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

The Saturday Column

Share
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.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Account Manager

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Trainee Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Police officers attempt to stop illegal migrants from jumping onto trucks headed for Britain in the northeastern French port of Calais on October 29, 2014  

Tighter security in Calais won’t solve the problem

Nigel Morris
 

Football needs its Martin Luther moment, and soon

Boyd Tonkin
US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines