Science and drugs and rock’n’roll: can we make science cool?

Much like science fiction, science isn’t considered to be cool (unless you’re a geek like us, of course). So what can be done about science’s image problem?

Over here in the UK, a chap called Richard Bowdler is trying to open the eyes of ordinary people to the cooler sides of science by doing a form of outreach. His Guerrilla Science organisation sets up tents at music festivals and hosts talks, lectures and participatory hijinks, with the aim of pressing people’s sensawunda buttons and banishing the notion of science as dull stuff for people with slide rules and labcoats.

Often the host asks how many of those present hail from a science background – and always, only few put their hands up. So does Bowdler hold with the widely held view that the British public are not interested in science?

“I don’t subscribe to that view, but I would say that science is seen in a very uncool light, which I personally believe to be a rather immature standpoint.”

Speaking on the evolution of music, science writer Zoe Cormier is at pains to press this point home. Explaining the reasons for setting up the project she says: “We’re here to show you science is NOT boring.” She could well be preaching to the choir. After every talk there are dozens of inquisitive minds throwing forth questions.

And as one speaker told me, these aren’t the same as the questions discussed in science labs. Instead, the audience tends to see the big picture, and often the scope of their enquiries takes the scientists by surprise. When there’s no more time for questions, small crowds descend upon the speaker as the Q&A continues by the candy-pink stretch limousine outside. All of those presenting their research are flattered by the interest, often returning to lectures on similar areas of research the next day to form impromptu roundtable sessions with the audience. There’s no end to people’s appetite for science here.

How much of that openness to new ideas is due to the, er, explorative frame of mind that prevails at music festivals is open to debate. But there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that science, when properly framed, can fascinate everyone – think of the popularity of Carl Sagan, for instance, or the inimitable lecture style of the late Richard Feynman.

But is there perhaps a risk of cheapening science by trying to make it more rock’n’roll? After all, for every exciting moment in the lab, there’s plenty of dull number-crunching and repetitive procedures to go through; hell, my first year of university eroded my interest in electronics almost completely. Should science be left to those most suited to it by temperament?