Education writer James McEnaney talks to Alom Shaha, a teacher, science communicator and author of Why Don’t Things Fall Up?, a new book that uses children’s questions to help adults understand ‘the big ideas of science’.

You’re an author and science communicator but also a working teacher. Can you tell us a bit about your journey to where you are today?

Very early on in my teaching career, after the first or second year, I felt frustrated by the profession. One of the things we do as teachers is try and help students to flourish: to go out and achieve their full potential. But I felt that there was more that I wanted to do outside the classroom, so I did a Master's in science communication, which was a kind of related field, but as part of that Masters I ended up doing work experience at the BBC.

They offered me a job which seemed like too good an opportunity to resist, so I left teaching and went into television where I mostly worked on science and history programmes. I think that time really honed my communication and teaching skills because I was forced to think deeply about how to explain stuff.

You obviously didn’t stay in the television industry but instead went back to working with young people. What motivated that decision for you?

My personality probably didn't suit the industry for all sorts of reasons. It wasn't an industry in which I felt I would flourish in the long term and towards the end of my time in TV I really missed the sense of purpose one has as a teacher. I missed the sense of community one has when you're part of a good, functioning school. So I thought maybe I could go back to being a teacher and carry on doing some of this creative stuff that I'd kind of developed a passion for and somehow, over the last 15 years, I've managed that. I've been very fortunate to have worked at schools which have been open enough to consider a part-time teacher (not all schools are) and I've managed to have opportunities to do things like write and make films and so forth.

The Herald:

Author Alom Shaha

So yeah, I think I've had a kind of unusual journey but I think fundamentally I am a teacher. I think having become a teacher is what put me on this particular career path and gave me the kind of skills and confidence to do what I do. If you look at my body of work it's all ultimately teaching. My professional identity is as a teacher.

I feel that very strongly about the fact that I don't think teachers are given enough credit for all the things they can do. So many teachers are so richly skilled and an awful lot of the teachers I know could do really well in all sorts of other professions. I started off as a teacher and I think the skills that I developed as a teacher have helped me to flourish in everything else I've done.

You’ve written televisions scripts as well as other books before, but Why Don’t Things Fall Up? has a slightly different focus, being aimed at adults rather than young people. How did your latest work come about?

There's a connection between Why Don't Things Fall Up? and my first book, which was called The Young Atheist Handbook. It was based on the idea that young people could do with a book that explained atheism in an accessible way - that was what the starting point. From conversations I'd had with students in my physics lessons when I would talk about the big bang theory and the theory of evolution by natural selection, I got the sense that these were matters that students really found fascinating and wanted more from than I could give them in my science lessons.

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So I wanted to write a book that young people would and could read that laid out the big ideas of atheism and Why Don't Things Fall Up? is the book that I wanted to write immediately after that, a book that summarized all the big ideas of science in a way that people who weren't familiar with them would find interesting.

A few years ago I was approached by Hodder to write a kind of fun book where I would be answering children's questions about science. I started writing that and then realised that what I could actually do is write the book that I had wanted to do originally, using childlike questions as a starting point for exploring the big ideas of science.

Some people might look at this and wonder why it matters, especially if they’ve not been in a science classroom in a long time and don’t use science as part of their working life. Why do you think it is so important to find ways to help people understand science?

I think science is part of our cultural heritage. I think it doesn't matter whether you understand science or whether you like it particularly. I think you need to have some exposure to it. So you understand that alongside art and literature and music humans have done this thing called science, which I think comes from the same place - it is our attempt to make sense of the world for ourselves and then share what we've understood with everyone else.

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I think that's what art and music and literature eventually, ultimately, come down to and I think science is the same. I think it's a shame if you go through your life and you never really understand or appreciate that science is a cultural activity - You don't need to know the details of evolution by natural selection or particle theory or whatever but you do need to have the opportunity to appreciate it. So I think everyone deserves the opportunity to listen to great music, to see great art, to read great literature and I think everybody deserves the opportunity to appreciate science.

What I've tried to do with this book is to show that this cultural activity called science may just give you a deeper appreciation of who we are and what we're doing here in the same way that I think great art, music and literature does.

Why Don’t Things Fall Up? is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is available to buy online and in stores.