Are You A Scientist?

If you hang out with members of the scientific community for a while (say, more than about ten minutes) you will almost certainly be asked this question. I know this because I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked, mostly very politely and by immensely likeable people. I usually answer it with a jokey “No, I’m actually a chef, but I’m a science groupie” and the conversation moves on – I have a certain self-deprecating charm, even if I say so myself.

The Theatre at The Royal Institution

The Theatre at The Royal Institution

But the question doesn’t always have such genial overtones. Recently I went to an evening at The Royal Institution about the fear response and its effects, which was being hosted by a friend. The scientists speaking on the topic certainly had plenty of kudos – Dr Annemieke Apergis-Schoute and Dr Annette Bruehl were both fascinating and eloquent. But for a particular few, the framing of their talks was an issue.

The host was TV broadcaster Dallas Campbell, and Dallas is not a professional scientist but an enthusiastic cheerleader. We’re similar in many ways. The same age, we both pretty much managed to ignore science at school and pursue a life of drama instead (though his acting career was considerably more successful than my Guildhall Bronze Certificate lying in the bottom of my mum’s drawer). We both came back to science in our twenties by chance encounters (me with a Richard Feynman book at Monterey Aquarium, him with Richard Dawkins in a skip – long story), and we both now have a love of science while still seeing ourselves as “outsiders looking in”.

The Royal Institution had asked him to curate three evenings of lectures and he readily agreed – who wouldn’t? But there was never any question that he would provide any of the education content himself. He was there as the name, the face, the person who chose the topic and pulled in the punters. He was the pleasant icing that lured us to the substantial and filling cake underneath. So when the inevitable “are you a scientist?” question came from an audience member at the end of the show, I couldn’t help but think “No, but does it matter?”

I’m sure I will be asked more than once why I’ve started this blog, and while it’s easy and trite to call myself an “enthusiastic outsider” or a “cheerleader” for my friends, I have to wonder why that question matters. Are you interested in why somebody keeps a music blog of the gigs they’ve been to, a fashion blog, a fan site for their favourite soap actor? You might be, but to me the questions about my interest in science always seem to have an undertone… “What, are you weird? Why would you be interested in that? You must have an ulterior motive, surely…”

I’d always struggled to explain until Dallas told me his own brilliant analogy. Imagine if science were music. If you go to a music gig, nobody asks you if you have a music degree, or what particular field of music you work in. You don’t have to be a professional musician to love music, listen to records, watch concerts or anything else. And most of all, you don’t have to have a background in music theory or have mastered an instrument to give you an emotional response. It’s there, it’s innate, from the smallest baby with it’s mother humming it to sleep, to the 15 year old at their first gig, to the elderly man with his Shostakovitch vinyl. It’s just there, and nobody questions it. So why question a love of science? Surely our curiosity to analyse the world around us is innate too?

I’m lucky enough to have scientific friends who work in all forms of research and communication. And to them, my lack of qualifications matter one hell of a lot less than my enthusiasm to learn new things and my desire to plonk science snugly into my list of life experiences. So I will write this blog as an enthusiastic amateur, a dabbler, someone who is curious and passionate and proud of it. After all, if everyone who goes to a science communication event is a qualified scientist, doesn’t it mean sci-comm is failing? Do scientists want to talk to the people who hated the site of a test-tube at school, or preach to the converted?

Of course we must always ensure that science events are thoroughly researched by those qualified to do it, but in terms of presentation sometimes we need enthusiastic unqualified scientists, the people like Dallas and Robin Ince with their arts degrees, to draw people in with their sheer, demonstrative joy. The people who think science is boring, who hated pushing trolleys down ramps in physics lessons, whose sole interest in biology ended when the reproduction module was over, need that. There are plenty of scientifically qualified media personalities too, from the brilliant Jim Al-Khalili and Mark Miodownik on BBC4, through to Dr Chris and Dr Xand Van Tulleken, the identical twins at the heart of CBBC’s Operation Ouch. Their love of their work and their enthusiasm shines through. But to the determined science avoider, someone who can say “I didn’t like science at school either, but take a look at this….” plays an important role. Thank goodness The Royal Institution can see that.


Michael Faraday

And I think The Royal Institution get this more than many for a very special reason. He’s the man whose statue is at the top of this blog. Michael Faraday received very little formal education, and only had a very basic understanding of maths (he was OK at basic algebra but trigonometry was beyond him). And yet he was one of Britain’s greatest scientists. Faraday was talented in many fields, but arguably his greatest gift was to communicate his ideas clearly and simply.

Born in 1791, Faraday came from a poor family and received only a very basic education. He became apprenticed to a bookbinder at 14 but throughout his apprenticeship he read voraciously. At 20 his life changed forever when he attended a series of lectures by Humphry Davy at The Royal Institution, and subsequently sent Davy the copious notes he’d made. Davy employed Faraday as Chemical Assistant, then as his secretary, and the story of Faraday’s remarkable life begins there. It was too long and busy for me to write about here, but I really recommend you read a bit more about him. It’s easy to say, of course, that Faraday’s passion for science was always there and it was merely his class that held him back from a formal education. But to me, he has become a symbol of how its never too late to learn, and how a working class person like me can’t be held back from learning if my enthusiasm is intact.

My point is, Michael Faraday was not a “qualified” scientist. He held no degree and just a basic formal education. But his enthusiasm and determination to teach himself, and his bold experimentation, carried him through. Not everyone will be as brilliant or gifted as Faraday, in fact if someone matches his achievements in my lifetime I’ll consider myself blessed to have shared the planet with them. Yet he is the perfect example of how a love of science won out over paper qualification.

So when I watched a good mate presenting a science lecture at The Royal Institution I was proud, qualified scientist or not. Personally I don’t think Faraday would have been turning in his grave, he would have been right there in the front row with a big grin on his face.

Michael Faraday’s Laboratory in the basement of The Royal Institution

Michael Faraday’s Laboratory in the basement of The Royal Institution