Science: All the answers from dial-a-boffin: And now, everything you ever wanted to know about science but were too afraid to ask. Christopher Riley introduces a new telephone helpline
Monday 21 March 1994
In the run-up to today the demand for the service was tested on selected Equinox programmes from dinosaurs to space shuttles. Last year, I took part in the first trial of the scheme, joining the dinosaur and DNA experts who staffed the telephones. We found a science-thirsty public yearning to learn.
The experiment in science communication began during Channel 4's Dinomania weekend last summer. An Equinox special 'The Real Jurassic Park' challenged the science behind Spielberg's film and asked whether it was indeed still science fiction or science fact. In Acton the dinosaur experts were fidgeting nervously near their telephones as the programme drew to a close.
When the light on my phone started to flash and I picked up the receiver, it was Steve from Ayrshire. 'I've got this theory . . .' he began, as if about to launch into a Monty Python sketch. 'You know this greenhouse effect . . . well, some of it is caused by the methane produced by cattle, isn't it?' he added rhetorically. In response to my silence, he continued. 'Well wouldn't it have been a greater problem when dinosaurs were around . . . just think of all the methane that a Brachiosaurus would produce in a day. Do you think that might have been what wiped them out . . .?'
It was dusk on a Sunday afternoon and 20 scientists were hunched over their desks in a large airy room in north Acton, telephones pressed to their ears, all engrossed in something scientists are not reknowned for - communicating with the public. The science line, funded by the Wellcome Foundation, the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Society among others, aims to provide a way for the public to discuss the issues and ideas arising in the media.
After Steve, I replaced the receiver and the light flashed again immediately. Dale was only four and his parents whispered the question to him in the background as he relayed it to me. 'Which was the scariest dinosaur?' he stammered.
By 8pm I had answered 23 calls and could confidently tell anyone that Seismosaurus was 36 metres long, Tyrannosaurus Rex probably slept like many reptiles today, Quetzacoatlus probably flew at the speed of a light aircraft and that more than three billion bases are needed in a length of DNA able to clone a dinosaur. I had told excited children on the Isle of Skye that dinosaur footprints had been found close to their homes, and had given advice to a night-watchman in Manchester on how to become a palaeontologist.
Jean from Plymouth, who left school at 16 and is now 27 with a young family, rang to say she has a dream - to clean dinosaur bones. 'My husband thinks I'm mad,' she added, 'but I'm going to show him.' David in Rugby had found dinosaur bones in his garden but it proved difficult to date them over the telephone. I suggested he go along to the museum in Leicester.
By Monday evening we had logged more than 700 calls from across Britain. A greater proportion of calls had come from Northern Ireland and Scotland than elsewhere. In two days I only took one call from London.
The Dinomania weekend had triggered a cascade of questions and ponderings about these terrible lizards - thoughts that most people have at some time in their lives, but quickly forget in the absence of readily available answers. Channel 4 had rekindled many of these ideas and the science line provided the opportunity to discuss them immediately by dialling a free number; a prospect that was happily just too tempting for many.
When the dinosaur line was run again in September last year on a 37p per minute service, it only received a handful of calls. Cost clearly overrides the need for information and the new service will be charged at a local call rate. This second experiment was set to run for a week after the Equinox programme had been broadcast, but calls stopped after 48 hours, reflecting the immediate need to discuss a question before it is forgotten.
Why did so many people tune into a science programme on a Sunday night and why did more than 700 of them ring up to talk to a scientist afterwards? The public fear of science is well known. The majority of calls in the summer came from children under 16, oblivious to the stigma of science. But the age of callers to the other lines was much broader.
Programme-makers have long pondered the problem of how to disguise science - a word which conjures up negative images of bearded Open University presenters in kipper ties. It is no coincidence that few science television programmes have the word science in their title. Viewers must not know that they are about to be fed a diet of science. The BBC's Tomorrow's World and Sky's Beyond 2000 get round the problem with a futuristic label. Equinox tends to look for the science story behind already popular topics - topics that have lost, or never had, that 'kiss of death' science label. After all, dinosaurs aren't science, are they?
The next few months will prove that the public's thirst for science is probably unquenchable. Whatever your query, from statistics on the Hubble telescope to fossils in your back garden, or careers in science and courses at colleges and universities, the science line staff and their tame scientists are awaiting your calls.
The Science Line, 0345-600-444, is open from 1pm-7pm today; calls are charged at local rate.
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