A prime chance to connect

Features editor

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?