21 September 2012

The Times, STEM and conehead boffins

Posts here in the past (eg in August) have taken up points raised in The Times’ monthly science and technology supplement, Eureka. But last week I was left wondering just how seriously the editorship of the Times newspapers takes STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).

Britain’s premier scientific institution is the Royal Society. Founded in 1660, its Fellows have included Newton, Darwin and Hawking. Last week, presumably as part of its mission to raise public awareness of science and innovation, the Society published rankings for the most significant inventions in the history of food and drink. The Society’s Vice President said:
Royal Society Fellows have played vital roles in improving people’s lives for 350 years and science has a major role to play in meeting the global challenges of the 21st century. We thought it appropriate to look at how that innovation has shaped what we eat and drink. The poll reveals the huge role science and innovation have played in improving our health and our lives. This is something to which the scientific community continues to add.
The fridge, pasteurised milk, and the tin can were identified as the top three. On 14 September The Times Science Correspondent, Tom Whipple, covered the story in a straightforward but not overly serious fashion, quoting the Fellows’ explanation for their choices. But alongside was a piece by Giles Coren, This is the worst list I have ever seen of anything ..., beginning:
Fridges, pasteurising and the tin can were voted the three greatest innovations in the history of food and drink yesterday by . . . whom? By chefs? No. By dieticians? No.  
By gluttons? No. By restaurant critics? No.  
By the fellows of the Royal Society — by scientists, in other words. By the sort of conehead boffins who think that making food last forever is more important than eating anything even vaguely fresh or nice. These are men and women who got where they are by doing 48-hour lab shifts living off cold baked beans spooned from the can, instant tea with UHT milk and whatever ancient takeaway they found at the back of the college fridge with “Hands off, this is MINE!” scribbled on it in whiteboard marker.
Well, Coren is a humorist, sadly not as funny as his late father, Alan, and no stranger to controversy, so perhaps shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But The Times’ Sunday stablemate, is running advertisements (below) for a series feature, 100 Answers Every Grown Up Needs To Know,

addressing ‘the eternal questions of childhood’, examples being about lightning, sleep and evolution. The implication that ‘scientific’ questions are just for kids or conehead boffins is underlined by the ad using a father and son mimicking a notorious photograph (left, explained here) of Albert Einstein. who, as it happens, was a Foreign Member of the Royal Society.

Before concluding that The Times has been letting slip its real and unsympathetic editorial opinions about STEM, it is only fair to point out that they are advertising (below), and associated with, a series of 40 books being published weekly, Everything is Mathematical, which:
… presented by Marcus du Sautoy, approaches the subject of mathematics in a completely new, fresh and reader-friendly way. Covering a range of topics such as: the Golden Ratio, Prime Numbers, the Fourth Dimension, Fermat’s Enigma, the Secrets of Pi and Chaos Theory, the collection demonstrates clearly how mathematics shapes the world around us. From now on, mathematics is something to look forward to and enjoy.

Well, let’s hope it succeeds. I’ve not yet spotted it in any newsagent I visit. It will be interesting to see, for example, how the issue Pushing the Limits Infinitesimal calculus, due out on 5 December, handles its subject, in particular how algebraic the treatment will be:
The importance of calculus and of concepts such as 'derivatives' and 'integrals' is hard to underestimate. It has been said that without them the scientific revolution would have been impossible. Although their origins date back to the Ancient World, the crucial breakthrough came with the simultaneous work of two giants of Western thought: Leibniz and Newton. Their battle to lay claim to the discovery of these key mathematical concepts shook the world of 17th-century science in Europe.
If the approach adopted in the series tends to the qualitative and reliance on graphics rather than formulae, it may give an encouraging but ultimately misleading view of the study of mathematics. There is a consequent risk of some young person embarking on what I described in another Eureka-inspired post at the beginning of the year: David E. Goldberg’s “math-science death march”.

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