Science and Science Fiction

William Evans

Ever since humans first looked at the stars we have dreamt of what lied in the depths of space. Ever since we discovered electricity we have imagined the limits of its uses. Ever since theorising relativity we have fantasized about hidden universes and time travel.  In the age of space stations, smart phones and synthetic biology we are now closer than ever to the realms of science fiction. Butthe relationship between the scientific community and the sci-fi genre is perhaps more complex than it may seem.

Primarily we should consider the responsibility that sci-fi has within its role between the worlds of science and popular culture.  Bridging this gap is no easy task but we should be able to expect sci-fi writers to have a level of integrity when presenting scientific theory. Most recently Interstellar has bravely taken on the subjects of relativity and multi-dimensional universes. Christopher Nolan hired former Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech Dr Kip Thorne as a scientific consultant and the film expertly dealt with the challenging issues of relativity and time dilation. This saw the film gain praise from prominent scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, who tweeted ‘In #Interstellar: Experience Einstein’s Relativity of Time as no other feature film has shown.’ However for the end of the film, as is simply too common, we see the writers’ integrity crumble in a bid to complete the story rather than respect scientific theory. Without spoiling the film, the ending sees a character survive passing through a black hole.  Indeed when asked ‘Is there any science that could make the stuff at the end possible?Thorne’s colleague at Caltech, Dr Sean Carroll, repliedI think that it was mostly magic.’ Nolan weakly dismisses this as cheating ‘I know where we cheated in the way you have to cheat in movies. ’Obviously sci-fi writers attempt to present science effectively but it appears there is a balance between the story and the science, and the latter often loses out.

Furthermore, consider how pop culture reflects the hopes and fears of society. A common theme in sci-fi is how science facilitates dystopian futures.  From The War of the Worlds to Brave New World, from 12 Monkeys to The Planet of the Apes, endless sci-fi stories have depicted science as the downfall of humankind. Both in novel and in film we have created perils including  alien invasion, eugenics, epidemic diseases, rogue cyborgs, experimental disasters and even a 50 foot woman. There is an obvious parallel between pop culture and societal beliefs and fears about contemporary research. In 1895, astronomer and mathematician, Percival Lowell published a book, Mars, speculating about the possibility of life on the red planet, prompting fears of aliens. Two years later and H G Wells’ War of the Worlds was being serialised in Pearson’s Magazine, his story describing a devastating Martian invasion of Earth. Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, 1932, had two brothers in the field of biology. His book expresses fears over advances in eugenics during the early 1900s after Gregor Mendel’s work had resurfaced. In the turn of the millennium The Matrix film franchise humans lost a war against the machines and are in a desperate rebellion to win back Earth. This reflected the widespread fears of the Millennium Bug and a growing dependence on technology during the late 90s. There are countless examples of this within the annals of sci-fi and these stories echo the population’s fears of scientific developments. Hopefully science fiction does not control public opinion

On the other hand, science fiction also lets us imagine incredible things. Sci-fi, and sci-fi alone, allows you to go back to that time in your childhood when you dreamt of distant planets, amazing technologies and the future. And what an imagination we had! Star Wars has its forest moons, light sabres and warp speed. Star Trek gave us photon torpedoes, tractor beams and communicators. Let me take the Back to the Future series for an example. With Marty McFly’s future nearly our present hover boards, self-tying shoes and flying cars are all closer to being a reality. Nike is releasing a limited edition set of 2015 self-tying MAG sneakers based on the pair Marty wore. Start-up tech company Hendo have released a hover board using electromagnetism that was recently used by Tony Hawks in a promo video.US Company Terrafugia has produced a prototype for a car that is also licensed to fly. The TF-X is described as the flying car for all of us. Granted the sneakers might be a publicity stunt, the hover board is very much in a developmental phase and the flying car is not in widespread use but we are not far from harnessing this technology. There is still a year until we can expect to see the DeLorean appear from the sky at the Twin Pines Mall (21/10/15 for all those unsure), so relax, tie up your shoes and donate to Hendo’s kick-starter campaign.

Finally let’s turn this on its head. After studying the science found in science fiction now we may address the science of science fiction. With sci-fi having such a strong cult following it may not be surprising that science fiction study is a growing academic discipline. Since the 1970s the field of cultural and media studies has developed significantly, perhaps to the annoyance of many scientists. In 1982 the Centre for the Study of Science Fiction opened and  in the 90s we saw the first degree programme offered at the University of Kansas. The University of Glamorgan even ran a BSc in Science and Science Fiction from 1999 (however there is now no sign of it outside of old news reports). The study of science fiction has a sister discipline in the somewhat obscure world of futurology. Due to the strong themes of prediction contained in many sci-fi stories many prevalent authors consider themselves to be futurologists too. H G Wells is considered to be the founder of the ‘Future Sciences’, lecturing on the subject at the Royal Institute in 1902. After being founded in Paris in 1973, the World Futures Studies Federation is now even a UN consultative partner. There is no doubt that science fiction is a noteworthy part of our literature and should be studied in the correct context. Whether or not that context is that of a science degree is certainly debatable.  The speculative nature of futurology also raises doubt over its place as a viable field of study and again many scientists would contest the amount of esteem it is held in. It is important to acknowledge these disciplines but with a certain level of scepticism.

