Saturday, 3 January 2009

Keep religion and philosophy out of science lessons, Prof. Dawkins!

I've just finished watching the Royal Institution Christmas lecture series for 2008, which was televised last week in the UK. This is a long and venerable lecture series, dating back to 1825 when the first series of lectures were given by Michael Faraday (see here for a list of all the lecturers). I myself attended the lectures in 1969 (Prof. Sir George Porter on Time Machines) and 1970 (J. Napier on evolution). The lectures are primarily aimed at schoolchildren from the ages of 11 onwards. Many eminent scientists have given these lectures before, including both holders of the post of Professor of Public Understanding of Science, Richard Dawkins, and the current holder, Marcus du Sautoy.

This year's lectures were of special interest to me as they were given by my PhD supervisor, Chris Bishop, who is head researcher at Microsoft Research in Cambridge.

In one of the lectures, Bishop gave an amusing demonstration of the precision of the laws of physics; saying that the smallest deviation from the laws of physics in the demonstration could result in him being killed. He had rigged up a 14 Kg weight on the end of a long cable that was suspended from the high ceiling of the Royal Institution lecture theatre. Standing at the edge of the stage, he took the weight and lifted it up so it touched his face. Then he let go and watched as it swung alarmingly fast across the lecture theatre and then back again, coming to rest a few inches from his face without harming him.

He then went on to make the interesting teaching point that the laws of physics are so precisely predictable that we can simulate them in a computer - to such a degree of realism that when airline pilots are trained in flying a new type of aircraft, they can do the training entirely on a flight simulator powered by a computer - and that the first time a pilot flew that kind of aircraft for real would have been when fare-paying passengers were on board.

This, it seems to me, is science teaching at its best. Perform an interesting and exciting demonstration showing an abstract concept - and then capitalise on the demonstration to show how this science relates to something we can all appreciate in the real world. It's what the Royal Institution Christmas lectures are all about.

Now, the reason I relate this is that I discovered that Richard Dawkins (who as we know went on to be the first holder of the Charles Simonyi Chair of Public Understanding of Science in Oxford) also gave precisely the same demonstration in the first of his 1991 series of Royal Institution Christmas Lectures: Growing Up in the Universe

However, Dawkins didn't use the illustration to show how it relates to other branches of science. Instead the sole purpose was to show that there was nothing wrong with having faith in a proper scientific prediction (having spoken for some time about how silly it was to have a faith in the supernatural). Dawkins thereby neglected his duty as a science teacher, and instead used a scientific experiment to propagate his own philosophical viewpoint.

It is therefore gratifying to read that his successor as Professor of Public Understanding of Science, the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, who is just as much an atheist as Dawkins, is intending to concentrate in his role on the communication of science, and not making a name for himself as a crusader against religion.