Cafe Scientifique: Maths in the weirdest places

As mentioned earlier, I didn’t write a proper post on Tuesday night because I was attending a Cafe Scientifique. Here is my regular report. Straight off the bat, but not to demean the speaker, I’ll say I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as the previous events, because the topic was a little more vague. But it was still a stimulating evening with plenty of food for thought, and I certainly don’t regret going.

The title was ‘Maths in the Weirdest of Places’, and it was presented by Doctor Paul Stevenson from the University of Surrey, a surprisingly young (and endearingly geekish) nuclear physicist. Dr. Stevenson is involved with the Institute of Physics as a kind of publicity tool; they ask him to come up with ideas to tie physics and science into current media events and memes, and that is the work he was talking about.

It cannot be denied, especially by anyone with an interest in science and technology, that its portrayal in the media is hardly flattering. As much as we all use and love our technologies, actually knowing much about how they work is considered deeply uncool. Science is a thing for scientists – contrast this to the expectancy that an educated person should be knowledgable in the arts and humanities. Specialisation has ‘walled off’ science into a geek ghetto, whose exports are appreciated but whose inhabitants are shunned.

You know sometimes the media will run one of those little stories, something like ‘Boffins discover formula for dunking biscuits in tea’? Well, those are the sorts of thing he comes up with. An example he gave was that, during the (inexplicable, to me at least) reign of ‘Sex in the City’ on UK television, he was approached for one of his zeitgeist soundbites, and he cobbled together a formula that describes the difficulty of walking in high-heeled shoes. I won’t attempt to reproduce it here, but suffice to say there were variables including the price and fashionability of the shoes being worn, the amount of alcohol consumed before walking in them, and the probability of ‘pulling’ a man while wearing them.

To anyone with a bit of science behind them, the essential silliness of the idea is obvious – the variables would be hard to quantify, and there are few absolutes involved. But the idea itself is not as frivolous as it may seem. The intent is to use mathematical equations, usually a source of fear and antipathy in the layman, as a way of demonstrating that maths and science are present in all walks (sorry) of human life. Dr. Stevenson himself was undecided as to whether this sort of media exposure actually has any effect, positive or negative, on the public’s perception of science, and indeed this became one of the subjects of the debate that followed his entertaining presentation.

After drinks were refreshed, the debate kicked off. The efficacy of these ‘media moments’ was a common theme – in general, there was a feeling that although the intentions were good, the results may actually prove counter-productive and end up showing science as so much irrelevant mumbo-jumbo that can only relate to modern life through a complex and cryptic array of symbols from ancient alphabets. The issue of political correctness and its pernicious influence over the way educators are allowed to address students regarding science was touched upon, too – the Nanny State forbids them to speak of a ‘deficit’ in public comprehension, which it seems actually hampers educational progress further. The teaching of maths and science at school level was addressed, and yours truly pitched in with some comments about government and media exploitation of an innumerate public, by the publishing of dodgy statistics and the bandying about of notions of ‘scientific proof’ in relation to the effectiveness of cosmetics and so forth.

As mentioned above, there wasn’t the same sort of meaty specialist exposition that made the previous Cafes I attended such rich subjects for reports (to be entirely honest, I’d personally have been far more riveted by Dr. Stevenson talking about particle physics). But the breadth of the topic provided plenty of food for thought – I’m pretty sure there was a lot more inter-table banter this time round, as the general reach of the theme meant everyone had not just an interest, but an opinion as well. That includes me, and doubtless the readers of VCTB as well.

I suppose the best and most obvious angle here is to ask whether this is really a problem. Does it matter if the general populace don’t give a monkeys for science or maths? I think the answer here depends on the scale of your sample. Globally, it’s not a big issue, because there are plenty of hungry hard-working young students from poorer nations willing to take the jobs that the dillettantes of the G8 countries can’t be bothered to work at (a subject we have discussed before here at VCTB). But nationally, it almost certainly is. The UK is a technology-saturated nation; I’d guess that we are in the top five (if not top three) nations for technology consumption (a little behind the US and Japan). What will happen in a decade when hardly any British kids are working in technology and science fields?

Economically, not much. One of the few benefits of globalist capitalism is that it gets the skill-sets to where they are required, by hook or by crook. But culturally it will be a difficult time, especially if the nation’s recent veer into insular racism goes unchecked. Imagine a UK dependent on technology, but one that has to rely (resentfully) on foreign workers to maintain the infrastructure because too few local kids could be inspired to follow science careers. Maybe I’m overly cynical (O RLY?), but that’s a picture with a lot of foreshadowing, to my eyes at least.

So, how could this lack of interest be fixed? Indeed, can it be fixed at all, or will it just be a case of hoping that economics sorts out the balance for us? It was commonly agreed at the Cafe that part of the problem is uninspired teaching in schools, and a general culture that lauds ignorance among the younger demographics. Indeed, a teacher who tours schools with a program to make maths and science more engaging conceded that there was a huge wall of apathy to overcome. How would it be possible to encourage kids to get into science, not just for the sake of passing some exams and hence avoiding hassle and parental pressure, but to spark a genuine interest in the workings of the world we live in?

Personally, I’m not sure that relentless plugging and pressure, and the ‘dumbing down’ that science receives before making it to the average television show, is working in our favour. But then nor are huge class sizes, stressed and under-paid teachers, and a social system the both encourages and rewards laziness and apathy at every turn. To interest kids (and people in general) in science, a ‘human angle’ is required, and this is where Dr. Stevenson’s equations score points. But a large part of the problem is media representation, where the science is either the novelty ‘dead donkey’ story, or is presented as being something it isn’t.

I was lucky. My father was an engineer, and he was always happy to explain how things worked – in fact, he’d often go into such detail that I was utterly lost, although fascinated. But getting lost never put me off. I always felt that if I asked more questions (researched), fiddled with things more (performed experiments), and came up with new angles of enquiry (formulated hypotheses), I’d be able to understand how things functioned. Maybe I was rare in having that interest, but I’m not so sure. I know for a fact that every kid’s favourite question is ‘why?’ And I believe that a culture where asking ‘why’ is a devalued practice is producing kids whose desire to discover is being drained from them.

We live in the information age, and almost all the data and answers you could ever want are within the push of a few buttons on an internet-connected computer. So why is it that, with all this data at their fingertips, kids don’t want to actually apply their knowledge to anything unless absolutely necessary? If you ask me, it’s that ease of acquisition that devalues knowledge and stops it from being applied. Why learn the true import of some data, when you could just retrieve and quote it at a convenient time, without understanding its context, and hence pass through the arbitrary (yet shifting) goalposts of the education system? I believe that an education system that rewards inquisitiveness and lets the parroting of facts take a back seat might go some way to healing the rift between science and the common man.

Think back. During the Enlightenment, an educated man knew a little of every subject available to him, as a matter of pride – and those without access to education were desperate to have it. Now we have an age where education is compulsory, yet one that insists on specialisation at a stage of life when one’s long-term life prospects are the last thing on one’s mind – and the result is apathy. I don’t propose a return to the caste-like class system of the Victorian era, but I do believe that opening up the education system to being less focussed on testing and standards and more focussed on letting kids discover what truly interests them, without the pressures of career decisions, has got to be worth considering.

Your own opinions are, as always, more than welcome. More Cafe Scientifique reports to follow after the summer break.

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