Occasionally I am asked what made me choose to study the physical sciences. I think the questioner is usually hoping that I will cite a significant person or event: an inspirational teacher perhaps, a particularly transformational moment in technology, some key discovery, or perhaps a famous scientist.
It is true that I was fortunate to have teachers who taught with enthusiasm and without gender bias. My earliest memory of a world event is of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the Moon. I remember clearly the chemistry lesson in which I first learnt about the structure of the atom, and (at about the same time) watching the documentary series ‘The Ascent of Man’, in which Jacob Bronowski recounted the unfolding story of science and technology. At school, I read over and over the biography of the Nobel prize-winning crystallographer Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, whose photograph hung on a wall in the school dining room.
I have certainly been influenced by all of these, but I should make a confession. I took science subjects because they were the ones in which I found that I got the quickest and most satisfying return. A more positive spin on this would be to say that I enjoy solving problems. In science the problems are right in front of you, from the very first moment, and you can pick away at understanding them piece by piece.
You are introduced to big questions on day one. Why does ice float? Why do magnets stick together? What does an atom look like? Where is the end of the Universe? Often, there are quite simple descriptive explanations but all repay closer examination. The simple descriptions fail to tell the whole story and the sense of satisfaction increases as one responds to the challenge of understanding each level of a progressively more detailed picture.
In recent weeks I have been repeatedly turning over the question of how I then came to have a professional interest in this area. June has seen something of a flurry of activity reminding us that women and girls in the UK remain significantly under-represented in the physical sciences and technology, but that much can and must be done to challenge and improve this state of affairs.
Campaigns to address gender stereotyping in toys have received a boost with LEGO’s announcement that the user-designed set of female scientist minifigures will be taken forward for production. The Opening Doors project has been announced to ensure that no student is deterred from studying certain subjects because of their gender. This is a response to the Closing Doors research and the IoP’s 2012 report 'It’s Different for Girls' which revealed that 49% of maintained co-educational schools sent no girls on to take A-level physics in 2011. Overall, just 20% of students progressing to A-level physics are girls, a figure which has changed little in a quarter of a century.
Campaigns of this nature most often emerge from recognising the need to educate and equip all young people with the right skills for the future. The focus tends to be on the wide open and largely unknown future of our young students. By contrast, most lifelong learners that I meet on science courses at ICE have a somewhat different agenda. They are people who have accumulated a great deal of experience and their horizons are wide. The need to acquire specific skills is less pressing, but the desire to understand and interpret is, if anything, much stronger. They want to distinguish the adventurous but achievable from the fanciful, to differentiate a genuine assessment of risk from scaremongering, to tell the difference between polemic and reasoned debate.
Cambridge is a fantastic place in which to engage with science and technology, and it is part of the fabric of the city. For a good number of years, I worked in the same rooms as had been used decades previously by James Clerk Maxwell, Ernest Rutherford and W L Bragg (and that was another scientifically inspirational experience). Each year the University’s lecture theatres and departments fill to capacity with visitors to the Cambridge Science Festival and Festival of Ideas. Those who cannot get to the city in person can follow the regular Research News postings. Cambridge’s success comes not from repeating what is known to work already, but from pushing the boundaries into the future.
But the fact remains that to get below the surface of all that is happening in science and technology – to dig a little deeper into those big scientific problems and to understand the next layer – takes a bit more than following the popular scientific press, or keeping up with the latest documentaries. Our courses for lifelong learners in the Physical Sciences at ICE are designed to meet this need. Our aim is always to make science accessible to as wide an audience as possible, and to enable our students to share in our own enthusiasm for our subject.
Dr Erica Bithell, former ICE Academic Director in Physical Sciences