Christina Patterson: Why we are shamed by Robert Boyle's pursuit of knowledge

The Saturday Column

Related Topics

If you want to get anything done, you need to set some goals. I make lists of them all the time. "Wash up, call bank, query gas bill" etc, and then the ones in a different coloured Biro, with a matching tick – the tell-tale sign of the cheat. If I don't put "wake up" or "brush teeth", I'd sometimes like to. You can't beat a list ticked off.

When Robert Boyle made a list in the 1660s, he didn't bother with the brushing of teeth. He wanted new ones. "Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of it, as new Teeth, new Hair colour'd as in youth" was one of 24 items he jotted down. Others included "The Art of Flying" and "the Prolongation of Life". We are, clearly, not just talking a 17th-century Gok Wan.

What we are talking is a major scientist (one of the founders of the Royal Society) who was also a kind of prophet. More than 350 years after the list was made, most of the items can be ticked. Life has certainly been "prolonged" beyond the 40-year span that was then normal, and it's hard to find a woman who doesn't dye her hair or anyone on telly who doesn't fix their teeth. We have mastered "the Art of Flying" (though not of plugging volcanoes). We have, alas, got pretty near to "The Attaining of Gigantick Dimensions". We've even managed "The Cure of Diseases... by transplantation", backed up by a battery of "Potent Druggs" to "appease pain". And if we haven't quite achieved "Freedom from Necessity of much Sleeping", we can certainly tell Boyle "what happens in Mad-Men". (And that Joan's as luscious as Nell Gwynne.)

It's a fabulous list, written at the time that Newton was discovering gravity, and Pepys was writing his diary, and London was being ravaged by the bubonic plague. And we can see it! From Monday, Boyle's handwritten notebooks will, together with pictures, scientific instruments and wood from Newton's apple tree, be on display at the Royal Society, as part of an exhibition on 350 Years of Science. It sounds fascinating even for scientific dimwits like me. Especially, in fact, for scientific dimwits like me.

When I read a newspaper headline this week saying that this would be the hottest year on record, my first thought was "Great!". Then I remembered that heating planets didn't just mean chilled Chablis on sun-drenched patios, but droughts, starvation and death. I know this, because the vast majority of scientists know this, because they have taken the measurements, and done the graphs, and drawn the diagrams (or whatever it is that scientists do) and tapped them into a computer, and the result is clear. The result is doom. But if I really knew this in the way that the scientists who have done the graphs know this, I don't think I'd be thinking global warming = chilled Chablis. I think I'd be thinking WE HAVE TO TAKE SOME ACTION NOW.

There's a big, big problem with science. Or perhaps I should say there's a big, big problem with our ignorance about science. We believe the nincompoops who say that global warming is all a scare story dreamt up by woolly-hatted disciples of George Monbiot. We believe the charlatans who peddle little white pills made largely of water as if they were a relic of the true cross. We believe a British doctor who says that protecting middle-class children from measles causes autism, and the buy-organic-from-Ocado brigade who tell us that all GM crops are bad. We believe, in other words, pretty much anything, because we don't know what we're talking about, and we can't be arsed to find out.

The more technology we have at our fingertips, the less we use our brains. Mental arithmetic went out with the calculator; map-reading with the sat-nav; fixing things with Far East manufacturing and built-in obsolescence. We jabber away on our mobiles, without a clue how they work, and worry that they cause cancer. We worry that clingfilm causes cancer. If we understood anything at all about risk, we'd know that smoking, drinking and not eating vegetables causes cancer, or at least it substantially increases the risk. But if we can't even add up the price of our shopping, how can we begin to understand risk?

It was bad enough before. It was bad enough when people like me ditched science at 16 and chucked out half our brains with the Bunsen burners, saving the remnants for commas in Camus or semi-colons in Shakespeare's sonnets. It was bad enough when people like me boasted that we hadn't even opened A Brief History of Time. But now that everyone wants to do media or cultural studies, and now that we have a country run by career politicians and PR men, it's a serious worry. The stakes, as the residents of the soon-to-be-submerged Maldives might tell us, couldn't be higher. Boy, do we need our Robert Boyles.

It's a small blessing not having one of these big jobs

For anyone not mad about their job, there's an instant panacea. Just imagine that you're the chief executive of BP, or the spokesman for the Israeli government, or the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and you can only feel a rush of relief. One minute you're having breakfast with your family and the next you're having to send out Dad's Army-type "don't panic" messages about the biggest leak in world history, or pretend that the actions of violent racist thugs against peaceful protesters are a move towards peace in the Middle East, or step into the shoes of (it now seems) a man who was both a saint and Einstein in order to (of course) "wield the axe".

And then there's Steve Jobs. You finally get to unveil the snazziest, sexiest gizmo in the history of mankind, and all people want to talk about is the suicides, and attempted suicides, of the people who make it. For God's sake! The Foxconn factory, Jobs said this week, is more like a hotel than a sweatshop. "They've got restaurants, movie theatres, hospitals and swimming pools," he said. He didn't mention the anti-suicide nets. He didn't mention the 30p-an-hour pay rates, or the 12-hour shifts where you're not allowed to talk. He didn't mention the nerve damage suffered by workers making Apple touch screens at a factory nearby. But you can't make an omelette, as all these men might tell you, without breaking a few eggs.

Equality: We need more women in white

We don't, with the exception of Margaret on The Apprentice, allow women with white hair anywhere near the telly, and we certainly don't let women with white hair anywhere near the Government. (Mind you, it's getting to the point where we won't let men with white hair near the Government either. Somewhere, no doubt, in the greatest document since Magna Carta published by the ConDem coalition, there's a clause proposing the euthanasia of politicians over the age of 45.)

In France, they do things differently. In France, they have Christine Lagarde. Elegant and, by the way, a former member of the French synchronised swimming team, Lagarde was the first woman to become finance minister for a G8 economy and was last year ranked by the FT as the best. Deeply impressive. Deeply grown-up. And we have Harriet Harman.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Primary Supply Teacher - Loughborough

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Are you a Teacher looking fo...

Primary General Cover Teachers

Negotiable: Randstad Education Leicester: Are you a Newly Qualified Teacher lo...

Part Time Primary Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Part Time Primary TeacherOur...

Science Technician

£7 - £8 per hour: Randstad Education Cheshire: The Job:School Science Technici...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ballots arrive to be counted at the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre during the Scottish referendum in Aberdeen  

Scottish referendum: The pain that was inflicted on family and friends by David Cameron’s narrow politics

Andrea Calderwood

Scottish referendum: The people of my country have brought a catastrophe upon themselves by voting No

Simon Brooke
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week