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Your interview: Richard Robinson, Brighton Science Festival
Updated 2:33pm Wednesday 12th March 2014 in News
With the new technology that’s available to teachers in classrooms today, does it make it easier or harder to engage youngsters in science?
Richard Robinson (RR): What I discover over and over is that youngsters’ eyes pop most when the science comes from ordinary things.
To see magic in balloons, taps, combs, paper, eggs, water or tissues brings it home, literally. When science depends on exotic equipment from out of a cupboard it is removed from everyday life.
Of course I am excluding serious science students from this, but the vast majority of people won’t become doctors, engineers or scientists.
They still need their science, because they will want to mend things, know how to stop wood from rotting, how to cook, what drugs do, what addiction is, how to conserve and save energy, what global warming is and what to do about it, how and what to recycle, whether to believe what they are told and what evidence to search for, why we fall in love, how to avoid making babies, what to do with them when we have them, how to sew, glue, nail, paint, screw and solder, what electrical appliances do and how to look after them.
We should all respect and give way to those that do follow STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) – in other countries engineers are given a lot more respect than here – but life has more to it.
What can we do to encourage more girls to study scientific subjects at school and university?
RR: Good question. They are quite capable of manipulating, experimenting doing the maths and and using the discoveries. Among chimp populations it is the females who have the good ideas. Why no among humans?
The answer is to start at the very beginning; a very good place to start.
Parents must realise their li’l darlings don’t need to be cosseted in pink fluff, they can safely be given hard and oily things and will show off their skills soon enough if they are.
But normally by the time they get to school they have been set in their genteel ways and won’t question, experiment or think creatively. The science world is full of men.
I blame the parents.
What have been the most popular events at the festival this year and why? What plans do you have to expand on them in future?
RR: I am learning great respect for the zeitgeist. The spirit of the age was sending signals through the ether ten years ago when I (and others around the country) began doing science fairs and festivals. The feeling was that a generation was falling fatally out of love with science. We read the signals and did something about it.
This year the zeitgeist was that nobody could program anymore, so there has been a lot of computing and robotics – LEGO Mindstorm, Robot Wars, hydrogen car challenges, Arduino guitars and of course Raspberry Pi. They were terrific attractants to my real targets – teens.
Catch them now and the nation can rest happy that the future is secure. We are going to make more stuff at half term.
Where are UK schools going wrong?
RR: Schools can’t see the wood for the trees. The ‘wood’ is aptitude. The ‘trees’ are exams. The final act of a student in school is an exam: sitting alone at a table, pouring facts on to a piece of paper.
For this reason the schools train their students up to do just that. No team work, because it’s impossible to mark.
No experimenting, because there’s no time to get things wrong.
They leave school with a full roster of grades and no aptitudes at all. Ofqual have even suggested dropping practical exams at science A-level.
Why? Because they find them difficult to mark. So the exams mean everything and practical skills mean nothing. We will all be turned into little Goves.
What’s your opinion on Michael Gove?
RR: Gove got where he is by passing exams. I expect he could write a terrific essay on tying up his shoelaces, but I bet he has a man do it for him. As Dennis Skinner, the Beast of Bolsover, might have put it, he has been educated beyond his intelligence.
Who’d be your dream booking for Brighton Science Festival?
RR: No, actually not Brian Cox.
Cosmology is just dreams plus big numbers. I am more and more impressed by the power of crowds to perform together as one. So crowdsourced Pong is the dream.
How did a man who used to perform with puppets in Covent Garden and founded Spitting Image end up championing science in Brighton?
RR: I do have a science degree, you know. It was psychology, and a pretty rigorous course it was. But like so many I wanted to get up and out there in the Big Wide World, which laboratories or academe cannot satisfy.
Busking and street theatre is a beautiful blend of weightlifting (those sets and props have to be lugged about you know), singing, writing, acting, creating, building, painting, composing and crafting. A great laboratory and a terrific way to put ideas about and meet people. Perfect. Come to think of it, you’re right: what AM I doing here?
How important is an event like Brighton Science Festival for inspiring the next generation of scientists and mathematicians?
