Thursday, 13 February 2014

The end of science as you know it

Now I really am going to tell you what this blog will be about. After all, the sooner it's properly categorized and indexed on the major interchanges of the information superhighway, the sooner all that social-media and search-engine magic will occur, and my inevitable millions of readers will flock to me.

Basic category: science blog. This is a science blog.

Except that it's not quite. That's fine: good old google will have picked up on the keywords, and this is now a science blog, and no amount of protesting will do me the least bit of good. But I'll try to forget that my main audience right now are the servers and algorithms of google, which probably outweigh living human readers by a factor of several billion, and address myself just to those two or three actual humans. Hi guys! Sorry if I keep getting distracted by that very loud, humming, buzzing, absolute endless horde of ghostly googleness that's watching me.

As I said, this is not quite a science blog. You see, on the other side of the media veil, inside the world of science, a science blog is part of a big operation with the loathsome heading of "science outreach". It's a terrible name. It sounds like a community programme to assist recovering alcoholics and abuse victims. Or perhaps a term you'd see in a water safety brochure. "In a drowning situation, try to remain calm, and even when a rescuer is within close proximity, do not attempt outreach." Or a police report on the death of that unfortunate prehistoric mammoth: "The victim, observing a tasty morsel overhanging the cliff, appears to have suffered a fall following excessive outreach." Maybe someone has realized this, because now they have an alternative term: "public engagement". Not really an improvement. I would have assumed that was the natural successor to the public marriage proposal.

Whatever the connotations of the term, science outreach means telling non-scientists just how wonderful science is. And getting more kids to study science, based on the premise that there are deep flaws in our education system that drive them away from science, when it is in fact vital to our cultural and economic health. ("Our" also means "your", whoever you are, because every nation, in the Western world at the very least, seems to take exactly the same view.) I'm happy to accept all of this, and would not want to question the motivation, dedication or skill of the many wonderful people who engage, reach out to, or otherwise enthuse the public about science. Especially since a large number of them work in the same building as me, and have a huge storeroom of "science demonstrations", which I'm sure could very easily be repurposed to demonstrate to me the error of my ways.

Nonetheless. Since scientific research relies on public funding, and university teaching also relies on funding, which is allotted in proportion to the number of students who enroll, there is a huge temptation for the whole enterprise to devolve into a massive advertising campaign. I'm not saying that's what has happened (and I would be too chicken to say so even if I believed it; God knows what you can do to someone if you fiddle the wiring of a van der Graaf generator), and I frankly wouldn't care that much anyway. I'm a scientist, and I like my funding! But I'm not interested in writing a blog all about what a wow whizzbang jolly time science is. Plenty of other people do that, and with far more colourful vocabulary. What I find interesting is what the "world of science" is really like, on the inside. I've no idea what most people think it's like, but it's certainly nothing like the naive, idealistic, romantic view I had when I started out, a world of dedicated individuals who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of the truths of the universe. In the end, it turns out that it's just like every other job: full of incompetence, rivalry, power struggles, pettiness and stupidity, needless crises and ridiculous dramas. The work of most scientists is of as much consequence to humanity as that of the characters in The Office, only executed less professionally. In other words, it's entirely human and thoroughly entertaining. It's wonderful. Put another way: I've realized that science is not just fascinating as an intellectual exercise, it's also fascinating as a human endeavor, with all the comic nonsense that entails. Plus, in the end, and this is the tricky bit to get across: the whole scientific enterprise, despite everything, actually works. Somehow a handful of scientists really do make major discoveries, they really do make steady progress in working out how the universe operates, and their contribution to society really is incalculable, even if the process is far more chaotic than most of them would be willing to admit. I am happy to admit it. I love it. And that's what this blog will be about. At least, some of the time. 

1 comment:

  1. Fine, fine, whatever. Your writing is amusing and engaging and makes me smile. Ergo I will read it and my children will decide to be scientists and you will have succeeded with your outreach.


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