New Statesman, November 2002

I recently walked into my village post office carrying a copy of “New Scientist“. Our village postmaster took one look at the magazine and burst out ” ‘New Scientist!’ Making atom bombs in your bathroom, har, har!”

Our postmaster’s reaction emphasized the extent to which scientists, like hangmen, are socially disadvantaged by their trade. When I go to parties and fellow guests discover my occupation, they don’t know what to say next. I imagine that Syd Dernley, Britain’s last public hangman, would have faced a similar problem if he had turned up as a guest at a Somerset drinks party. What do you say to a hangman by way of polite conversation? “How did your last hanging go, Syd?” What do you say to scientist? “Made any good bombs lately?”

The hangman and the scientist alike are seen to occupy worlds that are closed, mysterious and often threatening to those outside. As a working scientist, I find this a hard pill to swallow, because I have loved science since my schooldays, and I am keen to share that love with others. On the other hand, I have to admit that Syd Dernley was equally in love with his own grisly trade. Syd (with the help of a ghost writer) revealed in his autobiography “The Hangman’s Tale” what the world of the hangman was really like. I have done the same for science in my partly autobiographical book “How to Dunk a Doughnut“.

The subtitle “The Science of Everyday Life” gives away the fact that this is not a conventional popular science book. I have tried to break the mould of popular science writing, which is usually concerned with great themes or about how science is important because of the way that it influences our lives. Such books serve a useful purpose when it comes to explaining what science does, but few of them reveal why we ask the questions that we do, and hardly any show what it feels like to be a scientist – not in the grand theoretical mould of a Newton or a Darwin, or the practical mould of an Edison or a Brunel, but the day-to-day mould of … well, someone like me.

Like most other scientists, I am driven by wanting to understand how things work. It is a drive that most people share, whether the “things” are personal relationships, business maneuverings, politics or the insides of cars. All of these people can explain their interests to those who do not share them. So why can’t scientists? Why does just about every popular science book that you pick up evoke unpleasant memories of school by trying to teach you instead of tell you?

Part of the problem lies with Nature. If Nature did the decent thing and followed the dictates of human common sense, her rules would be easy to talk about. The famous Victorian biologist T.H. Huxley was so sure that Nature must obey human logic that he even defined science as “applied common sense”. Huxley might have been 100% right in his famous defense of Darwinism against the strictures of Bishop Wilberforce but, when it came to defining science itself, he was closer to 100% wrong.

It has taken thousands of years of patient work for scientists to discover that many of the most important rules of Nature are counter-intuitive. It takes years of training for scientists to overcome their common sense and to accept the real rules of Nature to an extent where they can use those rules as tools in analyzing and understanding the physical world. Is it any wonder that we have problems in answering questions about our trade at drinks parties?

Luckily, it does not need a professional training to watch and follow how scientists apply Nature’s paradoxical rules, any more than it needs foot-balling skills to watch and follow a football match. In “How to Dunk a Doughnut” I act as the scientific equivalent of a football commentator who has played alongside some pretty good players, and who is now on the sidelines telling the crowd what is really going on out there. “Out there” is the ordinary world, and I show how a scientist might view the activities of an ordinary day, from the early morning dunking of a biscuit or doughnut to a connubial conclusion after a satisfying meal. Science has actually gained much from a consideration of such pedestrian activities. Newton discovered “Newton black films”, which are similar to the membranes that encapsulate all living cells, from watching the colours in soap bubbles in his bathroom. The Anglo-American Count Rumford discovered the principle of heat convection after burning his mouth on a hot apple pie. Benjamin Franklin discovered the nature of lightning by flying a kite in a thunderstorm, and found the first method for measuring the size of a molecule after observing the calming effect of dirty washing-up water on the waves in a ship’s wake.

Scientists at play (another theme of the book) have made equally important discoveries. My Bristol University colleague Mike Berry recently overturned a hundred years of conventional wisdom about magnetic levitation after observing the behaviour of a toy metal frog in a shop window. The American Irving Langmuir, skimming the tops of clouds with the wheels of his two-seater biplane just after the Second World War, made the crucial observation that led to the development of cloud seeding (and which also led to the remarkable effort by one American State to sue another for the theft of its rain).

Scientists think about everything in scientific terms, and we are forever on the lookout for curious phenomena and interesting interpretations. We are passionate about life, because every aspect of life fascinates us. Hardly any of us make bombs in our bathrooms. We are more likely to be found, as Newton was, playing with the soap bubbles in the bath. We view the world more through the eyes of a child than through the eyes of a Frankenstein. The Frankenstein image is still there though, and will probably remain until scientists learn to share their way of viewing the world more effectively. After my village postmaster produced his sally about “New Scientist” I wrote to the magazine, suggesting that a more accurate picture of the scientists and their enterprise might be engendered by changing the title to “New Environmentally Responsible Devotee of Science”. On second thoughts, maybe the new implied acronym would not be that helpful either. We obviously still have some way to go in improving our image. With How to Dunk a Doughnut I hope that I have at least taken a first step.

© This article is copyright Len Fisher. Please contact Len Fisher to seek permission to reproduce part or all of the above article.

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