All things considered there is obviously an intrinsic link between science and science fiction however the relationship may not be as simple as originally thought. Firstly we considered the responsibility of science fiction to accurately present the science involved. Although sometimes steps are taken to safeguard the science far too often it takes a back seat in stories. Secondly, as with all literature, sci-fi is a demonstration of societal fears and beliefs of science. Therefore it is useful tool to understand the public’s opinion on current research but it should not control view over progress in research. We have also seen that sci-fi can be an innovative tool, sometimes predicting advances in technology and sometimes the catalyst for them. Finally the emergence of the study of science fiction and disciplines such as futurology can be attributed to the overall growth of science fiction during the 20th century. We see that there are many interesting topics for discussion over sci-fi as for now science fiction will continue to live long and prosper.

Science and Science Fiction

Is Peer Review Working?

Thomas Earle

Peer review is a central pillar of modern science. The cumulative nature of scientific knowledge calls for the integrity of the peer review process. As the great Isaac Newton once told us, “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants”. No respectable scientist would wish to base their research on a fallacious or inaccurate paper; therefore, the trust in the reliability of the work of others is crucial and the giant’s shoulders must be checked thoroughly before we are willing to stand on them. For this reason, peer review has been fundamental to scientific discourse for well over 300 years, and yet its functionality and legitimacy is now continually being called into question.

A system which has existed for as long as peer review must have its merits. Working at its best, peer review advances and improves academic fields, with scientists constructively criticising one other, providing their expert insight into how pieces of research can be enhanced. It delivers a strong incentive for authors to take heed of this feedback, bettering not only their own understanding but also benefiting science as a whole.

Any journal of worth uses peer review to help decide which papers to publish. Despite its many flaws peer review certainly saves editors a great deal of time and money; it is difficult to envisage the current system of scientific publication surviving without it in place. Even with reviewers working as volunteers, the large amount of secretarial work means a quality peer review process can be expensive. Nevertheless, the fact that peer review allows scientific publishing to prosper certainly doesn’t mean it is good for science in general.

Peer review’s vulnerability to fraud is well known. In 2012, the unofficial record for the highest number of faked articles was set by Japanese Anaesthesiologist, Yoshitaka Fujii.  A startling 172 of his published papers were retracted because of the discovery of fabricated results. This research had been published over twenty years ago, and like many cases of fraud raised the question of how the misconduct went undetected for so long. Scandals such as this may highlight a deep cultural problem that science faces, but peer review is generally not expected to act as a fraud detection system. Data which have been manipulated carefully are often too difficult to spot during the review process. However, such forgery does not tend to stand up to the more intense scrutiny of the wider scientific community. Replication of research, another cornerstone of modern science, acts as back-up quality control to the leakiness of peer review.

Primarily in place to ensure the logic of a paper is sound, peer review checks for methodological errors and confirms the findings are of enough significance to warrant publication. Just how well does it do this? In 2008, Fiona Godlee, editor of the prestigious British Medical Journal, decided to test peer review’s ability in spotting scientific errors. She and her colleagues introduced nine major and five minor methodological mistakes into a paper that was ready for publication. It was then sent to 420 peer reviewers. The results were shocking – not one individual managed to spot more than 5 errors and 16% found nothing, altogether painting a rather bleak picture of the effectiveness of peer review. Along with the fact that reviewers seem powerless in policing fraudulent research, there seems to be little evidence that the process is improving the quality of papers at all. Godlee, in conclusion of the study, was herself accepting that the question on how best to fix peer review still looms.

The evidence clearly shows that peer review isn’t working; it must take a new approach if it is to continue as the gold standard of scientific publishing. The internet revolution has brought about the birth of post-publication review,  a system which allows online readers, not just selected referees, to review and comment on a paper. The hope is that the crowd will be able to catch things the reviewers miss. This type of review can either be publisher-driven or separate from a formal review that may have already occurred. In the former, the publisher chooses the criteria which determine who can review the papers posted online. This can mean, for example, that reviews can only be submitted by scientists with a certain number of published articles to their name. On the other hand, some journals allow reviews to be left by any registered user.

Journal independent processes however, take place on blogs or third party sites. PubPeer allows anonymous comments on any articles with a DOI (a digital bar code), or those published as pre-prints on the website arXiv.  Its goal is to create an environment where the problems of misleading, misconceived or fraudulent work can be discussed, adding another dimension to an article’s ‘impact’, independent of the name of the journal in which it was published. The founders themselves have chosen to remain anonymous,  to, as they put it, “avoid disgruntled authors from pressuring us into removing comments on their papers.”

