A's HoB Q&A – Part Two 'the science bit'

I challenged you to ask me questions and you did … see the previous post for a variety of bookish and Oxfordian answers. Today it’s time to answer the science questions that you asked me – and I shall go in reverse order.

Simon T (Stuck in a Book) asked: What is your favourite chemical element?

Really, I can’t better David Nolan’s stunning pun of a reply “If I had a favourite chemical element, I think it would change periodically!”, but here are a few thoughts…
I could say ‘Oxygen‘ a) because we can’t live without it and b) when you burn Sulphur in Oxygen it has a wonderful blue flame – but I won’t.
I could say ‘Carbon‘ – another necessary element for life, also because it’s graphite, and diamonds, and Buckminsterfullerene (C60 – a carbon molecule shaped like a football made up of hexagons and pentagons).
I could say ‘Tin‘ because when you take a rod of it and bend it, it ‘cries’ – it’s a distinctive sound, made by all the dislocations (faults in the crystal structure) propagating through the material.
I could say ‘Silver’, ‘Gold’ or ‘Platinum’ because of their beauty when wrought into jewels, relative inertness and worth – but that’s far too obvious.

Today, my favourite element is aluminium.

The third most abundant element (after Oxygen and Silicon). I chose it because an aluminium alloy known as RR58 was used to build the airframe of Concorde – crucially it oxidises to give a microscopic layer of alumina – aluminium oxide on the skin which crucially aids the structural strength. I learnt that fact in my very first lecture on metallurgy at university.

Susan Osborne asked: Can you recommend science writers for readers like myself who are reasonably intelligent but ignorant of the sciences? I realise that its far too wide a subject to recommend for all branches of science. Thanks!

I enjoy reading popular science books, but don’t have time to read and review enough of them. Two I have blogged about are Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik on materials science, and Bad Science by Ben Goldacre which blows the lid off pharmaceuticals – from drug trials to homeopathy.

Here are a few more great science books/writers you might consider (titles go to my affiliate link).

That’s just a few off the top of my head. Everyone else – please add your favourite science books.

And finally, that fiendish feline Dark Puss asked: Why is it still perceived to be OK to be uninterested in science but not OK to be uninterested in literature (if you wish to be seen as an “educated” person)? How did we get to that point in our world?

There are so many facets to think about in answering this question. Here are a few thoughts for further discussion if you’d like.  I warn you I’m going to make sweeping generalisations though and it’s going to sound simplistic …

Firstly, nearly all the big discoveries and advances in science these days are so high tech or on the quantum level that comprehending them in any meaningful way is beyond most people, so they just turn off unless it’s Brian ‘Smiley’ Cox on the tellybox. In the days before we’d discovered most of the easy stuff, the man on the Clapham omnibus had half a chance of understanding some of it.  Also more people worked in engineering and factories, surrounded by science and technology, there were more apprentices, etc etc – so more chance that some science would brush off on people perhaps. We don’t have the everyday exposure to science and engineering in the way we used to through manufacturing, so science is perceived as difficult, made especially so as maths is devalued as being not useful by those who don’t realise that without it we can’t make progress. Secondly, secondary schools struggle to get good science teachers. Less hands on science gets done because of uninterested pupils playing up etc. – less practicals, more demonstrations. Teachers don’t necessarily have time to go beyond the curriculum. The kids see science as a difficult subject, so possibly pick easier options. Uninterest in science is ingrained early – but paradoxically, we’re all better at using it in our everyday lives – we just don’t realise.

However, if you compare the amount of hours of telly that is science-based against the hours that is literature based (non-drama), science wins hands down. Nature programmes and medical programmes abound, physics gets some attention – but ‘The sky at night’ is still going strong, in fact chemistry is probably the poor relation in science programming. Literature is mainly a specialist channel or late-night subject.

It probably boils down to the fact that even if you read rubbish, it is easy to talk about a book, whereas science requires education of a sort – or enough to ask the question. Basically, Dark Puss, I have no real idea how to answer your question – but it was fun thinking about it!



15 thoughts on “A's HoB Q&A – Part Two 'the science bit'

  1. susanosborne55 says:

    Thanks, Annabel. I’ve read the Goldacre – big fan of his Guardian columns – and the Emsley sounds up my street. I’ll investigate the others on your list, too.

      • susanosborne55 says:

        Thanks very much. Extremely helpful, and I enjoyed Annabel’s reply to your question. I think I’d add that most people in the media are arts-educated, unable to properly explain scientific concepts and seemingly unaware that this is a problem. My partner is a contemporary historian whose work involves quite a lot of economics, often to be heard muttering ‘correlation is not the same as causation’ at the radio!

  2. Dark Puss says:

    Haha I see putting “Science” in the title really cuts down the comments 🙂

    Books for the “intelligent ignorant” (as requested by “susanosborne55”? I endorse of course those Annabel already mentioned. I’d add almost anything written by John Gribben (especially if you would like to gain some understanding of quantum mechanics), books by Stephen J Gould (evolutionary biology/palaeontology), Andrew Sachs (many areas, but try Uncle Tungsten especially). Not “science” but it’s equally important sister “engineering” also attracts some good writers, especially the biographies by LTC Rolt from which you can learn a great deal about engineering too.

    I’m slightly surprised (because I think it is her area of expertise) that Annabel didn’t mention this fantastic book: “The New Science of Strong Materials or Why You Don’t Fall through the Floor” by J. E. Gordon.

    That’s enough for the moment I suspect …

  3. Dark Puss says:

    Dear Annabel, thank you once again for a thoughtful answer; I think basically you are right though I still suspect a lingering snobbishness may prevail about the general superiority of a “classical” education.

    My favourite element is Hafnium – I once went to a company in France to discuss buying it (in fluoride form) in multi-tonne quantities. Ah happy days 🙂

  4. Simon T (Stuck-in-a-Book) says:

    Excellent answers again, Annabel, and wonderful reasons for the elements you like! I also loved your thoughtful final answer – and the excellent point, which I hadn’t thought about, about how few literary programmes are now shown on TV – even on BBC4, which should supposedly be the place for such things.

  5. litlove says:

    I don’t think that science is in anyway seen as a poor relation to literature – quite the other way around. And this is particularly so in the university environment, where scientists can score huge grants and there is practically no money at all for the arts. I agree that the television seems to regularly schedule science programmes and have very few that are literature related. In education from academia downwards, all the emphasis is on encouraging more students into science. I’m curious to know what your perceptions are based on, Dark Puss?

    • Dark Puss says:

      You are totally correct about funding and about the push for STEM subjects at university. I think my point was that it still seems to be acceptable (less so than in the past I’d grant you) for an “educated” person to profess ignorance of science than vice versa. Of course I am not talking about a lack of real expertise here (and more than you would expect me to be able to give an expert analysis of Proust or Elliot or Titian or Mahler) but that there are folk who seem so incurious about the sciences and mathematics (and engineering) to the extent of never reading anything about them at all as far as I can tell. Most probably there are completely illiterate (in the sense I mean here of course) scientists, but so far I have not met them.

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