Saturday, November 26, 2005

Science 3

We are going to see Simon Singh in flesh and blood soon, when he comes to IISc to give a talk on "Big Bang". In addition to writing some of the most widely read popular science books, he looks absolutely cool, too: take a look at his picture on his website.

Clifford Johnson points to an article in the Guardian titled 'Keats claimed physics destroyed beauty. Keats was being a prat'. It's by Simon Singh, the author of several popular science books including those on cryptography ("The Code Book"), and cosmology ("Big Bang"). I have read the one on Fermat's last theorem, which is really nice.

Two key passages:

Britain was the home of Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday and Paul Dirac, and Brits made world-class contributions to understanding gravity, quantum physics and electromagnetism - and yet the British physicist is now facing extinction. But so what? Physicists are not as cuddly as pandas, so who cares if we disappear?


A budding boffin in Bangalore probably stands more chance of having good mathematics and physics teachers than the equivalent bright young spark condemned to a British science education. A British politician in 1950 would have laughed at the thought of Indian schools ever being better than British schools, but last year's Physics Olympiad shows how things have changed. In this international competition for schools students, India won two gold medals, two silvers and a bronze, whereas Britain won only two bronzes.

It is probably difficult to resist the temptation to read this piece with a sense of schaudenfreude, taking a smug view of the troubles that physics in UK finds itself in. But we too should be worried about the kind of things Singh says in his article. In our society, we are obsessed with getting a professional degree -- engineering and medicine in particular. People would rather send their kids to a third rate engineering program (of which there are many) than a first rate science program in an excellent college (of which there are quite a few).

Many scientists have expressed an alarm (sometimes in absolutely horrible and inappropriate ways), and the fear is genuine. We are currently in a stage similar to that of an extremely diabetic person who doesn't realize that a rat is chewing his toes in his sleep. It is better to wake up well before some serious damage is done.


  1. Aswin said...

    When is Simon coming to IISc??

  2. Abi said...

    Oops, Aswin, I am sorry for this late reply. He is here on the 8th of December.