While these attempts to revolutionise peer review are admirable and perhaps even essential, there are serious flaws that plague the post-publication system as it stands. When Nature trialled a two-stage peer review system, allowing online users to comment on submitted papers, they discovered that “although most authors found at least some value in the comments they received, they were small in number, and editors did not think they contributed significantly to their decisions.” Then there is the issue of “trolls”.  An online environment which allows anonymous posting, especially on controversial topics, often descends into  irrelevant discourse and ad hominem attacks. A solution to both of these problems could be found in removing anonymity. This would motivate scientists to participate and be objective, writing high-quality reviews and well thought out comments would be a way of boosting the reviewer’s reputation.

Importantly, these systems mark a move away from the antiquated idea that the publication of a paper – particularly in a more esteemed journal – should mean the research is valid or relevant indefinitely. Even when peer review is devoid of errors, it only represents the opinions of a small number of people at a fixed point in time. The introduction of post-publication criticism brings to life an idea which seems to have been forgotten- peer review is the start of the scientific process, not the end.

The overhaul of peer review is not going to be easy – a deep change in scientific culture does not happen overnight. Despite the enormity of the task, it has to be confronted; it is the responsibility of scientists from every field to wake up and engage in peer review’s reconstruction.

Is Peer Review Working?

Women in science

Sophie Jones

In a recent blog post, physics student Caitlin O’Brien spoke about how, in light of a Horizon episode on the topic of gendered brains, the perception of science as a masculine subject is damaging to potential  female scientists. A recent Impact magazine article by Jessica Hewitt-Dean stated statistics regarding the gender gap in science, along with testimonials from two successful female scientists, but presented only shallow arguments for a lack of confidence leading to the gap. Is it not scientific ability but academic confidence which women inherently lack? Could the perceptions of science reinforce this?

The impetus behind the Horizon episode which focused on  male vs. female brains is the perceived gender gap in intelligence and in education. But it’s not the same gap it used to be. The gender gap in education has been changing rapidly, ; we now see girls outperforming boys in almost every subject, all the way up through A level. Girls, it seems, are no less able than boys in subjects such as maths and science. This may be a little surprising, given how we typically characterize science subjects as a boy’s club, but it is promising. The lack of women entering science is not down to ability, despite girls being regularly perceived as less scientifically-minded. Even up to A level girls do better than their male counterparts; in 2013 girls outperformed boys in every science except chemistry and maths, but even these were within a small margin. Yet the number of girls taking science at A level is low. In physics in 2013, less than a quarter of students were female; this was even lower for computing. Something is stopping young women from wanting to get into science. Could it be that, despite all evidence to the contrary, girls don’t feel they are good enough to do science? This belief is something I want emphatically to counter, but it is deeply, deeply ingrained within our society and within girls.

Women are often characterized as lacking the same confidence as men and this could be a deciding factor in the choices women make with regards to their career, or lack thereof, in science. It’s often been highlighted that men tend to overestimate their performance and abilities, where women tend to underestimate them. In an ideal world, this would lead to nothing more than men sometimes appearing more arrogant and women more humble, but it is actually far more damaging than that. In fact, this confidence gap is often cited in debates about the wage gap among equally qualified employees of different genders; women are far less likely to believe themselves deserving of higher pay, and ask for raises at much lower incidence than men.

High achieving women are also likely to experience the imposter phenomenon, where they fail to internalize success as proof of their abilities and competence, and instead believe they have fooled anyone who views them as intelligent or capable. This seemed absurd to me when I first came across it, but I only had to read one paper to realize how relevant and true the phenomenon is to my own experiences. In their 1978 study of high achieving women, Clance and Imes observed that “the women’s own self-image of being a phony is consonant with the societal view that women are not defined as being competent.” The societal expectations of women, if not the cause of this phenomenon, are certainly reinforcing it. Women and girls on a whole are as capable as men, and yet however many are seen individually to be competent in fields characterized as masculine, internally and externally women are found lacking. The Impact magazine article stopped with this conclusion, and thus ended on the shallow realization that women are less confident and therefore less present in science. This lack of confidence, however, has a root cause, and it is not innate.

As discouraging as this sounds, it’s actually very easy to find examples of how society limits the self-esteem of women and girls. And these instances start early. In the UK and in the US, studies have shown that boys receive more classroom attention and more encouragement than their female classmates. In their very first academic setting, girls are overlooked in favour of their male counterparts, and this can be very damaging to girls’ assessment of their abilities. It warps their perception of their own performance in class if they do not receive adequate attention. If this over-representation of the opinions and input of boys was restricted solely to the classroom, I don’t believe it would have much of an effect on girls’ view of their own abilities. However, it stems from, and is reinforced by, a larger societal emphasis on andro-normativity. Almost every aspect of our culture represents this idea that to be male is to be normal, to be female is to be other.

An easy place to look for this is in the media. Martins and Harrison conducted a Longitudinal Panel study in 2011 on the effect of television on children’s self-esteem, and found that while it raises the self-esteem of white boys, TV use lowers self-esteem in all other groups. Being white and male in a TV show is to be the hero, the friend, the villain, the sidekick, the scientist, and everything in between. Women, other genders, and other races are underrepresented and often shoe-horned into stereotypical roles which only serve to limit their potential. Some may respond that media can’t hold that much power, but media at its core is a reflection of our society. In its fiction it has the power to show us a better world. However, the proportions we see in the media with respect to men and women are often less equal than in real life. 24% of STEM jobs in America in 2009 were held by women, and in the same year, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found this proportion to be 3-8% lower in media such as prime-time TV and family films.

