Café Scientifique, Nottingham

Scientists, like hangmen, are socially disadvantaged by their trade. People are naturally curious about their work and their motivation for doing it, but are rather afraid to ask about the details.

I have tried to overcome this problem in a series of media publicity exercises where I have used “the science of the familiar” as a key to open a door to science and to show how scientists think about the world around them. These exercises have included the physics of biscuit dunking, the best way to use gravy on roast dinners, making and throwing indoor boomerangs, and even how to use physics to improve your sex life. Many people have found these exercises thought-provoking, but to some I have been trivialising science, and others have taken me to task for taking science into areas where they feel (unlike Newton and Faraday) that it has no business to be. The Times newspaper even went so far as to label me “an enemy of the people” for my work, which also led to the award of a spoof IgNobel prize at Harvard University.

The work is very serious, though, and communicating what science is about is a profoundly important activity. Efforts to date by organisations such as the British Association, the Royal Institution and the recently formed “Scientific Alliance” have largely consisted of communicating “facts” about science in order to overcome public ignorance, as revealed, for example, in a recent MORI poll where only 30% of people knew that carbon dioxide is responsible for the greenhouse effect. I argue that the “facts” approach has largely been misguided, and that what we should be doing is sharing what scientists do, why we do it and how we go about it, rather than simply handing down results from on high. My own approach, which I discuss in the forthcoming book How to Dunk a Doughnut, represents a first step in this direction. In this talk I analyse the results and ask whether we cannot do better still.

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