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Weird science

Professor in special electric mask surrounded by school children, 1930
Demonstrating the electrification of hair in 1930

A POINT OF VIEW

Explosions. Bunsen burners. Adoring crowds in evening dress - or school uniform - eyes wide with wonderment. Can we recapture the excitement of science, asks historian Lisa Jardine.

Inside many of our historic buildings, spaces survive which seem to hold particularly strong memories of events that took place within them. One of my favourites is the Faraday Lecture Theatre at the Royal Institution in London, one of our oldest establishments dedicated to the promotion of science.

Faraday Lecture Theatre
The refurbished lecture hall

Since shortly after the Institution's foundation in 1799, the world's greatest scientific communicators have stood in front of its baize-covered desk, at the centre of the steeply-raked 300-seat theatre to enthral the general public with their ideas and experiments.

What a contrast with today. Last week, Ofsted reported that at both primary and secondary school level, science lessons were dull and there were not enough practical experiments. Teachers no longer entertain classes with explosions of powdered magnesium; gone are the bunsen burners for heating noxious mixtures in fragile test-tubes.

"Science is a fascinating and exciting subject," said Chief inspector Christine Gilbert. "Yet for many pupils, it lacks appeal because of the way that it is taught."

Crowd pleasers

It was in the Faraday Lecture Theatre, in June 1903, that French scientist Pierre Curie and his Polish wife Marie Sklodowska Curie demonstrated the remarkable properties of their newly discovered element, radium.

The Curies in the lab
Marie and Pierre in 1903

The occasion was one of the Institution's celebrated Friday evening discourses, a fashionable event for which those who attended were expected to don full evening dress, and which caused such congestion on Piccadilly that Albemarle Street, on which the Institution stands, had to be designated the first one-way street in London, to cope with the crush of carriages.

The Curies were the scientific stars of the moment: everyone in London wanted to meet them. In the packed theatre, eminent scientists rubbed shoulders with leading members of London's high society, craning their necks in anticipation.

Actually, it was Pierre Curie who conducted the radium experiments, since propriety and the rules of the Royal Institution prevented a woman from participating in a Royal Institution discourse. Most of those present, however, understood that this research had been carried out by a perfectly-matched scientific partnership, whose complementary abilities were clearly evidenced by their many published papers.

By 1903, the Curies had produced an impressive sequence of joint papers on the two new radioactive elements they had discovered - polonium and radium - but both Marie and Pierre had also published key results on both the physics and chemistry of radioactivity independently.

At the end of that year, indeed, they were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics, "in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel".

Own lab rat

As a sign of the high regard in which she was held, Marie sat in the front row of the Faraday lecture theatre, alongside the most senior scientist present at that occasion, the former President of the Royal Society and towering figure in the investigation of electricity, Lord Kelvin.

Lisa Jardine
The lecture theatre had to be decontaminated, because of the dangerous level of radiation

In a partially darkened room, Pierre showed how radium emitted a ghostly light. He placed a piece of radium on a photographic plate which had been wrapped in thick layers of newspaper. Removing the paper, Pierre Curie revealed how the clear image of the radium had been transmitted through its wrappings, on to the plate.

Finally, rolling up his sleeve, he showed a livid red area of damaged skin, where he had bound a sample of radium wrapped in a thin layer of rubber to his arm for 10 hours. Marie, he explained, had suggested that this property of burning the skin might make radium a useful treatment for cancer.

As he moved his precious radium samples around, Pierre Curie's fingers fumbled badly. So incapacitated was he by his badly scarred hands and a general feeling of fatigue and debilitation, that he had not been able to tie his dress tie before the lecture. Neither he nor his wife was aware of the lasting damage being caused to their health by repeated handling of radioactive substances. Neither took any precautions when working at close quarters with radium.

So in this case, one of the lasting memories I began with was a real one: years after Pierre's Royal Institution performance, it was found that the effects of his mishandling of his material still lingered on the premises - the lecture theatre had to be decontaminated, because of the dangerous level of radiation.

Rule book

It is hard today to decide which attitude on that celebrated occasion was the more blinkered: the absolute inability publicly to recognise a great woman's scientific achievement, or the assembled company's unreserved celebration of radioactivity. For now, I'll stay with the former.

Bunsen burner
Tools of the trade

Among those in the admiring audience at the Curies' lecture was another distinguished woman scientist, the physicist Hertha Ayrton. A year earlier she had been the first woman proposed for candidature as a Fellow of the even more prestigious Royal Society, for her "long series of experiments on direct [electrical] current arc, leading to many new facts and explanations".

After a flurry of activity on the part of the existing Fellows it was agreed that Hertha Ayrton's candidature was ineligible, because she was a married woman. Even had she been single, it was decided that "the Statutes of the Society are framed on the footing that only men can be elected, and we think that no woman can be properly elected as a Fellow, without some alteration in the Statutes".

