Curiosity skilled the act

18th October 2013 at 01:00

I enjoyed a spell in my garden the other day. Just being outside and doing something fairly physical would have been enough, but the experience was enhanced by an MP3 player loaded with podcasts of Radio 4's science-comedy programme The Infinite Monkey Cage.

The most interesting episode was about museums. Regulars Brian Cox and Robin Ince were joined by guests including Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York City's Hayden Planetarium. One thread of conversation explored the perception that science museums and centres are for children. When they get older, it is time to go to art galleries. I mentioned this to a fellow Twitter user, @stuartphysics, who, among a great many other things, sometimes works with Aberdeen's Satrosphere. He had heard it said that most people visit a science centre three times in their lives: when they are 9, when their children are 9 and when their grandchildren are 9.

If you go to @stuartphysics' Twitter account and scroll back to 26 September, you'll see that he has tweeted a picture of @SSERCphysics (me) "playing" with his latest "toy", a thermal imaging camera, which is something that schools might want to buy or borrow. He's right: I was playing and I make no apology for that. I am keen to find out all the things that it can and cannot do.

Tyson has said that acts of curiosity are acts of science, and that adult scientists are the children who never grew up. I don't think he means that scientists are childish or immature (I've been to art galleries), rather that they have held on to their childhood curiosity. I must tell my son this - it may help him to understand aspects of my behaviour that could otherwise be dismissed as "embarrassing", such as investigating polarised 3D glasses in cinema queues or trying to work out whether there is a maximum speed at which an item can successfully be scanned through a self-service checkout.

It is odd that some of the most bouncy, enthusiastic people in school and beyond are sometimes described as "sad". If I was a poet - well, a better poet - I'd be delighted if an English teacher showed the same uninhibited wonder for something I had written that I've seen science teachers display on first witnessing a metal spring back into a shape it has "remembered" when it's dunked in hot water.

I imagine my nine-year-old self quizzing me. "So, how often have you been into space?"

"Um, never. Have I let you down?"

"Maybe. What do you do?"

"Well, part of my job involves playing with see-in-the-dark cameras and lasers." (It's not the time to mention the health and safety advice line or the hours spent writing course proposals and evaluations.)

"I can live with that."

But my nine-year-old self would never, ever have believed that one day I would write that I enjoyed a spell of gardening.

Gregor Steele is a head of section at the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre.

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