More scientists needed in NZ

17:00, Jul 08 2012
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Students touch a gas filled glass ball creating a plasma sphere during a visit to the exhibition 'Weltmaschine' in Berlin, Germany.

Last week the talk at every workplace seemed to be about evidence and doubt. If you had evidence which made you 99 per cent sure, did that mean you had proof beyond reasonable doubt?

Eventually the problem that had been vexing the nation was solved and some very bright scientists presented evidence that showed beyond at least 99.99 per cent doubt that the Higgs boson existed.

As bloggers delighted in making jokes about misspelling "hadrons" (a particle made up of quarks), the rest of us, our eyes glazing over, discussed more important things like murder.

Some of us even proudly proclaimed that we knew nothing about particle physics and weren't even going to try to understand the stellar breakthrough the quark-raving-mad scientists had made.

This is a pity because our economy depends on having smart, scientifically savvy, workers and entrepreneurs. New Zealand has a long tradition of anti-intellectualism and now we seem to be developing an anti-scientific tradition as well.

Anything, such as the Higgs boson, that requires a little mental application, is put in the too-hard basket. Then we have the gall to complain about our schools.

Perhaps the reason for this anti-scientism is that, for many of us, science at school was a dreary succession of note-taking and rote learning. This is why I was delighted to see Professor Christine Winterbourn, one of New Zealand's leading scientists, calling for more practical experimentation in school science laboratories. "People get into science when they see things go bang," she said, with elegant simplicity.

When I was at school, our science teacher, Mrs McDonald, burned a magnesium ribbon in class with spectacular results. My class became hooked on chemistry and she became known as Mrs Magnesium.

Doing real science, whether it's standing on bathroom scales in a moving lift to see what happens to your weight, watching soft drink corrode a human tooth, letting sodium explosively react with air, or holding a lighted candle in a jar as you move in a circle to see which way the acceleration (flame) is directed, can be real fun, and we can't possibly have that in our schools.

The trouble today is that, thanks to the paranoia about health and safety issues and our assessment-obsessed education system, there is little practical work in many science classes.

When I was at school, you could excel at science without stepping into a lab. I'm not sure it has changed much since. Yet, as a correspondent to a Christchurch newspaper recently wrote, "a chemistry lab with a few marks on the ceiling is a good lab".

Many science examinations still expect you to recall facts or manipulate formulae. And forget dreamy speculation about how the universe was created. Angry employers would ask, "How's that going to help you get a job?"

You could argue that students get the chance to do practical science work in science fairs. That's true, although they're not a core part of the curriculum but what Bill English would call a nice to have, and the winners often seem to be kids whose parents are scientists. I'd love to know the correlation between science fair winners and the occupations of their parents.

Embracing particle physics and other scientific endeavours should not be done just to accelerate growth in our moribund economy. How would you like to find yourself in the dock, innocent of a crime, being judged by a jury of people who yawn when listening to that vital DNA evidence that would clear you? How would you like your jury to roll their eyes and whisper "mad scientist" when a ballistic expert uses highly complex data to prove that you couldn't have shot the gun?

Politicians argue that science is expensive. Well-equipped school science labs and well-qualified science teachers cost a hydrogen bomb. The hadron collider that proved the almost certain existence of the Higgs boson cost a whopping $11.7 billion. Think how many South Canterbury Finance bailouts and Auckland motorways you could fund with that.


The Dominion Post