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20 March 2018updated 01 Jul 2021 11:38am

Robin Ince: Stephen Hawking made science relatable – why is it still so misunderstood?

We need more science and scientists in popular culture, so that children don’t give up on it as only for “boffins”.

By Robin Ince

I was 18 when A Brief History of Time was published. I had grown uninterested in science during the latter half of my secondary education, but I bought it anyway. I had fallen into the trap that Schopenhauer warned of, the failure to recognise that buying a book is not the same as reading it or indeed understanding it.

I read a little, then it went on a shelf. I read more of it than the surprise publishing hit of the previous year, Spycatcher. That book remains pristine in the shed, unlike A Brief History of Time, which is now pencil-marked, question-marked and annotated, if not fully understood.

The chuckled aside of “but no one’s actually read it” is really just another version of “what are those boffins on about, eh?”

The problem with popular physics books is that they are unlikely to be easy, especially if the last time you thought about physics was when you were using a bunsen burner as a weapon while distracted from discovering the energy of a peanut in class 3B.

Contemporary physics is counter-instinctual and eager to refute common sense. It takes time. If time exists, obviously.

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As thrilling as it can be, you cannot read it at the speed of a thriller because it’s introducing you to a reality that appears so different to your reality.

It is easier to understand the actions of international spies in a Robert Ludlum novel than it is to understand the behaviour of particles and the curvature of space-time because we observe human fear and desire every day, even if we are not a rogue CIA agent.

Good physics books require frequent rest breaks – after all, they may well be turning your universe upside down, inside out or surrounding it with infinite other universes. There is no shame in being flummoxed by quantum indeterminacy and spending a while in a cool, dark room as you contemplate.

Carl Sagan, who wrote the original introduction to A Brief History of Time, wrote that children were born scientists, but they had it beaten out of them.

We are all curious, but with adulthood, our fear of embarrassment grows, and we temper our curiosity. Some close it down all together and embrace dogma and tribalism. At the time of birth, we all have potential to be scientists. Then culture, encouragement or lack of it, and expectations shape what we become. We do not have to give up on it; we just have to find the way in.

The connection with Stephen Hawking for many began with the peculiarity of his story. Here was a man who was physically immobile while his mind traversed the universe. Before you even tried to approach his science, there was a story.

People need stories to engage, facts are not enough.

Visiting schools during Science Week, I hear the frustration from teachers that they do not have time to tell the stories of science, just the information that came from them. They have to deliver the facts at a speed that reaches the target required for the next assessment. The lessons that show the passions and drives  and intrigue, the stories that can inspire, are a rare possibility. The curriculum needs space to enthuse.

Despite living in a world powered by scientific and technological innovation and in a civilisation whose future will be secured and enhanced by these innovations, mass media still treats the subject of “how the universe and everything in it from tadpoles to supermassive black holes came to be and where it is all going” as a niche subject.

We need more science and scientists in popular culture, more daily coverage so it does not become some otherness created by strange people who are not like us.

Let’s have more scientists with cameos on The Simpsons and Star Trek. Let’s not just have Benedict Cumberbatch on the chat show couch because he’s playing a scientist in a movie – let’s have the scientists on there, too.

It seems a pity to ignore the universe when there is so much of it.

It seems a pity to have a brain that has evolved to be curious, but not feed it questions – even if it does make it hurt sometimes.

Guinness World Records: Science & Stuff is out now.

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