The sad story of how we learnt to mistrust science

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

Share

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.

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Up Ankara, for a tour of great crapital cities

Dom Joly
 

Rebekah Brooks to return? We all get those new-job jitters

John Mullin
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future