A stupid snobbery against science

9th January 1998 at 00:00
Bunny hops and grinding gears are what most people remember about their first driving lesson. But not me.

Aged 16, I clutched the keys of my family's blue Triumph Toledo. There was only one problem and he was sitting in the passenger seat.

My father was a physicist-turned-engineer. He was also, though he would never know it, a closet feminist.

He considered it important that I understood the basic laws of physics, but did not appreciate that for every right answer there was an equal and opposite wrong one - mine.

So it was that my first-ever driving lesson began with a question.

"What are the three most important parts of the engine?" asked my father, fiddling about with the radio wires dangling under the dashboard.

It's not fair, I thought. Why does he have to do this? Why can't I just learn to drive like everyone else?

"The brakes," I said.

"The brakes?" he said.

"Yes, you need them to stop and that's very important. . ."

"You think the brakes are part of the engine?" "Yes."

"How can you think the brakes are part of the engine?" It ended in tears, though only mine were visible.

There were many similar episodes as I grew up. My younger brother learnt 9 to 200 places while his sister failed to grasp that 1 x 0 = 0. He still chortles at the memory of the long painful evenings my father spent explaining the concept of zero. (I still think that 1 x 0 = 1, but I don't talk about it anymore.) There were happy times, of course. My father and I spent hours growing crystals in isinglass. I helped him develop photographs and could be relied on to hold the torch as he mended (my brother's) car on cold winter nights. But ultimately I was on the arts side of Britain's great divide. I did not actually want to be. I thought it would be glamorous to be a punk - this was the 1970s - and a professor of science.

I realised this was not to be during my first A-level maths lesson. The teacher started writing in Polish - all xs, ys and zs. Everyone got to work, except me. The equation looked perfectly happy. It had an equals sign and it had what appeared to be the answer, admittedly in Polish, after it. So what was the question?

After that, I gave up maths and physics and, reluctantly because I was good at it, chemistry. My school did not allow me to mix science and arts, so I took all arts subjects and then, still reluctant to accept that I wasn't going to break the mould, got a place on a university pre-medical course. Eventually and predictably, I got a degree in English.

Nothing much seems to have changed in the 15 years since then. Women now dominate in the medical schools, but in engineering 86 per cent of undergraduates are men.

Perhaps I should blame my failure on the stereotyping that, despite all my father's efforts, convinced me that I could answer a question about the use of the quadrille in Jane Austen, but not solve a quadratic equation.

Perhaps I should blame my school for not allowing me to mix arts and sciences. Perhaps.

In the end, it didn't matter that I - who would only ever have been a mediocre scientist - failed to bridge the vocational divide. There was a greater loss, one which I blame on this country with its snobbish attitude to science and technology and the many people who are casual about their ignorance of these subjects and contemptuous of those who practise them.

The loss was of my brother. He-who-learnt-9-to-200-places went on to study engineering at Cambridge and joined one of the big UK companies. Eventually he left, cheesed off by the poor pay, the fact that no one talked to him at parties once they discovered what he did, and the absence of women colleagues.

Now, instead of making things, he makes money for the City. The only saving grace is that he can now afford a posh German car thatdoesn't need fixing on cold winter nights. Whether they have got round to making the brakes part of the engine is another question.

Stephanie Northen is the editor of the TES's new science column which begins next week in The TES's Friday magazine

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