IN the year of Yon Lord 1973, I sat chemistry O-Grade.
What follows is a true story, though I cannot think it factually correct. The exam paper was multiple choice. By question four, I was so fogged I decided my best chance of getting any points was to put "E" as my answer to every question I didn't understand (ie all of them). Statistically, that way, I'd surely get something.
When my results arrived, I'd a few As in the artsy stuff, a fail – or D – for physics, and no acknowledgment that I'd even sat chemistry. That cannot be right, can it? But I don't recall it being listed. I didn't even get an E.
At the time, I was past caring. I hated secondary school, but didn't even dislike science. My feelings were beyond dislike. Science, to misuse heinously the words of Miss Jean Brodie, simply did not signify.
If there was an omission on my certificate, certainly I made no official complaint. I must have discussed it, though, because I recall somebody saying my score was so low it didn't register. But I think that was a tittering fellow pupil rather than a person in authority.
No matter. I moved onwards and downwards. And today I'm fascinated by science. How so? Well, funnily enough, I loved "science" – such as it was – at primary school. We did experiments involving toy lorries. Interestingly, here, science was related to reality.
Come secondary school, that relationship was abrogated. We were presented with abstract data, to be learned by rote. That's fair enough when learning languages. But in languages you know what you're roting for. In science teaching, as I recall, the data referred only to itself. It was extremely important – building blocks of the universe an' all – and utterly meaningless.
For years afterwards, I kept my distance from science. But, slowly, it wormed back into my consciousness. It has to. It's about the world we live in. Back then, Tomorrow's World was on telly. Today, there are accessible books for the masses, excellent magazines such as New Scientist and Focus, and interesting newspaper articles nearly every day.
I've covered science festivals as a reporter and written about everything from astronomy to zoology. True, I didn't always understand what I was writing about, but I put the words in order, sexed up the sentences and let the lieges decipher the meaning themselves.
Such expertise doesn't mean I possess more scoobies than I did in 1973. I still couldn't hold a meaningful conversation about science, and recall also a painful press conference when I was one of two reporters facing a long row of boffins across a table. I remember a cornucopia of beards – never a good sign.
The stupid boffins had uncorked umpteen bottles of wine, obviously expecting a crowd and unaware that, by then, the romantic notion of the boozy journo was long dead. The other reporter was as unschooled as I, and we listened in bafflement to the scientists' announcement. Then came the dreaded moment: "Are there any questions?" A clock on the wall ticked thunderously for 30 years. Then I said: "Er, could you just go over that again?"
Perhaps it was the scientists' fault. Often, they seem more divorced than the rest of us from the reality they claim to understand. Sheldon, the uber-nerd in American comedy The Big Bang Theory, demonstrates the stereotype. Leonard: "For God's sake, Sheldon, do I have to hold up a sarcasm sign?" Sheldon: "You have a sarcasm sign?"
Perhaps scientists live too much in their heads, whereas the arts also speak to the heart. Perhaps that's why women don't get involved. This week, Professor Lesley Yellowlees, resident elect of the Royal Society of Chemistry and vice-principal of Embra Yooni, claimed the UK lagged 50 years behind the US in encouraging women scientists. That followed a Royal Society of Embra study, which found that only 27% of women who trained in science, technology, engineering and maths, chose jobs in these sectors.
So, science isn't for the burdz. But it has a habit of distancing itself from the rest of us too. There's an easy answer to this problem. It's option "E".
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