Valerie Hall takes breakfast at the Science Museum and reflects on a night of genetic engineering and alchemy. One evening in March, 400 excited women aged 18 to 70-odd clutching provisions and sleeping bags could be observed queueing up outside an imposing building in South Kensington, London. Nothing unusual about that you might think, except they were not lining up outside a department store for the first day of a spring sale, but in front of the Science Museum for its second science night aimed at women who have only minimal knowledge of the subject.
"I don't know one end of a Bunsen burner from another," said one, "but I think an interest in science is in my blood as I had a Russian grandmother who always wanted to see the first man walk on the moon." "And I came out of curiosity, " said her friend, "we never did any science at school."
The doors opened at 6.45pm for registration and division into red, blue and yellow stars, moons and planets and the rush was on to stake out sleeping territory among the space rockets and steam trains.
Moments later in their first workshop, the yellow stars could be seen tugging their ear lobes while peering at their neighbours' to check whether they were "fixed" or "hanging" (one manifestation of how our individual DNA blueprint determines our appearance). Each group of three then extracted the DNA from an onion and marvelled as the milky cloud detached itself and floated to the surface of the test-tube.
At their second workshop, which was sponsored by Duracell, the yellow stars made simple electrical circuits with batteries and pieces of wire, caused bulbs to light up and speakers to vibrate, and learned about the relationship between electricity and magnetism.
A drama presentation about Marie Curie's life and her discovery of radium and polonium followed, and then a choice of events until lights out at 1am. "The hitch-hiker's guide to genetic engineering" with Dr Louise Naylor proved popular. She explored some applications of DNA today such as gene therapy, prompting questions about the ethics of meddling with genetics to produce everything from the super tomato to the super baby.
Meanwhile, Jacqueline Koay, from Oxford University's nuclear physics department, demonstrated some of the chemistry of life in a test-tube, and storyteller Pomme Clayton told alchemical tales about the transformation of lead into gold.
Next morning the women were free to explore the Launch Pad and Flight Lab interactive galleries unimpeded by the usual swarms of children and attend a variety of activities including a talk on "The Universe and Us" by eminent astrophysicist, Jocelyn Bell Burnell.
"I've enjoyed it all, but particularly extracting the DNA and the way that linked up later on with Dr Naylor's talk," said one participant. "The staff and guest speakers here are excellent at explaining the complex in a simple way. I would definitely like to come again." Most of the women found the event "entertaining" and "inspirational".
The idea came about, says programmes manager, Lorraine Ward, "because after the success of the children's science nights, accompanying teachers and other adults asked 'Why don't you do this for grown-ups too?'. Normally, whatever we do we end up attracting more males to our events, but we know many women whose children enjoy science at school feel left out. We therefore targeted women's groups such as the Women's Institute, Girl Guides and Bangladesh Women's Association. The Committee for the Public Understanding of Science pays half."
The museum also plans events for women linked to its exhibition on the information superhighway which runs until September 2.
As the museum has proved, making hard science fun is an effective way of attracting women into the field. When WISE (Women into Science and Engineering Campaign) recently ran an essay competition for girls aged 14-18, it found that many thought the subject was not being taught in an exciting or challenging way. One girl, for example, who had enjoyed a lesson on the use of DNA finger printing to solve a murder case, queried why other science lessons could not be as inspiring.
Since 1984, Wise has been ramming this message home with touring technology laboratories offering practical experience, principally to girls aged 13-14, of mechanisms, micro-electronics, pneumatics, micro-processors, computer-aided design, communication, and structure and forces simulation. And WISE produces a range of free publications and guidance encouraging girls to take up interesting careers that make use of science knowledge - from aircraft engineer to beauty therapist.
"Seven per cent of girls were going on to engineering courses in 1984," says WISE campaign manager Marie No lle-Barton. "Today that figure has risen to 15 per cent. But we're not complacent and we aim to make the figure even higher. "
o The next Women's Science Night is on July 8, price Pounds 18 including breakfast. Details: Caroline Barrow, Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London SW7 2DD. Tel: 0171 938 0785. WISE:Marie No lle Barton, Engineering Council, 10 Maltravers Street, London WC2R 3ER. Tel: 0171 240 7891