Prizes all round

24th February 2006 at 00:00
Carolyn O'Grady explores scientific thinking at an exhibition dedicated to the legacy of Alfred Nobel

In 1896, Alfred Nobel, industrial magnate and inventor of dynamite died leaving instructions in his will for the establishment of the Nobel prize, now the most respected international award for achievement in physics, chemistry, physiology, medicine, literature and peace. To celebrate this achievement, the Nobel Museum has put together a touring exhibition which for the next couple of months can be found at the British Library in London.

Called Beautiful Minds, it looks at the history of the award and the people who have won prizes. In it, sound recordings, film excerpts, pictures, newspaper cuttings and artefacts offer stimulus for a variety of interests.

The British Library has also organised a series of four two-hour workshops called What ifI? to accompany the exhibition. On science, literature and economics, they are aimed at children aged seven to 15 and focus on creative thinking.

Last month a Year 5 class from Gospel Oak Primary School in the London borough of Camden attended a science workshop. The aim, said workshop leader, Julian Walker, was "to get children thinking about thinking, to give them practical experience of the processes of scientific thinking and to get them using their imaginations".

Had they ever won a prize? Who would they award a prize to? For what? And what prize would they give their winners? The Dalai Llama, teachers and a recycling company were among the answers, with prizes ranging from trophies to chocolates. It was then on to the key aspect of the workshop: the four stages of scientific thinking. "First, imagine a hypothesis, then work out what you think the results of the hypothesis might be; third: invent an experiment to prove or disprove the hypothesis and finally compare the imagined results with the actual results to see if your hypothesis is proved or disproved."

To illustrate the method, Julian suggested as a hypothesis: gravity is a force that works the same on all things - to demonstrate, he dropped a ball of string and a pen. Finally, the children were sent on a mission into the exhibition The task was to choose something from it: an artefact, a person, a piece of the design, something described in film; to invent a hypothesis involving it; and think up an experiment. The object could be as simple as Selma Lagerlof's shoes (winner of the 1909 literature prize): "So your hypothesis might be that people can run more easily in flat shoes than high-heeled shoes."

The children spread themselves out, some looked at the artefacts in the cases, others settled down with the earphones to listen to a Nobel prize-winner describe their work, and others read the newspaper articles. A few were not applying themselves but were getting to grips with issues thrown up by the exhibition. Rosa, aged 10, was worried that usually only one person is given a prize in each category, because she had learned that probably many people were involved. "It's a good point," said the teacher .

At the report session, it was clear that many children arrived at hypotheses but not all had moved on to the next step. They included: "Stars exist in the daytime even though you can't see them"; "Theatres are popular", proven by a survey, and "There is a cure for Aids." Karifa, aged 10, had gone to a lot of trouble to prove the weight of the Empire State building.

The What if ...? workshops are free. They are part of activities that include an interactive exploration of the library. Beautiful Minds continues until the middle of March. nobelprize.orgnobelnobelmuseumprospectusindex.html

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British Library St Pancras, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB Tel: 020 7412 7797

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