Not only do girls have fewer real-life role models in science, but they are significantly less likely to identify with scientists on screen. Instead, they begin to associate ‘scientist’ with ‘male’. The image of a scientist does not resonate with their view of themselves, and so it seems like there is no room for them. The Geena Davis Institute has researched representation in media going back 20 years, and has found other startling correlations. It’s no secret that there are far fewer women in films than men, but this extends beyond speaking roles and into crowd scenes: crowds in movies are on average only 17% female. This is the same low proportion of women seen in professional leadership roles, such as law partners and tenured professors. This, fair enough, may be put down to coincidence if viewed on its own. However, studies have shown in the past that men view a group which is 17% female as being equally representative, and begin to think that they are outnumbered in a group by women if this percentage is as high as 33%. It can be argued that the lower number of women in high positions in science persists because the current proportion is what is perceived as normal. Combining all these factors, it’s easy to see why girls may not feel they are able to join or continue in academic fields.

The gender gap in science is alarming, but it is not a result of ability. Other factors are at work. The representation of women in media goes hand in hand with societal perceptions of science itself. Changing these perceptions is paramount to realizing gender equality in science. With regards to public outreach, I think it’s about time to teach everyone that science isn’t about being smart. To succeed in a field such as physics, ability is not as important as curiosity and hard work. Studies have even shown that the best way to encourage girls to pursue science is simply to acknowledge the lack of women in science.

There is no better way to prepare a girl for the future than letting her know exactly what stands in her way. In her blog post, Caitlyn O’Brien balks at being labeled as the exception, and in an ideal world we wouldn’t be the exception. But for the time being we are, and we need to make sure girls know that that has nothing to do with what science is, and everything to do with what people think science is, and what they expect to see within it.

Author’s note: this article uses binary gender terms and cis-normative assumptions to parallel the arguments surrounding this topic and make use of binary gender statistics. I would however like to acknowledge that gender is not a binary, and is a societal construct not inherently linked with biological sex.


Women in science


Sinthuja Viyasar

The social media revolution has swept over the internet over the last decade, from personal profiles to breaking news headlines making their way onto newsfeeds and notifications. In our digital age of smartphones and tablets, the adaptability of social media keeps it live and current, and with science jumping on that bandwagon too, its profile can certainly be seen to have profited.

Social media serves as a source of news for billions of people, including science updates and breakthroughs. By way of shared and liked posts and pages, headlines are weaved in between friend’s photos and status updates on newsfeeds, with links leading to extensive articles and science websites embedded within.  Facebook and Twitter are prime examples of the successful gathering of science enthusiasts this way – all you need to do is look at the number of followers of science pages, professionals, publications and television shows to see the popularity of both the people involved in and the subject matter of science. Witty astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has over 2.67million twitter followers and I f***ing Love Science’s taking of the internet by storm is clear from its 18,000,000+ likes on Facebook.

Science presenters and academics are given the same blue tick of approval as media moguls, and the science, environment and technology sections of major news houses often have their own pages and profiles. The beauty of social media is that they rely largely on the opinions of their users, and making this information available to the public not only enlightens the secondary audience, but also encourages them to  get involved in the action. Society, after all, is very good at following trends, and when that trend is a scientific nugget or headline, it spreads like wildfire.

In a society where ‘geek’ can come with negative connotations, seeing that others are publicly interested in science takes the ‘shame’ out of it.. Discussion platforms take it one step further by encouraging conversation and scrutiny. Science is sometimes perceived to be exclusively for a niche audience –the smart and the nerdy — but forums on which users can pose questions and queries allow people of all abilities to get involved and understand better the intricacies of science. Discussions can be found on everything encompassed by the word ‘science’, by everyone from school children asking for homework help to arguments amongst leading academics.

In encouraging debate, not only can help be sought, but doubts can also be aired, with massive consequences. reveals the importance of blogs, twitter and forums in outing fake results published in a stem cell research paper by the notable Nature magazine. By allowing science to be so easily accessible by way of the internet, criticism and conversation is encouraged not only in the spread of information, but also to question the scientific process. There is no doubt a credibility attached to any statement which comes with some scientific validation, thus it in incredibly important that the general public seek credibility in turn from any claim of scientific proof.

Social networks are now pervasive and multi-platform.. Looking beyond big names like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, there are now more specialist platforms like LinkedIn and countless generic and specialised forums discussing everything from photosynthesis to fibre optics. ResearchGate is one example of a social networking site catered specifically for researchers, upon which scientists can upload their papers and studies. Nature reported examples of  several international collaborations born out of it, with scientists working together to fight fungal infections to name but one of many joint ventures, despite never having met. ResearchGate’s value has been recognised in the vast quantities of investment it has received, and similar such platforms (Mendely, too are following a comparable growth process.

