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A prime chance to connect

Welcome to 2011. This could be the year of the nerd. How do I know? Blame mathematician Marcus du Sautoy. On New Year’s Eve, du Sautoy, the current Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, used Twitter to announce that not only is 2011 a prime number, it’s the sum of eleven consecutive prime numbers. And if that isn’t the nerdiest fact you’ve been told today, I’ll eat my Doctor Who DVD collection.

But while we’re all for maths and science at The Engineer, our real interest is, of course, in the application of these pure intellectual studies to the real world. With the difficulties of communicating the relevance of engineering to the public a perpetual bugbear of ours, I was particularly heartened to watch this year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures over the festive season. Broadcast at prime time and gathering a healthy audience, the Lectures were given for the first time in many years by an engineer, Mark Miodownik, head of the Materials Research Group at King’s College London.

It must have been a daunting task for Miodownik; he’s joined an illustrious tradition. The Christmas Lectures started in 1825 and were interrupted only by World War II. Michael Faraday delivered 19 of them, making the lectures so popular that London’s first traffic lights were installed in Albemarle Street to cope with the traffic trying to deliver the audience to the Institution’s doors. But Miodownik was more than equal to the task, holding the audience of young people rapt as he told them about how an object’s size dictates how it interacts with the world; the relationship between surface area and volume and how that affects the abilities of animals; and the possibilities of manipulating crystal structure and building nanoscale machines.

As it happens, I saw Miodownik myself a couple of days before Christmas, at an event celebrating the achievements of science in society. Bounding on stage enthusiastically to tell the audience how he came to be presenting the Lectures, he mentioned the name of one of our erstwhile interviewees on The Engineer, the physicist and science communicator Brian Cox. Apparently, Prof Cox is known to his fellow science communicators as ‘The Smiley Messiah’, and the period before he came to prominence on television is known as ‘BBC - Before Brian Cox’.

Leaving aside the good-natured ribbing, it’s notable that Prof Cox’s influence has had a real effect on how attitude to science has changed. But that effect hasn’t filtered into engineering; the discipline needs a populariser of its own. Dr Miodownik doesn’t have Prof Cox’s flowing hair or rock star credentials (although a viewing of the videos of his former band, D:Ream, indicates that ‘rock star’ does overstate things a little), but he certainly has the presentational gifts, the enthusiasm, and the ability to connect with audiences of all ages. He also has a nice line in flowery shirts and baseball boots. Can we see more of him, please?

Readers' comments (8)

  • Dr Miodownik started quite well but lost my interest when he referrred to mercury as being heavy and then floated a cannon ball in a bowl it it. He never mentioned density. He went on to "weigh" objects in kg and I swithced over. If I am watching a science programme I expect the basics to be right. If they are not what credence does the rest of the programme have. I expect the BBC to dumb down progammes but not the Royal Institution.

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  • Does it need to be one person, Like him or loath him Clarkson for exmaple isnt qualified but bounds enthusiasm for engineering. Perhaps a team approach may work?

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  • Can I point you to Camoflaged Learning based in sunny Gt Yarmouth? They've been bringing accessable engineering to schools throughout East Anglia for some years now - and to the best of my knowlegde have been doing a jolly good job of it. I've heard that Lotus have also been involved in getting engineering interest going in schools and I'm sure other companies are doing the same. There's far more grassroots work going on in the engineering world than meets the casual glance.

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  • Why on Earth is there a seemingly constant need to excuse an interest in technical or scientific matters as being "nerdy?" I have noticed this a number of times on television including the trotting out of very simple information with the muttered caveat of "if that means anything to you." If we wish to change attitudes then we need an entirely unapologetic champion who trusts the general public to see the inherent interest in what is being presented and doesn't default their delivery to catering for the lowest common denominator.

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  • The promotion of engineering, and what it does, and brings to society needs highlighting to the mass public. They may know engineers design and build their cars, but what about their underwear, furniture, and their electronic gadgets they take for granted.

    If Joe Public had a greater understanding of engineering we may have had more public support for engineering generally. We may have had more public support for engineering investment, and we may still have considerably more engineering in the UK.

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  • So, these excellent lectures are back to the BBC, after being kicked around some. Maybe rather dumbed down since the first ones - why not on the standard channels BBC1 or BBC2 which everyone can get?

    BBC 1 and 2 are padded through the daytime e.g. with house makeovers, antique sales, and cookery, (not to say a week of Darts game, surely a specialist item suitable for less accessible networks?) please show these lectures again on BBC1 or 2 during this dead time.

    The RI Christmas Lectures have continued annually since 1825, except during World War II, and on national TV since 1966.

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  • The problem is simply that science and engineering are no longer given the prestige that the effort put in by so many people deserve.

    The credit for the work of Engineers is taken by some larrikin with an MBA on a huge pay packet on a short term contract.

    The work of scientists is hidden in scientific journals and the work that they do is put up for sale by Elsevier (sometimes at more than $50 per article).

    What needs to happen is for scientific journals to be freely available to the public.

    What also needs to happen is that technical expertise must not lead to a dead end career and remuneration wise.

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  • I agree with Steven Mosely that the expression of any technical knowledge is endemically considered to be 'nerdy' (at least in this country). One of your correspondents mentioned Jeremy Clarkson who is generally enthusiastic about engineering but on 'Top Gear' it is very noticeable that one of the presenters, James May, is scripted to be the nerd in order that Clarkson is able to make derogatory comments when May attempts to explain something technical.
    The program makers obviously believe that it is necessary to promote technical expertise as being 'uncool' in the pursuit of viewing figures.
    Elsewhere in the world, engineers (i.e. people with engineering degrees) have high status with commensurate salaries; in this country, perhaps as a hangover from the class system, people with occupations such as law or finance are wrongly accorded prestige whilst the term 'engineer' is often hijacked by plumbers or people who clear blocked drains.

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