The sad story of how we learnt to mistrust science

Chemistry should create unlimited joy for schoolkids as you get to blow things up
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The Independent Online

Yesterday, some pictures were released of the most distant things ever seen, a group of stars 13 billion light years away. Yet most of us hardly noticed. Because when you see pictures from space, you can't help thinking: "To be honest, when you've seen one galaxy you've seen them all."

Yesterday, some pictures were released of the most distant things ever seen, a group of stars 13 billion light years away. Yet most of us hardly noticed. Because when you see pictures from space, you can't help thinking: "To be honest, when you've seen one galaxy you've seen them all."

Even if you pressed people to ponder on the fact that we're seeing images of space as it was 13 billion years ago, you'd probably get a reaction like: "Ooh, I bet it's seen some changes in all that time." And someone might say: "I tell you what, back then, you could go out and leave your solar system unlocked. Nowadays, they'd have the radio out of it, then nick the tail off a comet. I ask you."

It's taken an extraordinary effort to make the human race so blasé about such astonishing findings, that starts with the way science is usually taught at school. Chemistry, for example, should create unlimited joy for schoolkids, as you work out how the universe is made and get to blow things up. But instead, you learn rubbish like periodic tables, which makes as much sense as if PE consisted of reciting all the teams in the Scottish second division.

Because you can't get anyone normal to be enthusiastic about science unless you present the big picture, of how every major breakthrough was not the result of lists and equations but of a fantastic philosophical leap of imagination. Whereas during my chemistry lessons, if a spaceship had pulled up outside the classroom, the teacher would have yelled: " Why are you staring out of the window? Do you think you'll learn what comes after lithium by looking at aliens?" Then he might clap his hands and say: "That's enough. Watching Timothy being sucked out of the room by an overpowering beam of light may have been fun, and I enjoy fun as much as anyone, but it's the end of year test in four weeks so let's get back to phosphorus."

Even as an adult, the benefits of science are not always obvious. The newest invention to reach a mass market is the iPod, the cause of conversations that begin: "I've upgraded to a model that holds 5,000 tracks." Which is vital, because otherwise, if you were on the way to Sainsbury's and decided instead to go on a round the world canoeing expedition, you'd only get as far as Cape Town when you'd have to start listening to some tracks twice.

The image of science isn't helped by the fact that every science fiction film has a scientist who says lines like: "I beg you, don't shoot it. The giant centipede may have devoured the population of San Francisco, but it's vital that we keep it alive in the interests of science."

Over the last few years, there has been a series of popular science books, but these can make people even more sceptical. Especially as they have titles like "Universe in a thimble - the shocking revelation that the universe is half an inch long." And on the bottom of the cover, it says: "It made me go all woozy" - Geri Halliwell.

But mostly, science now appears to be at the heart of the establishment. It gives us smart bombs and GM foods and models with unfeasible tits, and whenever a scientist appears telling you something is perfectly safe you can't help thinking: "Oh yeah, what's he up to?"

One of the results of this is that many of the people most sceptical towards authority are the most cynical about science, whereas in the battle to establish a rational system over the divine right of kings, science and revolution accompanied one another. Shelley wrote that a just society would be dominated by "science, poetry and thought". Tom Paine, Benjamin Franklin and Jean-Paul Marat were scientists as well as revolutionaries.

One of the saddest aspects of the modern trend to mistrust science as a whole is that it assumes science to be in opposition to romance. As if the whole process of working out how the universe works robs it of its natural beauty.

Yet most prominent scientists have been driven by their imagination. Newton was an alchemist who, at one point, seemed to believe he could make himself invisible. And Einstein was suspended from school because "you always sit at the back smiling."

Recently, I've been trying to figure out how his theory of relativity works, and every time I think I've understood a new bit, I feel like knocking on the nearest door and yelling to random strangers: "Here, if you've got a kiddies' blackboard, I'll show you".

The attraction of science is that if you look at those pictures of distant stars, and spend a few seconds contemplating what they represent, they aren't just cosmic bodies, they're beautiful. Tony Blair might see it differently. If a kid ever says to him that he'd like to be an astronaut, Blair probably says: "Well that would make good sense as it's a career that offers a very favourable pay scale after the initial training."

Which isn't to say he won't be interested in the newly discovered distant galaxy. I expect he's already suggested it to Bernie Ecclestone as an ideal offshore tax haven.

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