Thursday, January 28, 2010

Lindsay Tanner on scientists

Writing in the SMH today Lindsay Tanner has asked for a "scientist to inspire a generation".

Lindsay was referring to Professor Julius Sumner Miller as an earlier incarnation, and he referred to the shows he did for the ABC called Why Is It So?. I actually had the experience of appearing on a later version of that show called The Professor and the Enquiring Minds on Channel 7.

I was, if I say, rather impressive, because I answered all the challenges put to us by the Professor. About two-thirds of the way through my second show the Professor said "I'll get you Havyatt".

I'll now confess my little secret. Before I went on the show I visited the old AGPS bookshop - then at 309 Pitt St I think - and bought all four volumes of the books the ABC had published on the original show. I read them, understood them ,and more importantly remembered them. There was nothing Miller did on the second show he hadn't done on the first!

But the point of Lindsay's item was to talk about the need to find a way to excite kids about science. It was the Science Foundation for Physics at the University of Sydney that originally brought Sumner Miller out, which is the same group that tends for the modern variant, Dr Karl. Lindsay seems to pass over the ABC show Sleek Geeks in his ruminating.

For me, as a person with a first degree in Physics and Maths from the aforementioned University of Sydney, the issue isn't about the lack of "inspiration". That said I do get heartily sick of the gross over-representation of a narrow slice of scientists in national recognition and reward, this being people from "medical" science.

In my own journey through science I always enjoyed the primary school science wherein we learnt about real things. That and the bit of mucking around I did with a friend in which we made a really great smoke bomb by mixing pool chlorine and linseed oil (and two other ingredients I can't remember) in a tin can - the friend is now a Professor of Chemistry at the self-same Sydney U.

High school science was also fun when we "did stuff". I still remember in year 9 or 10 learning about pulleys, and actually doing experiments to show that what was meant to happen did. It was senior high scholl where we were the first lot in NSW to try to new experimental syllabus in 1974 that things got interesting. The Messell textbooks wre dropped and we did interesting things in mechanics where we cllided things and mapped their vectors.

These were, however, mostly experimental verifications of the content we were being taught. From what I can figure out from what my daughters learnt the sylabus has progressed from this to its illogical conclusion. Rather than doing the experiment as verification of content, the "content" has become the scientific method.

While another friend and I had so raced through the year 11 syllabus (OK so we did the whole year in the first of three terms) and we then set about our own experiments (one of my design to determine the effect of friction on the earlier pulley factors and one of his design of transmitting sound by reflecting a laser off a vibrating mirror) I was stunned to find when my ow kids were doing physics that "design and do your own experiment" had become part of the curriculum.

For my money it isn't about having an "inspiration" like Dr Karl or JSM - it is about making the subject substantial. Real content about deep theory - not the current blend of showing how its relevant (the chemistry strand on "corrosion") or on getting kids to do experiments that are meaningless.

Science is also harder now because the days where an "amateur" set up could show stuff are long gone. To do fundamental research you need a Hadron Collider, to do astronomy you need a Square Kilometre Array. Where there is a lot more hope is probably i giving kids better access to computers and the skills to use advanced modelling and maths tools on them. This is probably the step function change needed to revitalise interest.

Mind you, every time I read an item like this I keep wondering whether I shouldn't go teach for a while.

Note 1: I'm trying to find out if Seven still has tapes of the show.
Note 2: I know that seven of my school year started Science at Sydney University (compared to the seventeen doing medicine at one or other Uni - at least three of us could have entered medicine if we'd wanted to). One didn't graduate I think. Of the others I was the only one not to do Hounours (a long story). One of those five had to change his degree to be Arts so he could do double Honours in Pure Maths and Philosophy before his PhD at Harvard, one did his PhD in physiology and is now in Singapore doing interesting stem cell things, and three did honours in chemistry, one being the aforementioned Professor, and another who is now a professional bridge player. Both the third chemist and the PhD in Maths ultimately made their careers in IT.

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