Why is science important? As a teacher – faced with the inevitable question: "what’s the point of studying science?" - I set out to discover how leading scientists, writers and science teachers would reply. The answers were varied, intriguing and sometimes just plain emotional.
I started work as a science teacher at a secondary school in London in January 2008. It marked my return to teaching after a seven year period working in television. Upon returning to the classroom, it struck me that we weren't doing much to teach the most important thing of all: that science is important.
Anyone who knows me will confirm that I wear my passion for science on my sleeve, but I don't think that's enough. Nor do I think it's enough to assume that the importance of science is somehow implicit in the courses I teach; that it will somehow seep into my students' consciousness through the sheer number of hours they spend doing so-called science at school. Having spent the last few years making films about things like particle physics and mathematics, I started to think that a film might be a useful way of addressing this.
So, in October 2008, after months spent securing funding, I started work on a film in which I planned to interview high profile scientists, writers and teachers about why they felt science was important. I also started up a blog, which I planned to use for research and as a record of my journey making the film. However, the blog very quickly took on a life of its own - people from all over the world were coming forward to contribute their answers to the question "why is science important"; and it quickly became clear that the film should really be based on the blog, not the other way round.
I completed the film in mid-March 2009 and so far the response has been positive, particularly from US teachers. However, the project still needs the support of people around the world if we are to share the message that science is important. It's an ambitious idea – to try and get people to commit to watching a half-hour film on the internet; after all, it's not just a funny clip of a cat falling into a puddle or some other meaningless "viral" that can amuse people for 30 seconds. I have concerns that the project may simply be "preaching to the choir", only reaching those people who already appreciate and understand the importance of science, and I think those concerns will only go away once the viewing figures for the film are much, much higher.
When I stared this project, my goal was to make it easier for any science teacher to answer that inevitable question, "What's the point of all this?" and I hope I have done that. The results have surpassed my best expectations – I have received nearly 100 responses to my question, from high-profile scientists and writers as well as from fellow science teachers.
How did they reply? Read on to find out the sometimes surprising answers....
"Without science, we wouldn't know where to start..."
As part of the project, I collected essays, video clips and even a couple of comic strips. The most bizarre answer had to be from Mark Miodownik, who argued in a video clip that "science is your mum" (it totally makes sense once you hear his explanation). I really loved the response from Maya Hawes, a 12-year-old student of mine, who eloquently explains why science is not "only about blowing up things and making potions".
As the project developed, it was clear that most of the responses fell into a few broad categories. The first category to stand out was one in which people explain how science has given us the technological world we live in. This response is typified by Jacob Aron who wrote: "Without science, you would not be reading this. Without science, there would be no computers, no internet, and no blogging." Dr Chris Langley chose to respond to this type of argument with a video in which he asked us to consider whether it was the best use of science to be developing new mp3 players and jet planes when there were other, perhaps more pressing needs to be met by technology.
Another type of response, which emerged early on in the project, was the importance of science for the environment. Rosie Coates, a chemist at University College London (and a former student of mine), made a video in which she showed us her favourite chemistry demonstration, involving a "giant technicolour test-tube" and used it to explain how science can provide us with useful knowledge about our environment. Dr Rhian Salmon wrote passionately about the role of science in tackling climate change and argued that "without science, we wouldn't know where to start tackling this huge issue".
The importance of science in medicine was emphasized by a number of contributors. In a couple of video clips which he contributed, Robin Weiss, Professor of Viral Oncology at University College London, spoke eloquently about the role science has played in the history of medicine and how it must continue to pervade all medicine today. Kat Arney, Science Information Officer at Cancer Research UK, stated simply that "science tells us whether a treatment actually works or not".
A number of people emphasized the importance of science in a democracy – Martin Robbins wrote "an understanding of science is vital to an understanding of politics" and that "effective democracy depends on it".
But there's one more category. Read on to find out the most popular response ....
"Humanity's Greatest Achievement"
The most common responses to the question "why is science important?" related to science as a way of thinking, as a way of looking at the world or, to state it more strongly, as a way of "arriving at truths about the Universe". Dr Susan Blackmore, a psychologist, stated strongly that "truth is better than illusionâ€¦other claims... prevent people from using their natural curiosity to find out how things really are". Simon Singh, science writer and particle physicist, wrote "being curious and addressing scientific questions is what makes us human" and Dr Elaine Greaney, a rocket scientist, said "it allows us to do things that previously we wouldn't have dreamed of".
Finally, my favourite response was from Dr Michael de Podesta, a former teacher of mine and a physicist at the UK's National Physical Laboratory, who went out on a limb and declared that "Science is Humanity's Greatest Achievement". I can't help but agree with him.
Working on this project was exhausting. I wouldn't recommend trying to produce and direct a film while teaching in a high school to anyone! But the end result has been worth it.
The project has become a kind of joint love letter to science and I hope you will help me in sharing it with the world.
View the film Why is Science Important?
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For more information, visit Alom Shaha's website:
Photos courtesy of: Luc Viatour, Steve Jurvetson, Mike Blyth