Networks such as these allow those without the means to carry out practical research to still pursue competent research with the sound, practical evidence of other scientists to consult and justify their work., Such methods are still criticised by many scientists scientists, however, especially since papers are often published for free. The nature of social media is such that it can sometime be difficult to sort fact from fiction – one scientist comments on the massive time lapse between the publication of papers and its eventual use by a second party on ResearchGate, calling to question the validity of the new subsequent research paper/project.

A key contributor to the success of social media in promoting science is its obsession with monitoring online traffic, and seeing high viewing numbers further encourages more to become involved. Posts are optimised to draw in the most views and modified based on viewing figures to increase this number. Social networks also make it very easy to follow science by delivering it to us rather than us go hunting for it. When seeing news of the comet landings and biological marvels is simply part and parcel of a daily routine, science becomes integrated in an effortless way that breaks down the barriers between it and those not in the field.  Factual documentaries are often followed up by links to further information and related content by its social media counterpart, making it easy to instantly look further into topics which spark interest. When the knee-jerk reaction of so many at a time of doubt is to ‘Google’ a solution, this is key to the retention of interest in science.

Fashion and celebrity gossip has such a high prevalence in society because of the ease with news and images can be shared. It is fantastic to see social media to be put to far better use as a platform for the spread of news, particularly specialist news. Science was once held at arm’s length by those not in the field, but by relating to the things that we relate to on a daily basis, i.e. social media networks and television/radio programs, it is effectively on the same wavelength as our interest in it. Most importantly, the younger generation are growing up with social media, and with the prevalence of science in it, the next generation professionals are growing up with science, too.


Do social media have a role to play in the scientific process?

Simon Watts

Social media. Modern gimmick? Or important new tool for the development of science?

One of the most important things about scientific research is the dissemination of knowledge back to those who help fund it, i.e. the general public. In this modern age with the advent of social media can this be done more effectively? Furthermore, can social media play an active role in the scientific process rather than the simple one-way publishing of data?

When we hear ‘social media’ we first think of the big popular websites of today such as Twitter and  Facebook. These websites, and sites like them, have  been utilised by scientific groups in order to raise the profile of science and engage with the public. Space exploration in particular has made widespread use of social media, with the Mars Curiosity rover delivering cute first-person ‘tweets’ updating us of his/her/its status and general happenings. The European Space Agency would later follow the same strategy, completing the anthropomorphisation of space probes with the inclusion of grammatical errors, emoticons, and copious use of exclamation marks [1]. Either that or the cultivation of social media is now so important that it warrants the hiring of interns specifically for the purpose.

Publicising work is all well and good. Scientists no doubt welcome the opportunity to raise the profile of their work with the general public and social media is naturally suited for outreach. But does it have a role to play in the scientific process?

The current peer-review process works on anonymity. The theory is that you are not aware who is reviewing your work. Similarly, these reviewers are mostly unaware of the academic consensus on your work and are theoretically making an entirely impartial judgement of this specific paper. While it may be imperfect, this system evolved into its modern form during the 20th century [2], and has arguably evolved into the best system we can come up with. This is a far cry from the days of the decision laying 100% with the editors.

However, there are those who wish to involve elements of social media in this process. How about a voting system where popular papers may be ‘voted up’ to the top of the page, for example? Or a commenting system where discussions can be had on the content of papers? I believe that these suggestions should be considered with caution, and most definitely implemented after the paper has already undergone standard peer review.

Firstly the voting system risks turning the entire affair into a popularity contest and introduces bias on the perceptions of papers. Paper 1 with 37 ‘thumbs up’ may be overlooked when compared with paper 2 with 1,309 ‘thumbs up’. Further, those reading paper 2 for the first time will be influenced by the score before they even read the abstract. Do we risk thoughts such as ‘well I don’t understand it, but 1,309 people liked it so it must good’ straying into the scientific process? One must also include the possibility of the votes themselves being biased more deliberately, for example a whimsical highly radical paper being ‘voted up’ simply because the excitement that it may be true is appealing (and the research grants that come with the possibility). Similarly, the slightly cynical suggestion that a paper which contradicts the findings of many others may be ‘voted down’ by the research groups it opposes …is…? [Not a sentence otherwise]

Commenting on papers, while great in an ideal world, introduces other problems. Should the comments be anonymous? In this case there is no accountability. If the comments are not anonymous there are still issues to address:. People wanting to jump on the bandwagon of a popular paper to get their name out there? Graduates and post-docs wishing to be noticed by research groups and heaping praise on any paper they produce? If the comments are more in-depth and serious in nature do we need to come up with a way to ‘reference’ comments? A simple comment seems unlikely to receive the same attention and care as a funded paper.

There are, however, many benefits. Direct accountability of papers in a comments section where discrepancies and discussions can be had with the authors and the scientific community as a whole would serve as a forum to focus the future work of the subject of that paper. Voting can quickly identify the ground breaking and important work and allow more rapid progress. But considering the downsides I don’t see that social media should play an integral role in the scientific method as it currently stands. These same benefits can be had from simple internet forums without needing to be integrated into the peer-review process. And ultimately the greatest continuation or criticism of any work will still come in the form of published papers.

