If we cut down all the trees, how long would it take us to die?
What qualities do you need to become a great scientist?
When is the zombie apocalypse going to happen?
These are some of the questions I have been pondering over the past two weeks as part of the online event ‘I’m a scientist, get me out of here’. The event puts scientists (grouped into themed ‘zones’) in touch with groups of school children around the country. Children can send questions to the scientists at any time, but what’s even better is they can interact with them in scheduled live chats.
Children vote for their favourite scientist, and at the end of the two weeks one in each zone gets £500 to spend on a science engagement project of their choice.
‘I’m a scientist’ is structured as a competition, but I don’t really think that’s the point. I signed up because I thought it would be fun. I signed up because I can imagine getting a lot out of the event as a schoolchild (which wasn’t particularly long ago – I finished secondary school in 2007). When I was at school I hoovered up facts and such quite diligently. I didn’t really need to be enthused in order to learn. Looking back, though, I think I missed the point of it all.
When I was a boy…
To me, school science practicals felt a bit staged. Recording the resistance of a length of copper wire as it heats up is a useful experiment: it teaches important principles of electricity and it demonstrates the scientific method: question, hypothesis, prediction, test, analyse. But it’s not that exciting.
We also spent a long time on a practical about the cooling of test-tubes of warm water. Which cools slower – a single test tube of water or a test tube surrounded by others? The one with the others around it, of course. This experiment was designed to explain why penguins huddle together and was a perfectly reasonable demonstration. But it felt a little ‘play-school’ at the time. I had also been told by my teacher to put a line of best fit through by data points, but that ‘data points don’t go on the line of best fit’ (thus I even added measurement error to my fictional observations). In fact, I confess, in that experiment I made up some data because I knew what the relationship should be between the temperature after a certain time and the number of surrounding test tubes. I was in a hurry and didn’t want to bother repeating the experiment with more and more surrounding tubes.
I took away the wrong message from the practical. I was fixated on matching my results with the information I had already absorbed – that insulating with additional tubes reduces cooling – rather than carrying out a correct, valuable experiment. The scientific process seemed like a rigid set of arbitrary rules back then. I didn’t appreciate that an experiment done incorrectly is valueless (I should stress that I do not make up data now, of course).
Why was I a rubbish scientist?
But why did I miss the point back then? I think it’s because I couldn’t quite see the purpose of it all. It was quite obvious to me that additional test tubes would stop the cooling rate. I just wanted more information to absorb, not to waste my time confirming what I already knew. Essentially, I completely misunderstood the point of learning and the point of science. That is no reflection on my teachers. It just reflects how children often greatly misunderstand why they are at school, and consequently don’t get as much out of it as they should.
What’s the point then?
Which brings me back, after a very lengthy aside, to why I signed up to ‘I’m a scientist’. I am now coming to the end of my PhD and I think I know a little about the scientific method (at least, I know enough to understand why it’s unacceptable to make up results!). I ‘get’ it now. I find it thrilling to be doing science when no one knows the answer and the results are new and puzzling. That’s what it’s about, and that’s what I tried to get across to the kids when presented with their common question ‘what do you like about science?’.
I came second in my zone, behind the excellent Simon Holyoake. To tell the truth, all the scientists in my zone – Hannah Bentham, Laura Roberts Artal and Christian Maerz – were excellent and gave engaging, exciting and thoughtful answers to the kids’ questions. I think we all had a lot of fun chatting to the kids, and deciphering some left-field questions. Some of the questions made me think quite a bit, and explaining things simply really helped me work out how well I understand some basic scientific principles.
So, to any scientists out there, I highly recommend applying to participate in the next ‘I’m a scientist events’. To any teachers out there, I highly recommend getting your class involved. I think events like this are a very effective way of allowing young people to understand why they are learning all these equations, why they care about the difference between igneous and sedimentary rock, why it’s important to put error bars on graphs, and why they’re in this damn classroom on a nice sunny day. Because science is important.
There are plenty of questions science cannot answer, and there are plenty of other valuable forms of knowledge. But science is a great way of learning useful things about the world, and is pretty special because of the quality of predictions it makes and the level of detailed understanding it gives us. That’s why I’m a scientist.