RR: The big thing is to get parents and kids to share the science. This we do at Bright Sparks weekend with a thousand people a day. Zoologists tell us that imitation is the key to learning in young animals. What the parents do, so will the child.
Therefore, as the behavioural scientists will point out, at Bright Sparks science is imprinted on the child’s mind. It isn’t inspiring them so much as becoming part of their psyche. Doesn’t stop them from experiencing the WOW too, of course.
What was your favourite show of this year’s science festival?
RR: Simon Singh, ‘The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets’ because it was the only show I was able to sit all through. I judge talks as I judge any theatrical show: regardless of the science, it has to be entertaining.
There were several talks during the month which did that for me, though there were a few which didn’t. They could have, but they lacked something – timing, pizzazz, plot-line, I know not what. It always disappoints when that happens, because the science is so extraordinary you want the show to match.
Simon’s was terrific: humour, anecdote, relevance and surprise all wrapped together.
Do you have any plans to expand the festival in 2015?
RR: My end of the Festival will contract – I’m trying to let the whole thing grow of its own accord. This year there were nearly twice as many events as last year, though we organised fewer than ever from here in the office.
Everyone is beginning to realise that the word ‘science’ includes the subtext ‘explosive, dangerous, mind-bending, counter-intuitive, chaotic, important, life-enhancing, scary, magical, exhilarating’. The Dukebox, for instance, had a programme bigger than our entire output six years ago.
Is there still a stigma that science is for geeks?
RR: There is indeed a geek dimension, not helped by such events as this year’s Nerd Night, which was unashamedly esoteric.
But we are battling the perception.
A few years ago the Guardian ran a preview of the Festival: ‘If your idea of entertainment is working out Pi to three thousand places of decimal then this is for you’. I was livid.
This is exactly what we are not. I want the spirit of David Attenborough to descend upon us and make sense of EVERYTHING.
Can you please answer the great question for the Great British public.
What is the meaning of life?
RR: I once invited an audience to distribute themselves along a line. At one end was ‘we are an accidental cluster of molecules on a damp rock spinning through an infinity of nothingness’; at the other, ‘We were made by a chap on a cloud six thousand years ago’.
Nobody ended up at either extreme, but nearly everyone huddled in the middle, around ‘there must be something out there’. I’m sorry to disappoint, but the damp rock scenario is the one.
There is no meaning except what we have cobbled together to make ourselves feel more comfortable.
Moreover, there’s no reason to think that our life has any more meaning than any other creature on the planet.
Which is comfortably democratic, perhaps.
I have become increasingly convinced that we are heading for a disastrous confrontation and that the 21st century will be remembered for a terrible war between mankind and goats.
People often underestimate how dangerous a goat can be – I personally know six people who have been severely injured by goats, and the annual death toll racked up by goats is over 2,000,000.
RR: The reassurance provided by a purely objective, existentialist view of life is that one can view with equanimity the scenario in which we humans are displaced by almost any other animal on the planet, including goats. It is all one, in the grand chaotic riot of things.
In an upcoming war between mankind and goats, which side will you be on? What techniques can science provide in order to give mankind an edge in a conflict against powerful and cunning goats?
RR: I’m afraid I cannot address your problem. I have much more important things to think about just now: sea urchins, hordes of them, with their evil poisoned spines, there in the sea, just out of view, waiting... waiting...
- Next week’s Your Interview is with DAVID PICKARD, general director of opera house Glyndebourne. Last week the opera house was revealed to contribute £16 million to the Sussex economy. With thousands expected to flock to Sussex for the festival season Mr Pickard will answer your questions about opera, the arts and keeping the iconic venue profitable. Send you questions to Emily.email@example.com or write to Argus House, Crowhurst Road, Brighton BN1 8AR.
We would like to clarify that the quote “I have become increasingly convinced that we are heading for a disastrous confrontation and that the 21st century will be remembered for a terrible war between mankind and goats” was a reader question and not a response from Mr Robinson.
The next paragraph, “People often underestimate how dangerous a goat can be – I personally know six people who have become severely injured by goats, and the annual death toll racked up by goats is over 2,000,000”, is also a reader question and not a response from Mr Robinson.
The Argus is happy to correct this and would like to apologise for the error.
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