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BBC TwoNewsnight
Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 October 2006, 14:16 GMT 15:16 UK
Stephen Smith, Science Student
Steve Smith
By Stephen Smith
Newsnight Culture Correspondent

Steve Smith
Steve: no longer in a cultural gutter but looking at the stars

These autumn evenings will often find me in my suite of rooms here at Newsnight, so transported by a calf-bound treasury of verse, or perhaps the latest Anita Brookner, that I'll barely register the sound of roaring faggots.

Imagine my consternation, then, when my reverie was interrupted the other night by the editor on the mobile telephone. Did I have any idea how few school children were studying sciences, he demanded to know?*

What were the possible deleterious consequences for the economy and society as a whole? The Lurpak dwindled on my neglected crumpet as he went on.

At last I said, "Peter, I think you're looking for Susan Watts (Newsnight's Science Correspondent). Have you tried the lab?"

Wrong number

But no, this was no wrong number - would that it were! It seemed that the editor had a notion to explore the dearth of science students in this country by ordering one of Newsnight's top correspondents to sit a physics exam.

But they were all busy, he explained, so I would have to do it. The whole point was to assign someone who was encountering science in Year Zero, as it were.

Shake the branches of my family tree and it's like it's raining engineers! My grandfather built railways in Colombia, my dad was a civil engineer
The blood drained from my face and Cahiers du Cinema: a Jim Dale Retrospective slid from my nerveless grasp. Physics! It had been years since I had so much as cracked the spine of a science primer.

Dear viewer, you'd never guess it from the almost forensic precision I bring to my reports ("reports", the word seems so slight, somehow) but I'm not a household name wherever leading scientists foregather.

Textbook case

At school, my chemistry career was unremarkable, although I did once help to extinguish the shirt of a fellow pupil who had strayed too near the Bunsen burner.

And on the summer's morning when my Human Biology mistress explored the colourful private life of the birds and the bees, I actually managed to faint (extra-strong hay fever pills, ladies). But of physics I recall nary a detail - a textbook case of suppressed memory syndrome, if that's what it's called.

Nobel-winning physicist Niels Bohr
Nobel-winning physicist Niels Bohr - one of Steve's heroes
But all this is rum and queer because I did actually complete the physics syllabus at O-level, and went on to score one of the most finely achieved 'C's that the examiners had seen that year. Not only that but science is strongly aspected in my antecedents.

Shake the branches of my family tree and it's like it's raining engineers! My grandfather built and ran railways in Colombia, my dad's stock skippered merchant shipping, he himself was a civil engineer.

Quest begins

On a family holiday in Scotland long ago, the old man drove us up a winding, sheep-girt track until at last a wet cliff-face of grey stone loomed out of the sleet. It was the monumental face of a dam, built by my father in his twenties. "That's where your quest begins!" said the editor, clapping his hands.

And so I found myself retracing my steps to my Dad's dam for an investigation into the state of science in Britain today. I also joined the physics A-level group at Newsnight's local college.

We'll be trying to find out why young people are apparently so reluctant to read sciences - and what they might be missing out on. There's evidence, for example, that science graduates earn more over their working lifetimes than people with a humanities background.

Watch how I get on, if you're at a loose end. I tell myself that if the worst comes to the worst, I can always black out again.

*In 1982, 55,728 pupils sat A-level Physics. In 2006, that figure has declined to 27,368 (Source: Statistics of Education School Leavers, Joint Council for Qualifications)

Steve's film can be seen on Newsnight at 2230GMT on Tuesday 24 October on BBC 2 and on the Newsnight website.

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