Hertha Ayrton and Marie Curie - encouraged by the statutes of the Royal Institution to attend its lectures, but not allowed to take part in its serious business - became close friends. When, in 1909, the Westminster Gazette attributed the discovery of radium to Pierre Curie, it was Hertha who protested in a letter to the editor.

"Errors are notoriously hard to kill," she wrote. "But an error that ascribes to a man what was actually the work of a woman has more lives than a cat."

Science can be fun

But let's go back, to all that messing about with dangerous substances - substances we now know could kill - for the entertainment of the public in the Faraday lecture theatre in the 1900s.

Girl finishing science exam
Pupils want practical science lessons to make the subject more fun

From the beginning, the Royal Institution was a place where science was both useful and fun. Its mission was declared to be: "Teaching the application of Science to the common Purposes of Life". And the public flocked to its scientific demonstrations throughout the 19th Century.

So why are so many people today happy to admit that they find science difficult and dull? Some of the blame may be laid at the doors of our education system, as the Ofsted report suggested. But there must be more to the flight from science.

People who would never admit to a lack of understanding of art or literature are happy to confess to total incomprehension where science is concerned. Yet our lives today depend as never before upon the outcomes of innovative science and technology. Without medical science, our lives would be shorter and more painful; without physics and chemistry, domestic conveniences that ease our everyday lives could never have been developed.

If, however, the reason for the general public's disenchantment with science is to be laid at the door of scientists unable or unprepared to communicate their subject so as to engage the interest and enthusiasm of non-specialists, then the Royal Institution is continuing a long tradition actively to counter such a trend.

You should be able to say 'where shall we go tonight? I know, let's go to the Royal Institution'
Susan Greenfield

It has just reopened after a major refurbishment of its original Albemarle Street premises by architect Terry Farrell - a refurbishment which thankfully leaves the Faraday lecture theatre improved but fundamentally unchanged, while transforming the rest of the buildings into an Aladdin's cave of enticing spaces fostering science education and communication.

In her address to the distinguished audience of scientists and friends gathered at the official reopening, director Susan Greenfield expressed the hope that evenings at the RI might once again be considered as thrilling a prospect as going to the cinema or out to dinner. "You should be able to say 'where shall we go tonight? I know, let's go to the Royal Institution'."

And if you do decide to attend one of those captivating, cutting-edge Friday evening discourses, you can still enjoy arriving in evening dress, as you might for a night out at the opera. That is no longer mandatory - but it means that memories of the glory days of science still seem to hover over the Faraday lecture theatre.


Thanks for your comments.

Health and safety fears and the red tape of completing risk assessments are another reason why teachers are unwilling to conduct many of the more 'interesting' practical experiments.
Derek Charles, Worthing, England

One of my favourite memories of school was watching our chemistry teacher getting rather confused and mixing two chemicals which resulted in a small explosion. The "blast" was small enough that it didn't radiate beyond the teachers desk and so nowhere near any of the pupil desks, however several parents complained and the teacher was given a warning, even though every kid in the room thought it was great. The problem is that everything has to be wrapped in cotton wool now in case some overprotective parent sues the school, and when you cotton wool science it means no (or very simple = safe) experiments.
Olly, York, UK

The reason that sciences are failing is the growing acceptance for the arts. It is now a highly acceptable career path for children to go through their whole school life wanting to be an artist et. al. Years ago that talk would have been dismissed as drivel and pupils pushed towards the sciences not the arts
Adam Scarborough, Cheltenham

I always enjoyed watching the Royal Institutions Xmas lectures on TV as they really made science come alive. But then again when I was at school (not that long ago) I did physics, biology and chemistry as separate subjects. We also had a science club where we were challenged to do such experiments such as build the highest tower using paper and sellotape.
Karen, Didcot, UK

Science is finding out, then measuring. Science can't ALWAYS be fun, but maybe its significance is not always communicated well. Curiosity is the first step in science, and perhaps this is not encouraged enough!
Nigel Macarthur, London, England

When I was a kid (30 years ago) science was close enough to reality which made it easier to grasp. I am an engineer now and I have taught science/engineering and things have gotten so complex and intricate that to get someone to understand what is comparably at the same level as 30 years ago requires a much greater level of knowledge than before.
Francisco Lopez, Madrid

How can science be interesting if there is no chance to see and participate in experiments? You can't learn to play the violin by reading descriptions of someone else playing a violin. You have to 'do' science to learn it - even if that includes some things gone wrong. If a teacher doesn't enjoy science, they will convey their attitude no matter how they try not to. Then science become a course to get through, not to learn.
Richard Namon, Miami, USA




LISA JARDINE ARCHIVE
 



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