Colin Pillinger: Our mission - to get people hooked on science without realising they've been caught

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The Independent Online

I am a great believer in sugaring the pill. We have to get the public to latch on to science without realising they are latching on.

There has always been this antipathy among the public: "I don't know about science, I don't understand, science is not for me." But people are much cleverer than they think. People say they don't know anything about space and then they spend 20 minutes talking to me about it, asking some really clever questions.

If you have to use James Bond as a vehicle I don't have a problem with that. Everyone has seen Star Wars. Bring them in and they don't know they are being taught something.

We have used all sorts of things to get people interested in Beagle 2 [Europe's mission to Mars]. We have to use every angle to get people into understanding that this time Britain is doing it. And we used the name Beagle because HMS Beagle, Darwin's ship, taught us everything we know about evolution on Earth. And Beagle 2 should tell us about life away from Earth.

There are people in universities who believe - and this is scandalous as far as I'm concerned - that all scientists should be doing is perpetuating their own image. They want to appeal to the clever guys: the next research scientists, the next Cambridge professors.

People have been moving away from science for a number of years and we have to reverse this trend. It is perceived as hard but it is not, as long as you start early with children.

What we are going to do on our space mission is to tell the public at the time, not when the research journals are published, so that we can appeal to the man in the street. I have spoken to everyone from five-year-olds to pensioners and everybody is interested. And you can get their interest - life beyond Earth is interesting.


Colin Pillinger is professor of planetary science at the Open University and the head scientist for the European Space Agency's 'Beagle 2' mission to Mars.