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

Software Developer (Java /C# Programmer)- London

£30000 - £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A global investment management fi...

Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CCNP, Cisco, London)

£65000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CC...

Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, Cisco, CISSP)

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, C...

Senior Network Engineer-(Design, Implementation, CCIE)

£60000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(Design, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letters: The West flounders in the Middle East morass

Independent Voices
David Tennant as Hamlet  

To vote no or not to vote no, that is the question... Although do celebrities really have the answer?

David Lister
All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition