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Zoe Louise Matthews | ASY-EOS | UK

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Einstein’s tongue and Frank Skinner’s ball-drop

Some attempted comedy by Frank Skinner in the Times last week got me thinking. Read this article and you will see why.

To summarise it, he expressed disgust in the outreach of science, claiming it to be one big lie, because at some point during the popular science book, television series or lesson he would get completely lost (and therefore bored). He also described scientists and “normal people” as entirely different entities, denying the possibility that a non-science background person could be fascinated by, investigate and understand any science (or the possibility that a scientist might also be interested in other things).

I started to wonder how many people see the grey areas between “scientist” and “non-scientist”. At one end of the spectrum, of course, you have the scientists by occupation, the famous ones who discover and predict new things about our world. They have the mathematical prowess to derive new equations, the dexterous skill to precisely measure something unseen, the somewhat intuitive nature to unravel and fathom out an unsolved problem. At the other end of the spectrum, clearly, we have Frank Skinner (and anyone else who has given up on science as “too boring” or “difficult”)… but is it really as simple as that?

Of course, Frank implies that “scientist” is a character trait more than a career. It is unlikely that I will always be working in research, but I do believe that within the grey area there are “scientists by nature”, and I consider myself one of them. So what really constitutes a scientist, in this sense?

Was I a scientist when I was 6 and became curious about the way the Sun and Moon followed me in my Dad’s car whilst the buildings nearby flew by me, or when I noticed that closing one eye then the other made close objects move while far ones remained still? I knew this didn’t make sense and I wanted to understand it, and I believe that many people saw similar phenomena when they were children as magical mysteries to be unveiled. This fundamental questioning is part of human nature, we have (I think) all done it to a certain extent and it is halfway to being a scientist. It is this that makes me cross when people say, “science is boring”, because I know that they don’t find all of the strange and curious things in our world dull (the diversity of life, the extreme geography of the landscape, the behaviour of chemicals, I could go on all day).

Did I, then, become a scientist years later when I learned about parallax properly? Or when I found out about refraction of light in water to explain the bending of my spoon in a glass of water? What about when I asked my chemistry teacher about the positive centre of a nucleus, and upon not getting a satisfactory answer, began reading about the fundamental forces of the universe? Or when I started emailing physicists to find out more about the death of stars? Was it when I got my A levels, or my degree perhaps? Does the distinction come when you successfully find the answer to your questions, or when your questions begin to sound scary and complicated?

You may think, “What’s the point in being a scientist by nature if you aren’t going to solve problems no-one else has ever solved?” The point is that it is a personal challenge, and that makes it every bit as important as an unresolved mystery. Feynman comforted me with a comment I read in his computation lectures;

You develop a sort of confidence that you can discover things; but if they’ve already been discovered, you shouldn’t let that bother you at all. The fact that some other fool beat you to it shouldn’t disturb you: you should get a kick out of having discovered something.

I think that the other part of being a scientist is more to do with determination than intelligence, qualifications or mathematical ability. This is clear if you look at the people at the top end of our spectrum – Einstein, contrary to Frank Skinner’s assumption, struggled with mathematics, and he had great mathematicians around to help him. Of course, the mathematics was necessary for allowing his vision to become a theory that would change the landscape of physics completely. That doesn’t mean it was fun or easy for him.

As surprising as that is, Frank Skinner might also be enlightened to know of the many non science-background adults are actively pursuing an understanding of the world. Working closely with the LHC I am more than usually acquainted with the worried mothers asking about radiation levels, the curious teachers trying to tackle the standard model, the sceptical plumber wanting to know how we can see something too small for microscopes, the enthusiastic taxi drivers who bounce their current understanding of the Higgs off you to try to hammer out a more accurate view. It does make me sound cool, but I have been known to hold my LHC status back and just get a slightly tipsy dinner party arguing about pressure and torque using desktop props. Close friends and family have phoned me to ask about Brian Cox, only to delve into discussions about motion and gravity in space. People have the curiosity, and provided they are not intimidated they also have the perseverance to understand.

I recently wrote about my concerns for science journalists without a scientific background, but there are many in that position that have, despite lack of formal training, gone in search of the skills and knowledge they need to do their jobs better, and become brilliant journalists for it. Equally, there are those who have had the training who are still prone to error (we are all human). I recently wrote an article for Physics World on a recent development in tetraquarks (and couldn’t help but gush about it!) The story was covered well by New Scientist, but picked up by Physics Today as a news-pick in embarrassing error (The data taken was at BELLE, in Japan, but because the author of the recent paper was part of the DESY group the scientists at AIP mistook it as DESY’s data.)

Indeed, we are all human. There are times in the life of every scientist when they hit a wall of difficulty. This is not the same as reaching their limit in ability. They just “drop the ball” for a moment, whether that means making a subtle mistake in a calculation, being confronted with a new and abstract concept, losing concentration for a brief moment in a lecture, or getting to page 50 of “Brief history of time” and seeing maths and having a brain-freeze. For me, once you have dropped the ball, there truly is nothing worse. I can sympathize with Frank’s viewpoint at this stage because there is nothing more tedious in the world than science when you are confused. I liken it to trying to read a book backwards, or being talked at in a language you have never heard before. I have been there, and getting out of that is tough. Sometimes you don’t succeed. I failed one module as an undergraduate because I lost track early on and couldn’t get back. However, what makes a real scientist is what you do in the ball-dropped moments. Can you look back to what you were trying to understand in the first place, and realize that curiosity again? Can you let that motivate you to push through the challenge? Those that have will know that there is nothing more rewarding. Of course, we do all have limits, but the limit isn’t when the ball drops, it’s the moment you no longer have the will to reach to pick it back up.

I am now watching the election. Only a week ago our university had the media and security descending upon our university for the leaders to debate for the third and final time. As undergraduates were crossing campus bemused and pointing at the cameramen/snipers(?), my group and I were frantically pushing to meet an important deadline for the ALICE collaboration. Not too far from us, much as it pains me to quote him, David Cameron was saying;

We’ve been losing manufacturing industry faster than the 1980s. It’s been a complete tragedy. We’ve got to rebuild. How do we do that? Let’s start with investing in our science base and making sure great universities like this are producing the scientists and entrepreneurs of the future.

A much more grounding quote comes just now from Brian Cox on the Alternative Election Night:

Less than 0.25% of our GDP is spent on studying nature…Stupidity will kill us.

Whatever the result in the next few hours, I hope that investment in education and training continues, and that the UK has jobs for the skilled workforce that is building up. I also hope that the future of fundamental science is not as dead as it is starting to seem. Tomorrow at 8am I will be joining my UK colleagues in connecting to CERN to discuss our progress in leading a vital task force for ALICE. Perhaps in this way we are the nerdy stereotypes Frank Skinner has us down as. However, I am the girl in the skinny jeans with the purple hair and I love baking cupcakes and Wind in the Willows. I just happen to also love physics.