Steve Connor: Never let the facts get in the way of a story

Science Notebook

Saturday 22 October 2011 23:49

One has to feel sorry for Professor Michael Reiss, forced to resign this week as director of science education at the Royal Society for giving a speech on creationism that was "open to misinterpretation". Professor Reiss's crime was to suggest that science teachers should be allowed to discuss creationism when the subject is brought up by pupils from religious families.

But wait a minute. Isn't this the official position of the Royal Society, and indeed the Government? As the Royal Society itself said in a statement announcing Professor Reiss's departure: "If a young person raises creationism in a science class, teachers should be in a position to explain why evolution is a sound scientific theory and why creationism is not."

This sounds remarkably similar to what Professor Reiss said last week in his speech to the British Association's Science Festival. Unfortunately, the talk also carried the title: "Should creationism be part of the science curriculum?" He never said that creationism should be "taught" in science lessons, only that science teachers should be able to deal with it as a "world view" that has no scientific merit.

In a conference telephone call he gave to several journalists before his talk, I asked Professor Reiss to clarify whether he thought creationism should actually be "taught" in science lessons. "No, I do not," was his unequivocal reply to all of those present.

Yet a number of newspapers reported that this was his position, which led to frenzied reaction from some distinguished fellows of the Royal Society, who presumably put pressure on the Society's President, Lord Rees of Ludlow, to get rid of Professor Reiss. It seems a deeply unjust way for an employer to deal with an employee who was misrepresented through no fault of his own.

Circle of wisdom

And the winner is... Halo. This should be the new name for the Large Hadron Collider, according to the judges of a competition run by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

The society felt that Large Hadron Collider at Cern just didn't roll off the tongue easily, and launched a £500 prize to rename it with a simple, more memorable moniker that can also confer some grandeur to the machine destined to give us the ultimate "theory of everything".

"Halo conjures up visions of radiant beauty, power and wisdom," says the Society in its winning citation. "The circle of light reflects the collider's form; it is a crowning achievement of science and engineering. It also gives more than a nod to the experiment's importance to religious debate."

Other contenders ranged from Deep Thought, the computer that tried to calculate the answer to life, the Universe and everything in Douglas Adam's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, to Big Bang 2.0. My favourite was E=M25, in honour of another ring where lots of collisions take place.

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