The Royal Institution doesn't represent my kind of Britishness in science

By all means, let’s save the Royal Institution from closure, but let's also take the opportunity to replace its Victorian vision of science with one that looks more like Britain today.

Scientists have been up in arms about the likely sale of the Royal Institution’s (RI) building on Albermarle Street. This is the place where Michael Faraday made his discoveries in electromagnetism, and where public lectures have explained the latest ideas of science for nearly 200 years.

One of the prime reasons given for the outcry is that the tradition of RI’s Christmas Lectures would be lost. Watching the lectures on television is a sacred ritual for a certain type of British middle-class child. The lectures are then recreated around the world. The tour is “an important ambassador for British Science”, as Bristol University psychologist Bruce Hood, the 2011 lecturer, wrote at Nature.com yesterday.

I have nothing against the lectures – if I watch them, I generally enjoy them. But I’m uncomfortable with this vision of Britishness in science. As someone who spent the early 80s referred to by my peers as the “school Paki” (despite being of Caribbean descent), the RI is just not my kind of British.

For a start, there's the gender issue. We already know we are failing girls when it comes to science. Girls and boys do equally well at GCSE-level physics, but only 20 per cent of A-level physics students are girls. The Royal Institution’s offering of role models can’t be helping. Its lectures have been running every year since 1825 (apart from a few years during WW2). In all that time there have been four female lecturers.

Including those four women, though, I’m not aware of a lecturer who was anything other than white.

If we learned anything from the Olympics opening ceremony last year, it’s that we’re proud to display Britain as a multicultural nation. But while our athletes and musicians hail from every community, our scientists are not quite so diverse. This is not a Britain I am proud to put on display to the world. Especially when it ends up failing a significant minority.

The voices clamouring for the RI to be saved are the same voices who like to point out that training in science leads to a higher income. What a shame, then, that young black British people are not able to take advantage of this opportunity.

Earlier this month, researchers at King’s College London released a study showing that 18 per cent of British black children are interested in a career in science (£). That’s significantly higher than the 13 per cent of British white children. However, the black children don’t get to follow through on their aspirations.

A different study, published in March last year, shows where things start to go wrong. Steve Strand of Oxford University’s Department of Education found that, at age 14, 46 per cent of White British students are entered to the higher tier science test. 38 per cent of Bangladeshi students are given this opportunity, alongside 33 per cent of Black African, 28 per cent of Pakistani and 28 per cent of Black Caribbean students.

With achievement having been restricted by entry, 12 per cent of White British students achieve the highest level, compared to only 6 per cent of Pakistani and Black African students and 5 per cent of Bangladeshi and Black Caribbean students. These kinds of achievements (and failures) set the course for future studies and specialisms.

I first wrote about this disparity in 1997, when only 12.4 per cent of Birmingham’s black Caribbean boys achieved the top three grades in GCSE science, compared with 39.6 per cent of white boys. I included a report of a teacher who admitted that he had laughed when black children had asked for help getting the grades they needed to study medicine. When Asian children had made the same request, he had gone to the library with them and worked alongside them to improve their understanding.

Clearly, these are issues for educators, but it’s also about role models. And the white male public face of British science – also on display at the Royal Society, I should add –  isn’t helping. By all means, let’s save the Royal Institution. But if and when it is saved, let’s take this opportunity to make sure its Victorian values disappear, to be replaced by a reflection of the modern Britain that really is rather great.

 

The Royal Institution in Albemarle Street in a painting of 1838 by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd. Image: WikiCommons

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

Yu Ji/University of Cambridge NanoPhotonics
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Nanoengine evolution: researchers have built the world’s smallest machine

The engine could form the basis of futuristic tiny robots with real-world applications.

Richard P Feynman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, once remarked in a now-seminal lecture that a time would come where we would “swallow the doctor”. What he meant, of course, was the actualisation of a science-fiction dream – not one in which a universal cure-all prescriptive drug would be available, but one in which society would flourish through the uses of tiny devices, or more specifically, nanotechnology. 

First, a quick primer on the field is necessary. Nanoscience involves the study and application of technologies at an extremely tiny scale. How tiny, you ask? Given that one nanometre is a billionth of a metre, the scale of work taking place in the field is atomic in nature, far beyond the observational powers of the naked human eye.

Techno-optimists have long promoted potential uses of nano-sized objects, promising increases in efficiency and capabilities of processes across the board as a result. The quintessential “swallow the doctor” example is one which suggests that the fully-realised potential of nanotechnology could be applied to medicine. The idea is that nanobots could circulate our bodily systems in order to reverse-engineer the vast array of health problems that threaten us.

It’s natural to be sceptical of such wild aspirations from a relatively young field of study (nanoscience unofficially began in 1959 following Feynman’s lecture “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”), but associated research seems to be gaining widespread endorsement among prominent scientists and enthusiasts. Ray Kurzweil, Director of Engineering at Google, thinks a booming nanotechnology industry is crucial in the creation of a technological singularity, while futurist and viral video philosopher Jason Silva believes the technology will help us cure ageing.

The high-profile intrigue surrounding nanotechnology means that word of any significant developments is certain to stimulate heightened interest – which is why researchers’ achievement in building the world’s tiniest engine this month is so significant.

Reporting their results in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the University of Cambridge researchers explained how the nanoengine was formed and why it represented a key step forward in the transition of the technology from theory to practice.

The prototype nanoengine is essentially composed of charged particles of gold, bound by polymers responsive to temperature in the form of a gel. The engine is then exposed to a laser which beams and heats the device, causing it to expel all water from the polymeric gel. The consequence of this is a collapsing of the gold particles into an amalgamated, tightened cluster. Following a period of cooling, the polymer then begins to reabsorb the water molecules it lost in the heating process, resulting in a spring-like expansion that pushes apart the gold particles from their clustered state.

"It's like an explosion," said Dr Tao Ding from Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory. "We have hundreds of gold balls flying apart in a millionth of a second when water molecules inflate the polymers around them."

The process involved takes advantage of the phenomenon of Van der Waals forces – the attraction between atoms and molecules. The energy from these forces is converted into elastic energy, which in turn is rapidly released from the polymer. "The whole process is like a nano-spring," said Professor Jeremy Baumberg, who led the research.

Scientists have been tirelessly working towards the creation of a functional nanomachine – one which can effortlessly swim through water, gauge its surroundings and communicate. Prior to the research, there was a difficulty in generating powerful forces at a nanometre scale. These newly devised engines, however, generate forces far larger than any previously produced.

They have been named “ANTs”, or actuating nano-transducers. "Like real ants, they produce large forces for their weight. The challenge we now face is how to control that force for nano-machinery applications," said Baumberg.

In an email exchange with New Statesman about the short-term and long-term goals in bringing this engine closer to a practical reality, Baumberg said: “It allows us for the first time, the prospect of making nano-machines and nanobots. The earliest stage applications we can see are to make pumps and valves in microfluidic systems. Microfluidic chips are really interesting for synthesising pharmaceuticals, biomedical sensing and separation, as well as many other biochemical processes.

“But all pumps and valves currently need to be made with hydraulics, so you need a pipe onto the chip for each one, limiting strongly the complexity of anything you do with them. We believe we can now make pumps and valves from the ANTs which are each controlled by a beam of light, and we can have thousands on a single chip. Beyond this, we are looking at making tiny nanomachines that can walk around, controlled by beams of light.”

The embedding of nanobots into all facets of culture is still a long way off, and researchers will need to find a way of harnessing the energy of nanoengines. However, the prospect of one day seeing the fruition of nanorobotics is worth all the patience you can get. The tiniest robot revolution has just begun.