of science as ‘not culture’

Well done to Roland Jackson for having the courage to take on the establishment about the use of the word ‘culture’ as synonymous with ‘the arts and heritage’ (People & Science, March 2012, pp14-15). Such an arbitrary labelling denigrates some of the greatest achievements of the human spirit.

Kepler’s puzzle
Four centuries ago, Johannes Kepler was tackling the mass of data on the motions of the planets, trying to work out a pattern. Everyone agreed the answer would involve circles, since the universe was seen to be split into heavens above and earth below, and in the perfect heavens the only motion could be a perfect circle.

The Aristotelians said the circles were around the earth, with additional Ptolemaic spheres superimposed to keep the monopoly of circles. The Copernicans said the circles were in fact around the sun. Tycho Brahe’s position was somewhere in the middle, with the planets moving around the sun, but the sun itself moving around the earth with its retinue.

Kepler, born into poverty, had managed to get a post with Tycho, to help to work on the greatest bank of astronomical data in the western world. Within weeks of his arrival, Tycho was dead,
and wondering whether his life had been lived in vain. On his deathbed, he handed the task to the young man – and told of his preferred solution.

Eight minutes of arc
Kepler, working first on the motion of Mars, tried and tried again to get it to fit. He made seventy attempts – and eventually got to within just eight minutes of arc. That’s only twice the minimum separation of two stars for us to be able to distinguish them with the naked eye.

He could then have relaxed, written up his work and settled in to the post of Imperial Mathematician. But no – eight minutes was significant, he said, and particularly so when it came
to a man of Tycho’s scrupulous standards of work.

This meant going back again to the data and starting from scratch. And in his determination to find a solution which would be good enough standard to match Tycho’s data, he looked for an alternative to a circle. First came an egg-shaped oval, and when that didn’t fit – ellipses.

Triumph of creativity
Gloriously, he found an ellipse that fitted the data, and broke through a barrier that had lasted for two thousand years. Aristotle and Plato had insisted on circles, Ptolemy and Copernicus had held to them, and even Galileo himself could never accept ellipses – at no time in his correspondence with Kepler could he ever bring himself to mention them.

It was a triumph of human creativity, one of the great achievements of our culture, one of the timeless stories to be told from one generation to the next.

Not video games
But in Britain today, Kepler’s triumph of the human spirit would be seen rather differently. It is, according to the fashionable definitions, neither ‘culture’ or ‘creative’. One typical list of the ‘creative industries’ lists advertising, fashion, toys and games, TV and radio, and video games.

How can we seriously expect the brightest and best of the next generation to take an interest in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, when the definition of culture and creativity
is so skewed? How can anyone draw such an arbitrary line through human culture?

I believe that this fundamental question is so important that the British Science Association needs to consider a full-blooded campaign. Maybe indeed this is something for part of an issue of People & Science?

Come ON, scientists!

Muck in with culture, urges Rick Hall

Two debates caught my eye in the March issue of People and Science: Opinion (pp 12-13) and Two views (pp 14-15). Both homed in on the role of science in society and how it is perceived by the Great British Public. You would think that the eminence of the contributors would shed light as well as heat. Well up to a point, Lord Copper. The question is: ‘How can STEM become more central in our cultural lives?’ Should culture embrace STEM or vice versa?

Muck in with culture, urges Rick Hall

Two debates caught my eye in the March issue of People and Science: Opinion (pp 12-13) and Two views (pp 14-15). Both homed in on the role of science in society and how it is perceived by the Great British Public. You would think that the eminence of the contributors would shed light as well as heat. Well up to a point, Lord Copper. The question is: ‘How can STEM become more central in our cultural lives?’ Should culture embrace STEM or vice versa?

Generally I’m with Professor Ottoline Leyser and my old boss from NESTA days Lord David Puttnam in these related arguments. But given that I am a member of both the British Science Association and the Cultural Learning Alliance, I find the either/or debates rather sterile.

Scientists should join in
In his objection to the term ‘culture’ as synonymous with arts and heritage, Sir Roland Jackson bemoans the delineation of initiatives such as Cities of Culture and the Cultural Olympiad as primarily celebrations that imply a vision of the sciences as acultural and lacking creativity. Lord Puttnam on the other hand points to creative industries and new technologies as examples of the interface between arts and sciences.

Somewhere between these poles is a need for the sciences to come down from the universities and integrate themselves more vitally in the cultural lives of people and places.

Many artists immerse themselves in scientific research and their outputs straddle the disciplines: a good number of NESTA Fellows of old did just that. Many artists now working in the Cultural Olympiad are exploring extraordinary interdisciplinary programmes drawing on STEM innovations and science discoveries.

As for Cities of Culture, there are no barriers that I know of for scientists to contribute to the definitions therein and the programmes on offer; my assertion is that they are too frequently locked into their own post-doc researches to care or make the time available. Come ON, scientists – show yourselves to be creative practitioners in your researches, experiments and rehearsals and muck in.

Not only in the academy
To draw a further parallel: there is a strong prevailing perception that real science only takes place in universities. No-one in the world of dance, music or theatre would believe that the best and only
serious creative work in these disciplines takes place in the academies, the conservatoires, the drama or film schools.

Where are the STEM equivalents of the youth orchestra or amateur choir, the strictly ballroom classes or the print workshops? OK, so one answer is Lab_13 but that is from a personally vested and partial point of view.

Radio elite
In the earlier debate in People and Science, Deborah Cohen cites The Life Scientific and So You Want to be a Scientist as examples of the loosening of the constraints of science broadcasting. But these examples serve to reinforce the elite notion of science as the preserve of university ‘boffs’. How many of Jim Al-Khalili’s guests on The Life Scientific have been other than university professors themselves? So You Want to be a Scientist wasn’t open to young people under the age of 17, to the disbelief of our Lab_13 eight and nine year-olds.

All the other examples quoted by Ms Cohen of programmes of celeb, but nevertheless academic, presenters were of the ‘watch, consume, learn and be amazed’ variety. As Ottoline Leyser implies, you could not imagine Desert Island Discs only featuring academic castaways.

If the sciences are to be truly regarded as an integral part of our culture, they have to nurture both participation and demonstration, real science by young people as well as university research. A truly vibrant culture has to include discovery and revelation at every level of understanding and appreciation.

Howie Firth
Howie Firth is director of Orkney International Science Festival www.oisf.org
Rick Hall
Rick Hall is Director of Programmes for Ignite! a not-for-profit company that promotes creativity in learning. Lab_13 is run by young people as their own science research lab, driven by their curiosity and imagination. There are now 7 Lab_13s in the UK (and one in Texas) http://lab13network.wordpress.com www.ignitefutures.org.uk
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