That's interesting, science is exciting: Anne McLaren, president of the British Association, invites young and old to come to Loughborough and join in the fun

Click to follow
The Independent Online
As a child, I had a small part in the film of H G Wells's The Shape of Things to Come. In my scene, my great-grandfather was giving me a video history lesson in the year 2054 on space travel ('Mice that have gone round the moon]') and extinct diseases ('Atishoo] Did people really do that?').

Wells was wrong by a century about the moon. He failed to predict the huge technical advances in rocketry that accompanied the Second World War and the political factors leading to the 'Space Race', which put men, not mice, on the moon little more than 30 years after his film appeared. Let us hope he was right about the common cold, that it will soon join dinosaurs and smallpox in extinction.

Perhaps it was that early history lesson which sparked my interest in science, and in the popularisation of science. Wells and J B S Haldane were the two most inspired popular science writers this country has known, and both were keen supporters of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA).

The BA's Annual Festival of Science is being held in Loughborough University of Technology this week. Its theme is 'Science in the World Around Us'. I like this title because to me it means two quite different things.

Science and scientific explanations really are all around us in the world - and I am not thinking just of global warming or gene therapy, but more of questions like why the sky is blue during the day but black at night, why you burn your fingers on a metal saucepan handle but not a wooden one, why ice floats.

These are the sort of questions children ask. I believe children are born scientists, intensely interested in and curious about the world around them, highly observant, and with a very early understanding of experimental method. School and exams seems to extinguish many children's interest in science. Several sessions at the BA meeting will be asking why this should be and what can be done about it.

The second meaning of 'Science in the World Around Us' relates to the international nature of science. In addition to being this year's president of the BA, I wear another hat as foreign secretary of the Royal Society. As such, I am particularly interested in the international aspect, and delighted that the International Federation of Associations for the Advancement of Science and Technology will be meeting at the science festival, as guests of the BA. Science today is in some ways the equivalent of the medieval trade guilds. Just as an English silversmith in the Middle Ages would have felt very much at home with his Italian counterpart, even though they had little shared language, so scientists may feel that they have more in common with their colleagues in Japan or Cuba or India than they do with many non-scientists in their own country.

A major aim of the BA is to show nonscientists that science can be interesting and exciting, not just boring and difficult. The success of the national week of science, engineering and technology, held in March, showed how much interest and enthusiasm for science exists all over Britain. At the Loughborough festival, this interest and enthusiasm will be focused on a single campus. There will be nearly 500 talks, as well as exhibitions, experiments, road shows, films and a special three-day programme of hands-on science for children aged 8-18. The Archbishop of York; Liz Forgan, managing director of BBC Network Radio; Sir Leon Brittan; and P D James will be joining in the fun.

We are particularly pleased that David Hunt, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and thus the cabinet minister with responsibility for science, will spend a day at the festival. His post has a great many responsibilities, but clearly he ranks science and technology high among them.

The BA covers social sciences as well as natural sciences. Of those nearly 500 talks, some are just 'natural' and some just 'social'. There are fascinating sessions, for example, on the origin of life, on the way cells communicate with one another, on chaos theory and neural networks and virtual reality.

Among social science sessions are some on the NHS (does the 'market' in health care destroy the traditional values of our healthcare system?); on crime, its causes and consequences; and on education, with Sir Claus Moser reviewing the recent report of the National Commission on Education and looking at prospects for the future.

But most sessions will involve both 'natural' and 'social' science. There is a growing realisation that much of social science relies heavily on the backing of natural science, and much of natural science only makes sense in the context of social science. World population growth, the importance of family planning and new contraceptive approaches, the role of women and the education of women; our global environment, climate change, ozone depletion and its effects in medicine and agriculture; all this and much more awaits you in Loughborough. Come along for a day, or for the whole week.

The author is president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and a senior researcher at the Institute of Cancer and Developmental Biology, Cambridge.

For information on the BA meeting, phone 0509 222382.

(Photographs omitted)