Sunday, 7 August 2011


by Mike Wiggett

Mike Wiggett retired in 2005 from the mundane business of international trade credit. The foreign business travel was OK, but he now enjoys travelling for pleasure, reading, scribbling and Thinking About What To Do Next.

Once on a trip to St Petersburg I found myself suddenly alone in the study of Peter the Great.  For a few brief, dizzy moments, I saw the room as he saw it, and wondered how I would have liked being Tsar of All the Russias. The modest refinement of Peter’s study, with its morocco-bound books, orrery and other astronomical instruments, was enviable. And perhaps it would have been fun to come home from Versailles and say, “Make me one of those”, and see it done. On the other hand... 

Even the most powerful 17th Century autocrat was in many ways less privileged than ordinary people today.  I’m much more travelled than Peter was, and he never googled, watched repeats of Columbo, or warmed his chocolate in the microwave. Moreover, Peter the Great lived in a world plagued – literally - with deadly pathogens, a world with no germ theory of disease, no antibiotics, no anaesthesia, in fact no medicine to speak of at allHe died at 52 from chronic bladder infection, possibly exacerbated by non-sterile surgery.  
Just 300 years on, science and technology have transformed our world into one Peter would barely recognize.  Hundreds of millions enjoy longevity and material prosperity unimaginable in his day We owe it all to science, every bit. 

And yet our culture has such an ungrateful, fractious, churlish attitude to science - science is seldom invited to the ball!  Britain has no easy familiarity with its many heroes of science, people who have shaped world history. We all know the dubious tale of Newton’s Apple, but how many know what he did when he wasn’t sitting under a tree? How many school-leavers have even heard of James Clerk Maxwell or Rosalind Franklin ? [1]  Sir Alec Jeffreys, perhaps?   

Rosalind Franklin
Not long ago, an arts-educated Brit asked me who Alan Turing was. I said Turing had invented the computer and that, thanks to his brilliant work in decrypting Hitler’s radio communications, he had made a crucial contribution to the defeat of the Nazis in WW2. Apart from that, he didn’t really do much. Turing has now received belated recognition, but a blue plaque in Wilmslow is not a monument in Westminster Abbey. To get one of those, writing poetry is a much better bet. 

Alan Turing
Public attitudes to science range from cool and warily respectful to distrustful, suspicious or downright hostile. The great Nobel physicist, Richard Feynman, was irked by the cliché that science is cold, mechanical, uncreative, unpoetic – a scientist cannot appreciate the beauty of a flower, but has to dissect it. In reclaiming normal human aesthetic sensibilities for scientists, Feynman observed that scientific awareness is not inferior to that of the artist: it is always more. A poet may extol the beauty of a flower, and the scientist can see that too, but (s)he also has a deeper appreciation of the flower through knowledge of its cell structure, its role in reproduction. The scientist asks fascinating questions: why is the flower red?  Bright colours attract bees to spread the pollen. So now you also know bees have colour vision. How did that come about?  And how did the flower make the shrewd choice of red in the first place? The wonder of Nature is endless. [2] 

Sadly, Feynman was not at my school back in the late 50s. My science teachers did not induce his “Pleasure of Finding Things Out.” Sure, we did “experiments” in the lab, but the teacher often told us in advance what was supposed to happen.  This wasn’t a process of discovery, it was cookery to a recipe. We heated the solution and weighed the precipitate and wrote it all down. We even cooked our results, knowing how much the precipitate was meant to weigh, because Sir had told us 

Richard Feynman
At least we learned how to describe an experiment in a manner useful in an exam, but we were not engaging our curiosity, our eyes and minds, to solve problems as the pioneers of physics and chemistry had to, with no text books to guide them. For many students in my class, this lab learning experience was alienating; science seemed to be an occult art, the province of a few geeks – nearly always male, with pens in their top pocket – who would later wear white coats in labs of their own. 
Alas, we were not being coached in the true glory of science, the very secret of its success: the Scientific Method - it teaches you how to think Feynman again:

"In general we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it. Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what would be implied if this law that we guessed is right. Then we compare the result of the computation to Nature, with experiment or experience, compare it directly with observation, to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is - if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. That's all there is to it." 

First trust the evidence, then your instincts. If only more of us did! I cringe to think I once accepted the claims of the I Ching uncritically. But I was young, and got over it. Still, this naivety was part of a general defect in our society: inadequate understanding of the importance and the power of evidence-based thinking – scientific thinking – and the great harm done by its opposites: credulity, superstition and prejudice. More on this next time...  

[1] Brenda Maddox's biography, Rosalind Franklin:The Dark Lady of DNA is spellbinding.

[2] The full Feynman conversation was the subject of a 1981 Horizon special, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. This is available on YouTube. Feynman also wrote a wonderful little book of the same title. See also Richard Dawkins’ book on the same theme, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder


  1. There is a great TED talk by physicist Leonard Susskind on his friendship with Richard Feynman, in which (as Mike does above) he encourages people to consider using less bologna (baloney):

    There is also footage from the BBC TV Archive of Feynman himself, discussing why physics is fun to imagine:

  2. Following on from your memories of studying science in school, there are also a couple of great TED talks by Sir Ken Robinson discussing creativity (or the lack of it) in schools. These are also the TED talks that many teachers say they show at the start of a new school year (where better to start a revolution in education than with the students themselves?):

    Sir Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity (2006):

    Sir Ken Robinson: Bring on the learning revolution! (2010):

  3. It always makes me very sad when scientists are labelled as not being creative or imaginative. Without either of these, science would never have advanced to the level it is today. Its a shame that our education system doesn't reflect that, or encourage these traits in science delivery.