[1] –

[2] –

Do social media have a role to play in the scientific process?

Science and society: can scientists really teach, or are the public just not trying hard enough?  

Samuel Morris

Something happened recently that made me think about the public understanding of science. It was on a recent trip to see my relatives when I was shocked to learn that none of them knew that objects fall at the same rate, irrespective of mass. So I started dropping shoes, boxes and balls, all in an effort to educate my family.

On being handed an empty grape punnet to drop alongside a cuddly rabbit toy, I decided it was time to divulge some next-level knowledge: “They will fall at different rates because the plastic tray has a bigger surface area. The air resistance acting on the tray will be very different to that of the rabbit.”

“How does air slow objects? Physics is too complicated for me to understand,” snorted my mum, pushing out some air particles that I had apparently magicked into existence a few moments earlier. “Oh sorry, the tray doesn’t fall as quickly because the earth dragon doesn’t like grapes but loves rabbits,” I replied. “Well it might as well be,” my mum countered. What?! My temperwas wearing thin.

I was desperate. In a last-ditch attempt I said: “There is an equation that explains how objects all fall at the same rate.” My family was terrified. “Oh no, not maths! You know we don’t get maths Sam.” After a forty minute session I gave up and sank away into a corner to do some number stuff with my mystic air resistance hypothesis.

From the above I would not blame anyone for thinking that I’ve already formed my opinion: the public needs to try harder to understand the ‘word of the nerds’. However, watching a recent episode from the science documentary Human Universe made me reconsider. In NASA’s power facility, the largest vacuum chamber in the world, they dropped a bowling ball and some feathers. The ball fell faster because air resistance is greater on the feathers. So the host, Professor Brian Cox, said, “to see gravity’s true nature, we need to remove the air [1].” They did, and both objects fell at the same rate. At this point my mum turned to me and said, “I get it now.” It then dawned on me that my prejudice was perhaps flawed. Maybe the public (family) does try hard to understand, and maybe scientists (me) need to try harder to convey what we mean?

As I delved into the history of science and society’s long partnership, the answer has become less clear-cut. A large survey of the British public in 1989 [2] asked if the public were interested in new scientific discoveries.  82% were, thank goodness! It also measured the understanding of the scientific method. Only 14% identified, when asked directly, what it means to study scientifically. However, quite surprisingly, over 56% could recognise the scientific method in a case study. This would seem to indicate the public have an implicit understanding of science, which maybe just needs (re)awakening.

These results have personal relevance I’d not considered before. I may have felt like my family were not getting how gravity works, but by dropping lots of different objects all they were doing was experimenting and seeing if the hypothesis held for different objects. Perhaps I mistook their eagerness to understand as them not trusting what I said.

Trust is important. In my case, lack of trust causes earth dragons and air resistance to be held in equal measure by my family. In a much broader sense, the public’s understanding of science can have dramatically negative effects if they can’t tell the good from the bad. The repercussions can fray the trust between scientists and society. The MMR controversy arose from the publication of a now-discredited research paper in 1998 [3]. It was eventually retracted and the main author, Andrew Wakefield, was found guilty of serious professional misconduct and struck off the medical register [4]. This is a terrible reflection on science and Wakefield’s paper was lapped up by the media at the time. Several reflective reports suggest that the media gave Wakefield too much credit, and misrepresented the level of support for his, quite frankly ridiculous, view [5]. The public reads newspapers, not scientific journals. If the media reports on bad science, a public with the understanding to spot it might be able to avoid some terrible situations. It saddens me to see the damage the MMR controversy has caused. An Italian mother won a £140,000 court settlement, ruling her son’s autism was provoked by the MMR jab [6]. The fact this happened in 2012, two years after Wakefield’s paper was retracted, shows the fragility of society’s trust in science

The importance of public understanding is crucial for creating a future where more informed scientific decisions are made. I believe that it is up to scientists and the media to help dispelscientific mumbo jumbo The former needs to debunk any fraudulent and statistically insignificant papers early on in the peer review process, and the media needs to report on science with less bias so the public can receive an un-skewed view of how science works.

Perfect! Problem solved. Well, no. None of what I said will happen. Bad research will always get through and the media will always want to report a more sensationalised story over a balanced viewpoint (especially in newspapers; yes, I’m looking at you, Daily Mail). In fact, that is a problem I think some of the public has about science; they think it’s a viewpoint on the world. Although science doesn’t claim to know everything, what it does know is based on rigorous testing, and is the foundation of modern society. The public needs to try harder to understand exactly how science works as it would help people make better informed judgements. They need to be given the tools to do this, though, and I think to achieve this we need to go back to how science is taught in schools.

The number of students sitting A-level physics fell from 55,000 in 1990 to a low of around 27,000 in 2006 [7]. More importantly, most exam boards have very little on current science: quantum mechanics, relativity etc. I say ‘current’, but these subjects have been around for nearly a whole century! Quantum theory is extremely well tested and relativity is at the core of satellite navigation. The exclusion of these is probably because they need maths. The panicked exclamation from my family came to a front in my mind: “Oh no, not maths!”

