On the road to progress but moving too slowly

Whether we are scientists or not, we should engage with the subject in the real and fictional worlds

Having spent a substantial part of a previous column lauding astronomers for being nice people, I have just read a novel that features several of them who, while certainly not evil, are no less flawed than the rest of us. The book was called The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt. Stephen Fry liked it and so did I. The main character is not only an astronomer, she's a woman. The writer is not only a woman, she's an astronomer. Raymond Chandler wrote: "In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption." If you like redemption, you'll get it in The Falling Sky.

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel was the nakedness, not of the people (though it did happen a couple of times) but of the science. Should this put a non-scientist off from reading? Of course it shouldn't. I love the works of James Robertson. He is a historian and I'm not, but I don't go running away to read a Chris Brookmyre instead whenever the Covenanters get mentioned in James Robertson's The Fanatic.

The right thing to do would be to do some research when I find something I don't know about in a book, but more often than not, I let the author's skill take me through the story. I'm talking about the science books as well here. Actually, I did find myself googling during The Falling Sky, particularly to see whether a tale about a suffragette bombing of Edinburgh's Royal Observatory was true. (It was, and the 100th anniversary is just about now.)

Times have changed a bit since I first rattled out a column 21 years ago on an Amstrad PPC640. Then, I would have rightly been shown up as uneducated if I didn't have at least a smattering of knowledge of history and literature, but literary types would have been excused not only for having no scientific knowledge, but for expressing no regrets at being so disposed, or indisposed if you prefer. Now, and I hope I'm right here, most people have a basic awareness of theories such as that of the expanding universe, and if they are smart enough to read a book with no pictures, will want to know more about a phrase such as "red shift" should they come across it.

When I wrote of my new year resolutions, I mentioned that one was to read fewer books in which there were murders. I'm managing. Next on the reading list is Solar by Ian McEwan. It's got a physicist in it too - not a very nice one in the chapters I've read so far. I don't think books like these mark any kind of cultural shift towards science, more a cultural expansion to re-embrace science.

Blasts from the past

On the occasion of my changing from a columnist to a regular TESS comment contributor, indulge me, then, by allowing me to flash up scenes from the past 500 or so pieces. The private school inspector who started it all and whose name I won't mention since someone took it to be a somewhat offensive double entendre, which was never my intention. Rants about probationers not getting jobs (now it seems to be post-probationers who can be bounced from supply post to supply post). Sympathy for primary teachers faced with teaching science for the first time (1990s). Annoyance at those primary teachers who have avoided teaching science despite it being compulsory for almost two decades (now). Teaching in Lanark, teaching in Biggar, secondment, humbling return to teaching. The Scottish, Schools, Education, Research Centre (SSERC). The birth of a child, the death of a father. Skodas, Kias, Reliants, a hybrid, all tenuously related to education. Scotvec, the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative, Higher Still, CfE. Right back near the beginning there's one about Brains from Thunderbirds that bemoaned negative stereotypes of scientists.

In the 1990s, there was no such thing as geek chic. Brains rather than Brian Cox. Now geeky people send up their own geekiness, a sure sign that things have changed. I own a garment that states, "You read my T-shirt. That's enough social interaction for one day." Some day I may wear it in public rather than when I'm out on my bike or at the physics teacher summer school.

There are still battles to be won. Girls are under-represented in physics classes in many schools, boys in biology. I must ask my friend the only physicist in the village down in Ayrshire how she manages to have so many switched-on females opting for her subject.

I'm sure that it must be more than simply the fact that she's not a middle-aged bald guy. Things, despite what famous particle physicists once sang, don't always get better, but they don't always get worse either.

Finally, why did the chicken cross the Mobius strip? To get to the same side. If you don't get it, ask a geek to explain.

Gregor Steele, Scottish Schools Education Resource Centre.

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