Why science is going down the Tube

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The Independent Online
TRAVELLERS on the London Underground will probably look more confused than ever from today. After the success of Poems on the Underground, a new poster series is aiming to prompt commuters into doing something they are usually reluctant to do on a train: think.

The series of four posters on 4,000 advertising sites will each pose a scientific problem to think about - such as, will a snowman melt more or less quickly if you put a coat on it? *

But the new programme, which will continue with new sets of puzzles over the next two years, is only an indication of the way that science is gaining a growing audience among the public.

Next week sees the launch of Tomorrow's World, a glossy magazine which builds on the BBC TV series, first transmitted more than 30 years ago.

"It will appeal to a broad cross-section of both men and women aged 15 to 54 who are fascinated by the universe and our impact on it," said Stuart Snaith, publishing director for the magazine.

Certainly, the indication is that the interest is there: 13 million viewers watch Tomorrow's World or Horizon, 3.9 million people pick out science and technology stories in newspapers and magazines, and the BBC Tomorrow's World exhibition last month at the Birmingham NEC attracted 44,000 visitors over its five days.

The posters on the London Underground are being sponsored by the drugs company Glaxo Wellcome, the Institute of Physics, and Copus, the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science - which has in the past found that while people are eager to read about science, their understanding of it, and ability to apply its principles, can be woefully lacking.

A recent Copus survey found that a significant percentages of people believe that radioactivity can be removed from water by boiling (it can't; only time can do that) and that humans lived alongside dinosaurs (they are separate by at least 60 million years).

However, the Underground posters may make a difference. Instead of offering a passive question-and-answer format, they will leave the answer unspecified, giving instead the clues that people need to reach a conclusion - with the proviso that "it depends..." because in science, few issues are as clear-cut as people would like.

* The key issues are air temperature and insulation. To reach your answer, ask yourself - what would make the snowman melt faster? Does putting a coat on it have that effect?