‘There’s always an idea that scientific things are necessarily dull; well, I think my colleagues and myself can dissipate that once and for all.’
Historians would often like to have been a fly on a wall when particular conversations were taking place. It’s not often that we do get the opportunity to listen in, but in a recent trawl through the Society’s 20th century archives I came across the next best thing.
I’ve been looking at material for our new exhibition ‘Broadcasting Science’, about science on the BBC and specifically the involvement of Royal Society Fellows. Howard Florey‘s papers contain some fascinating material, including a transcript of a conversation in 1945 between eight Royal Society Fellows and several BBC staff about a proposed new radio programme, ‘Science Magazine’. It is an amusing and revealing document, giving at least the illusion of a candid discussion ranging over hugely interesting topics including the scientists’ perception of the public interest in science, the challenges of communicating science to a general audience, and the value of making the attempt.
The BBC producers hosting the conversation had a series of questions on which they wanted advice. They began by asking about the audience at which they should aim the programme, suggesting 17 to 30 year olds ‘at around School Certificate standard’. Most of the scientists thought this was too narrow an audience.
‘. . . suppose you take a decent agricultural labourer who has come back and is having a little rest on Sunday, and is perhaps 50 or 55 years of age. Are we going to leave him out?’
‘I would like to aim . . . at the largest professional group in the country – housewives; to try to explain to them, for example, how soap works, how a refrigerator works. ‘
To our ears, the conversation sounds rather condescending (but remember, we’re eavesdropping here). It is clear that the scientists felt that the general population knew little or nothing about science. But the general feeling among the speakers seems to have been that they didn’t want to set out to educate people, nor did they want their listeners to think they were about to be educated. Instead they wanted to spark an interest in science and how it affected people’s lives.
But how to do this? Next, the BBC producers asked about the level of language – whether all items should be in lay terms, or whether some could contain technical terms for an audience of specialists. The answer was a resounding ‘No!’ to technical language, but the conversation continued the earlier themes of just how much scientific knowledge audiences would have. As might be expected, the scientists were aware of the huge social changes brought about by the war.
‘We’ve got to remember that during the war a lot of people have been considerably educated. There are two million people who’ve been making aeroplanes and know more than I do about them, and we shouldn’t be afraid occasionally of addressing large sections of the public who have been educated in that particular kind of work.’
The BBC producers wanted to know what sort of segments the magazine programme should include – for example, whether scientific news should be reported. The scientists were in favour of this, but they differed on how it could best be done. Some obviously had doubts about whether they (or the producers) could speak about other scientists’ work without running the risk of getting themselves into trouble. One speaker thought it was important to have an authoritative, competent presenter. Another argued against the idea that the programme should only deal with results that were deemed to be absolutely certain:
‘If you cut out everything that you think is wrong, the whole thing will become like the proceedings of the Royal Society.’
Setting aside the question of whether the Society’s 1945 Proceedings made entertaining reading, I found it interesting that some of the speakers were keen to ‘show that scientists make mistakes’ in order to get ‘behind the scenes’ in science. It contrasts strongly with the aura of infallibility that came with earlier scientific lectures broadcast on the radio, where the single voice of a scientific expert declaimed sonorously on his own subject.
In the final part of the conversation the BBC producers seem to have asked what each scientist thought his own field could contribute to the programme. Some were surprisingly modest, or diffident, about the likelihood of their own field being interesting to a general audience. Others took the opportunity to comment more broadly about what the programme might achieve. They brought up the question of whether listeners might be encouraged to become involved in science themselves, either through segments that discussed science as a part of everyday life (such as what people might observe in their gardens), or by ‘using the radio in order to extract helpful scientific research from the public’. One person wondered whether the listeners themselves might be able to suggest content for the programme. The emphasis is very much on the sorts of science that might be encountered in everyday life: for example, ‘one of our newer plastic materials, nylon‘, which one speaker complained was often described in the press as being made from coal. ‘And it seems to me that that explanation, accurate though it is, is not far-reaching enough, because I find the great body of the lay public haven’t the foggiest notion how on earth nylon can be made from coal.’
There is a beautiful moment towards the end of the conversation when one of the speakers tells us, quite simply and straightforwardly, what it is to be a scientist:
‘the thing I would most hope for [from the programme] would be something that would bring home the ordinariness of science – I believe that’s the most important thing that we’ve got to do in this programme. Professor Donnan has said that people think science is dull, I complain that people think science is exciting . . . the fact seems to me to be that in general, science is two things – it’s the most interesting, fascinating, tantalizing hobby in the world, and we’re very lucky to be able to practice that hobby . . . But most of all I would like to see . . . talks showing that science really is just a bit of the ordinary life . . . science is the thing on which you run the underground and the buses, and the radio, and the ordinary citizen should be most interested in the scientist . . . in the way the scientist works as a part of the network of the raising of the standard of living in the best sense – I don’t mean just in the economic sense. But in making a possibility of fuller life for everybody.’
With the recent scientific news dominated by CERN and the Higgs Boson it’s difficult to argue that all science is ‘just a bit of the ordinary life’ – but I’m sure all the scientists I know would completely agree that it’s ‘the most interesting, fascinating, tantalizing hobby in the world’. But would they agree with this?
‘I would like to see certain experiments reported as a football match is reported.’