Science matters to us all . . .

Hailed by some as the new David Attenborough (who, over five decades or more, has brought some of the most iconic programs about the natural world to the small screen), Manchester University and CERN physics Professor Brian Cox seems to be on TV almost every other week. He’s almost become the ‘rock star’ of TV science – which is apt since in his youth (he’s not exactly in his dotage now, being only 45) he was a member of the group D:Ream (I have to admit to never having heard of them before despite their 1993 song,Things Can Only Get Better, being adopted by Britain’s New Labour during the 1997 General Election campaign).

I’m not one of Cox’s greatest fans. He’s good when he sticks to his own specialty of physics and similar (even though I have a hard time following him – and he’s obsessed with very large numbers, billions and billions, which I can’t get my head around). His 2011 series Wonders of the Universe was quite compelling. I found him less convincing in his early 2013 series, Wonders of Life (when he slipped into ‘David Attenborough’ mold). I find his constant simpering smile quite off-putting, but I guess it’s rather unfair to condemn him for that.

Last week he began a new three-part series, Science Britannica, in which he celebrates British science and explores the contributions of British science and scientists to making our world a better place.

Brian Cox is a natural broadcaster, and his enthusiasm for science does come across. It is quite likely that the upsurge of interest in science subjects among schoolchildren can be attributed to the popular following of his TV programs. However, the one thing that I do admire most, are his clear and simple explanations of what science is (and what it isn’t), how science is carried out (and how it can be and is sometimes carried out badly). In short, his explanation of the ‘scientific method’ is key in today’s world of conflicting ideas, perspectives and policy – that may be based on sound scientific evidence. Or maybe not. Based on empiricism, development of hypotheses, experimentation and peer review, science provides an insight into how the world operates. And this is so important, as I have pointed out recently in this blog. It’s particularly relevant, say, to the acceptance or rejection of anthropogenic climate warming. The rejection of genetically modified crops without sound scientific basis is another reason to be concerned about the misunderstanding of science. These and more Brian Cox has tackled in the first two parts of the Science Britannica series.

Given my enthusiasm for explaining the importance of science, I was very disturbed yesterday to read about the ‘fear of science’ among House Republicans in the US Congress, blocking the appointment of a US Science Laureate. Read the story here.

I came to science late, in one sense. So I don’t count myself in the same league as those scientists who have focused their entire careers seeking knowledge. I kept my study options quite broad until I went to graduate school. And although my botany PhD finally gave me a sense of scientific purpose, I’ve always had a broader perspective than just one relatively narrow area of science. But, I am passionate about science communication, so I am pleased that my alma mater, the University of Birmingham, has appointed Alice Roberts as Professor of Public Engagement in Science. Animal behaviorist Richard Dawkins (and now mathematician Marcus du Sautoy) was the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University.

One of the best lectures I’ve ever heard about the importance of science (doing the right science, and doing the science right) was the 2012 Richard Dimbleby Lecture on the BBC delivered by President of the Royal Society and Nobel Laureate (and 1970 University of Birmingham biology alumnus!) Professor Sir Paul Nurse. He explains, in a remarkable feat of oratory what science means to him, and why we need to continue to invest in science and scientists. I couldn’t agree more. His lecture is worth 45 minutes of anyone’s time.

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