Science can be fun. Well, almost

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The Independent Culture
In a few days time I shall be visiting a secondary school in the Midlands, where I have been invited to hand out prizes and say "a few encouraging words". Such a prospect is daunting: what exactly do teenagers expect to hear from a middle-aged university lecturer in, worse still, a science subject? A few years ago, the prospect of addressing a school audience would have terrified me. But then, in 1994, I gave the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures and my whole perspective changed. Before they are transformed into sophisticated undergraduates, I discovered, school children can be blatantly and unselfconsciously enthusiastic.

"So how does the brain work, then?" asked one bright-eyed girl of about 12. We were gathered around Faraday's famous lecturing desk at the end of one talk: I was enchanted that she thought that it was only because I had not been allowed a few minutes more, that I had not quite had the time to explain how our 100 billion neurons were orchestrated to give rise to the subjective, astonishing sensation of individual consciousness. I still remember vividly her excitement and bubbling curiosity - the feeling that there was a whole world of questions just waiting to be asked.

So why is an obvious, glaring interest in "doing" science so notoriously untapped in many secondary schools? My audience may well not be surprised that my theme, inevitably, will be about the joys of science research. Over the last few years I have realised that young people can often be turned off what is regarded as a "cold", "factual" subject in favour of literature and history. Why might this easy schism, where there is apparently no contest as regards what is most "interesting", arise?

I fear that the situation may not have changed that much from when I was at school. When the only way you could make your particular mark in science was by being exceptionally neat. I personally found, and indeed still do, such a remit beyond me. Aside from such a goal however, our task was most often stultifyingly dreary. We would have to copy out the nitrogen cycle say, or show how water is distilled. Perhaps the most enterprising one was in drawing the sad and seemingly unrewarding life cycle of an amoeba, where some originality might be exercised in how the "pseudopodia" were extended, thus enabling locomotion. Even reproduction offered no illustrative challenges or romantic inspiration, since you just drew the amoeba dividing into two.

By contrast the arts subjects offered stimulation and inspiration to much that occupied my fevered adolescent thoughts, such as why people fall in love, and why wars start. True, in the case of foreign literature, the apprenticeship of different grammars and vocabularies had to be assailed: but the end was clearly in sight. In literature and history, scenes and scenarios provided frameworks and launch pads for, joy of joys, one's own ideas. The stencilling of a conical flask was a poor rival.

Perhaps it has all changed now, but perhaps not enough. My own impression, gleaned from such interaction as I have had with young people over the past few years, is that there is still the overwhelming impression that in science, the facts are engraved inviolate in stone; there is no room left anymore for a personal discovery, or an individual idea. As the curriculum becomes more demanding, the pressure to pass exams, and to pass them well, ever greater, it may seem over-indulgent to point to the hazy and distant frontiers of science. On the other hand, it is the very uncertainty prompting an experiment that gives the buzz.

Once you can "do" real scientific research as opposed to the pre-ordained protocols of practical classes, then a whole new world opens up. It is a world where you can have ideas, as in arts subjects, but - even better - go on to test whether or not they are true. The procedure is indeed "cold" and objective, but the concepts and the results and rewards are intensely personal. If young people, especially girls, were reassured that science can be fun and as relevant to life as any other subject, perhaps we would not have to go in for all the hand-wringing and breast-beating that happens at the start of the academic year, when science places at universities can be left tragically vacant. I shall be trying to convey to my Midlands audience that it is worth hanging in there with the amoeba and the nitrogen cycle.

! Susan Greenfield is a neuro scientist at the University of Oxford, and Gresham Professor of Physic, London. `The Human Mind Explained' edited by Susan Greeenfield (Cassell pounds 20), is now in bookshops