Could this be it? Are the exam boards encouraging a fear of maths by removing it from A-level physics? Professor Brian Cox says that most of the negative reviews for his book ‘The Quantum Universe’ are due to the inclusion of equations [8]. In addition, hearing radio presenters almost degrade their science interviewees with retorts of: “[on maths] I don’t understand any of that. It’s really, really hard” [9] makes me wonder if it’s the barrier of maths that turns off the public from science. Yet science, especially physics, is best understood with maths. Equations don’t lie! They have no agenda. If I could have shown my family an equation without them cowering away, maybe they wouldn’t have needed the world’s largest vacuum chamber to understand gravity.

Before I get ahead of myself, it must be noted that the numbers of pupils taking A-level maths and science have been increasing in recent years, but increasing numbers is no good if exam boards are stripping as much maths as they can (for example all of calculus) from the A-level syllabus [9]. Whilst I think the public needs to be more open to understanding maths, they can hardly be blamed when education is actively deterring them from using it outside of a pure maths qualification.

I find myself in a very different position than I was when dropping objects for my family’s enjoyment. Whilst their scorning at equations feels like a personal attack at my choice to study physics, it almost certainly isn’t. I feel sorry for them, that their arithmophobia stops them trying to be able to understand the world in depth. Re-introducing maths and current areas of scientific research into the GCSE and A-level syllabus would help wouldn’t it? The next generation would have a greater appreciation for how current science works and why scientists claim what they do. A public with greater understanding would surely make scientists more amenable to listening to the public’s opinion on certain topics like stem cell research and cloning. People with a better scientific understanding could go into media, and be able to provide stimulating but ultimately un-skewed reports on science research. With a greater appreciation may well come greater trust. This would seep throughout society and perhaps, one day, my family will not hold air resistance and my rubbish earth dragon analogy with equal credit.

[1] BBC IPlayer (2014). Human Universe Ep 4. A Place in Space and Time. 39:48-44:38 mins. Accessed on 19/11/2014.

[2] Durant J.R. et. al. (1989). The public understanding of science. Nature.  Vol. 340 pp. 11-14.

[3] Wakefield A. et. al. (1998).  Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. The Lancet. Vol. 351 pp. 637-641. (Retraction published Feb 6 2010. The Lancet. Vol. 375 p. 445).

[4] BBC News (2010). MMR doctor struck from register. Accessed on 19/11/2014.

[5] Jackson T. (2003). MMR: more scrutiny, please. BMJ. Vol. 326 Issue. 7401 p. 1272.

[6] Mail Online (2012). MMR: A mother’s victory. Accessed on 19/11/2014.

[7] IOP (2013). Popularity of A-level and GCSE physics keeps on rising. Accessed on 19/11/2014.

[8] YouTube. ABC RN. (2012). Brian Cox in conversation with Robyn Williams. 5:35-7:00 mins. Accessed on 19/11/2014.

[9] Youtube. Sixty Symbols. (2012). Problems with High School Physics. Accessed on 19/11/2014.

Science and society: can scientists really teach, or are the public just not trying hard enough?  

Should We Be In Space?

Samuel de Kare Silver

Virgin Galactic “should stop, give up. Go away and do something they might be good at like selling mobile phones. They should stay out of the space business,” These are the words of Carolynne Campbell-Knight, a rocket propulsion expert at the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety (IAASS)  [1], following the catastrophic failure of SpaceShipTwo at the end of October, in which one of its two pilots was killed.

While the tragic event of the VSS Enterprise unfolded 9 miles above the Mojave Desert, [2], another Earth-originated mission was on the cusp of execution, 350 million miles away [3]. The Rosetta spacecraft was orbiting comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and the European Space Agency (ESA) was preparing to detach Rosetta’s lander Philae and achieve the first-ever controlled touchdown on a comet’s nucleus [4].

There are questions to ask about these non-terrestrial events. What was their purpose? Why is it important? What is it that cannot be done here? Why are we in space to begin with?

The Issues

The missions seem easy to attack. Both suffered years of setbacks and delays [5, 6] and cost enormous amounts of money [7, 8]. Virgin’s ventures have cost around $500 million, almost all from private investment. From individuals looking to seek return. However Rosetta is publicly funded, and has cost more than three times that of SpaceShipTwo.

Thousands of scientists and €4 billion go into the ESA and around $18 billion goes into NASA each year [9, 10]. It begs the question; why we are pouring so much money into space? This money (and effort) could be used to fund education and raise global standards of living, or improve infrastructure and ease our ability to travel and communicate. We could advance research into stopping disease, ending suffering for millions. Or invest into better food production and agriculture, ending world hunger. Or invest in robotics and artificial intelligence systems, relieving people from dangerous or mundane work, fund research into alternative energies, lessening our impact on the Earth, so that future generations can live in clean, sustainable environments. The list is endless. .

