Good stories in need of good storytellers

10th May 1996 at 01:00
James Williams puts the case for creating posts for professors of science literature.

Shakespeare, Dickens, Wordsworth - all literary giants, but, where are their scientific counterparts? What about Darwin, Newton and T H Huxley? Why are these writers' books of scientific commentary and ground-breaking theory not studied to the same degree as their literary counterparts? Perhaps the key lies in the word literary. Does being a scientist automatically preclude literacy? What astonishes me is that there is no Professor of Science Literature, at least not as far as I am aware. On the other hand, professors of English literature are ten a penny.

It is common to plead an ignorance of science and, in some cases, to boast that "I don't have a clue about quantum physics". Try boasting about the fact that you are ignorant of literature, the works of the great composers or the Blue Period of Picasso and see how far your credibility will stretch in a literary circle. We need to promote an acceptance of science as a part of a rounded education and as a life-long learning experience.

Once the age of 16 is reached, a large number of youngsters ditch science. Here I'm not just talking about uptake of science A-levels, but also the informal study of science for leisure purposes. To a large extent it is the fault of scientists that science is not accepted. They protect their knowledge by wrapping it up in technical, difficult language and create a barrier between scientists and "ordinary" people. The way in which science is taught is not conductive to promoting science; it is all factual cramming, dehumanising and the incorrect assertion that science is about right and wrong.

There is little or no understanding that science is often not about correct and incorrect but about weighing up the evidence and making a case for or against some theory or hypothesis. Science is often called upon to make statements on problems that occur in society. Should we eat beef? Will this drug cure Aids? What people often fail to appreciate is that science cannot always say yes or no.

Sometimes it is more yes than no or more no than yes. In schools, we often fail to teach that science is about shades of grey rather than black or white.

What remedies are there for promoting the public understanding of science and scientists understanding of the public?

* Create posts for Professors of Science Literature (just one to start with would be an achievement!) * Integrate some of the great literary science works into the school curriculum * Increase the number of literary prizes for popular science books * Rehumanise science * Introduce communication skills in all science courses * Promote science not as a career specific study at university but as a degree acceptable to employers on the basis of the skills it teaches.

The popularity of science literature is actually growing year on year, in contradiction to the uptake of science post 16. Stephen Hawking's book, A Brief History of Time is probably the best selling popular science book this century.

How far it has moved the public understanding of science is very debatable, but at least the public seem to like the big science theories that challenge the fundamentals of the origins and development of the universe. What they do not like is the intellectual high ground claimed by some for science. They want a good story. In science we have more good stories than we know what to do with. What we now need are some more good story tellers.

James Williams is Head of the Science Faculty at The Beacon School, Banstead, Surrey.

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