Science has for a very long time been the pursuit of the nerdy. It seems almost impossible to imagine a scenario in which there are millions of young kids all desperately hoping that when they grow up they will be famous scientists – but truly this is what the world needs. We have plenty of football players, pop stars, models, fashion bloggers, athletes and aspiring thespians – but where did all the scientists go?
The first and most obvious issue that springs to mind is role models – because lets face it young people are all about the role models. In science, the face of swagger is purported to be Professor Brian Cox. Now please don’t get me wrong – he is a great physicist, has made some great TV programmes and I widely support the IOPs view to give him the Kelvin medal for popularizing Physics…..but this is the best we can come up with – a guy who played keyboard in a band which had a few hits while he was younger and is now a physicist? I can tell you for a fact I don’t know many young kids who would look at Prof. Cox and say that is what I want to be when I am older. In truth, I find him a little creepy.
So role models is a clear selling point – when I was growing up football had David Beckham and pop stars had the spice girls. Science had…well no body overly inspiring. Why? Well I think in truth it comes down to the nature of a scientist – and particularly the physicist. We are trying to tear the face off the universe – to gain an appreciation of the meaning of life. It is hard to switch from the universe and everything to then worrying over the most current outfit combinations of if manbuns are or are not in fashion (of which I am still unclear). So perhaps due to the very nature of the quest, scientists never will be “cool” by public perception? Perhaps you have to want to do science because it is what you want inside rather than because you have seen someone getting into a nice car who is a scientist.
Another great issue is of course the education system. There is a real issue of inspiration when it comes to the educational upbringing we have here. I completely love physics but honestly I was bored to tears at school. Of course there is a walk before you can run issue – do we really want 13 year olds trying to attack quantum mechanics? Well of course not no. But it also wouldn’t harm them to know these things exist. It is so hard to inspire kids into science when science is perceived as timing how long it takes a ball to roll down a slope or hanging weights off a spring. It just is not inspiring at all. My other main gripe is that they try to teach mathematics and physics as distinct subjects, which you just cannot do. The evidence comes from the fact that the mechanics is taught in mathematics and not in Physics…. so our physicists don’t do mechanics without maths. Of course all the serious ones take maths too but it is weird.
Then there is commercial viability. There is a lot of money to be made if you are a scientist that can whiten teeth like no other or you can help a mining company extract minerals at a faster rate but if you just want to work on the problems of the universe, which have no real distinct product or end goal – except to know as much as you can you can’t really sell it. You need funding, and of course with funding this is limited and competitive. Some of the world’s smartest people compete over salaries which honestly most people in the private sector wouldn’t even work for. Without the money, there won’t be lots of glamour. Which is okay – we aren’t here for that but it helps to answer the question.
In summary, science is underrepresented at school, has few credible role models and is so poorly paid that it is unlikely to ever be the stuff of dreams. I think the education system needs to change – how do we know how many Einstens were deterred by the schooling system? However the rest of it will stay – why? Well scientists will always be scientists and why would we want the most intelligent people on the planet obsession over the latest fashion fad anyway. The money side of things… well science just won’t ever be able to guarantee the kind of results needed to attract large packets of cash, because by its very nature there are very few known truths. You are looking for something and you don’t even know what it is yet.
Will science ever be sexy? Probably not.