Sunday, 17 October 2010

One reason why (science) museums rock

When I started work at the Science Museum a few years ago, after five years with a social history museum and archaeology service, I was curious about how the additional tasks of communicating scientific principles, contemporary science news and the history of science and technology would affect interpretation, collections and exhibitions. With that in mind, I did some research about science museums and came across an article about the impact of the Palais de la Découverte (a science museum in Paris) translated for me as:
In a recent work entitled 'Comment devient-on scientifique?' (How does one become a scientist?) published by Editions EDP, Florence Guichard indicates the results of a survey undertaken in the Ile-de-France: 60% of scientists over 30 and 40% of scientists under 30 claim, without prompting, that the Palais de la Découverte triggered their vocation. Pierre Gilles of Gennes, the winner of the Nobel prize for Physics is one of those 'lovers' of thePalais de la Découverte who was still visiting the place a few years before his death in 2007.
[Update - coincidentally, the day after posting, I came across another reference to the impact of science museums on children's interest in science:] The evolution of the science museum:
When did scientists first become interested in science? A 1998 survey of 1400 scientists, conducted by the Roper Starch organization for the Bayer Foundation and NSF, reported that a respected adult, such as a parent, was the biggest factor in stimulating childhood interest in science. [...] a variety of informalactivities had an effect. [...] 76 percent said science museum visits
That's pretty amazing.  But ok, for people who aren't scientists, why does science matter?  Well, for a start, the UK needs to keep up with the rest of the world, and there are global problems that we need scientists to help solve.  At about the same time, President Obama stated in his inaugural address that he would "restore science to its rightful place". Ed Yong, among others, answered the question, so 'what is science's rightful place?':
...underneath all of the detail lie some basic principles that science is built upon and these, I feel, ought to be more mainstream than they perhaps are. We should be strive to be unceasing in our curiosity, rational in our explanations and accurate in our communication. We should value inquiry and the power of evidence to change opinions. We should be unflinching in our search for understanding and the desire to test the world around us.

There is no question in my mind that these tenets should act as guides to our lives (albeit not exclusively; they are necessary, rather than sufficient). This is the greatest contribution of science to society. It acts as a stimulant that keeps us from sleepwalking through a wonderland. It is a cloth that wipes away superstition and myths to reveal an ever-closer approximation of the truth. It is a mental prophylactic that shields our minds from the folly of confirmation bias or the lure of unrepresentative anecdotes.
Tell people about the latest discoveries and many will ask what the significance is to their lives. In some cases, there's no way to answer that - they either appreciate it or they don't. But the very question misses an important point. The actual results may not be relevant but the principles that underlie them most definitely are, and they are omnipresent. Curiosity. Investigation. Communication. What could be more human or more pertinent to our casual existence?
The UK curriculum (key stage 1, key stage 3) aims to teach the value of scientific enquiry and perhaps fire a lifelong 'curiosity about phenomena in the world around them', and I suspect science museums make that teaching just a bit easier.  I know that the majority of people I talk to can still remember their school visit to science museums, but I haven't yet asked them what effect it might have had on their lives - does anyone know of any research?

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