Space lacks two things which every other industry I mentioned provides: a direct economic incentive, or direct increase in our quality of life. The perception of astrophysics is similar to that of the perception of particle physics, in that they do not appear to contribute to the enhancement of our lives [11, 12].

Space travel is also horrifically dangerous [13, 14]. It has given us very public accidents, such as the Colombia and Challenger Space Shuttle disasters. There are also numerous health hazards associated with space travel including radiation, intolerance to extreme changes in g-force, motion sickness, and muscle and skeletal degeneration to name a few. This is why astronauts are limited to spending a maximum of six months aboard the International Space Station (ISS) [15]. Humans also pose a danger to space. There are more than 21,000 pieces of space debris larger than 10cm orbiting our planet [16]. The threat our space junk poses is small, but accidents do happen. In February 2009 two communications satellites, one US and one Russian, collided and destroyed each other creating more debris, only increasing the risk of such collisions [17]. There are strict rules in place to protect celestial bodies against interplanetary contamination (not including humans) [18, 19]. The scientific community takes very seriously the preservation of the untouched natural state of other worlds, particularly Mars, and the icy satellites of Europa, Enceladus, and Ganymede.

There is another, more morbid side to space exploration. Mars One is a private organisation that aims to establish a human colony on Mars by 2025 [20]. They aim to be funded privately, through selling rights to produce a reality television programme following the astronauts, through sponsorship, merchandise and licensing intellectual property it develops. It also receives donations; by February 2014 it had raised over $300,000 through crowd funding [21]. The morbid side is that its plans are one-way. The intrepid explorers would not be able to return to earth, no matter how perilous their situation becomes. Making such a choice is considered so suicidal by some Islamic scholars that they issued a fatwa, an Islamic decree, which effectively bans involvement by Muslims in the one-way mission [22]. Suicidal or not, more than 200,000 people from 140 countries applied to join the mission [23]. Is allowing private organisations to sacrifice willing participants ‘for the sake of science’ not morally equivalent to euthanasia?

A Response

We are faced with a number of issues relating to funding, danger and ethics.

Let us tackle the danger first. We are willing to accept (very low) fatality rates in many publicly funded projects, so why not in space? In recent years, 27 construction workers died building the various Olympic parks (none in London 2012) [24]. Over 1200 workers have died building the 2022 Qatar World Cup stadiums [25]!. However I will mention it, because neither a national Football Association has pulled out on ethical grounds, nor a government of any country has done much to stop the deaths, so it is a relevant example as there is an underlying tolerance. Regarding the space debris issue, while it is an ever-growing issue, the trajectories of large space debris are analysed and the ISS only faces a 1 in 10000 risk of impact once a year [16].

As for the funding, we could argue endlessly on where this money could be better spent, so why space? It is important to realise that space exploration does profit us (and by ‘us’ I mean ‘humanity’). The profit may neither be financial nor immediate, but it exists. Funding NASA, ESA and other public space programs should not be thought of as expenditure, but an investment. The return on investment comes in the form of innovation and technological advancement [26]. Some technologies were only invented to solve issues specific to space exploration. Space agencies have pioneered laser technology, solar cell technology, imaging software, positioning systems, and even baby formulas [27].

What about the indirect benefits of having so many great minds working together solving problems on the frontier of our knowledge? Well NASA has produced so many spin-off innovations that they compile them altogether and fills a book called Spin-Offs it publishes every year [28]! The gain comes not just from being able to use them in everyday life, but the direct economic impact of having a groundbreaking new device to produce and consume. Over the years NASA has produced marvels such as scratch resistance lenses, memory foam, ear thermometers, joy-stick controllers and water filters (to name a few) [29]. So important are these indirect benefits or spin-offs that come out of scientists working in close-quarters, that it actually forms part of Sir Paul Nurse’s vision for the Francis Crick Institute [30].

Return to the Comparison of the Virgin Galactic Crash and the Comet Landing

Richard Branson’s venture is about taking tourists into the orbital space around our planet for commercial profit, while ESA’s mission is to explore distant comets. Philae is there to answer some of the fundamental questions of how our solar system formed, why the planets evolved as they did, and perhaps more fundamentally, how we came to be here. The similarities between these two missions appear to almost cease after noting space, expense and setbacks.

However I believe they are linked by one thing. Wealthy individuals have paid in excess of $200,000 to fly with Virgin Galactic for the same reason that we publically fund space exploration. It is about purpose. The human race has moved on from a world where we survived just long enough to raise offspring. We search for meaning and excitement in our lives. Humans possess a high aspiration and yearning of adversity. Space exploration is about expanding frontiers and ‘going where no man has gone before’. Carolynne Campbell-Knight, whose words I quoted in the beginning of this article, has also said this: “This rush into space is reminiscent of the opening up of the American West.  At first, a few adventurers dared to explore and cross the vast deserts and mountain ranges. They established trails and passes that were followed by young men in search of fortune [31].”

So should we be in space?

To borrow a quote from Interstellar (released between the two events mentioned above), “We’ve always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible. And we count these moments. These moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars. We count these moments as our proudest achievements. [32]”


































Should We Be In Space?