Cool image can’t hide the dull fact

You have to be very bright to study physics, much brighter than you have to be to study economics or politics. Which explains how Averil Macdonald, a physicist with admirably long legs, is able to brush aside considerations of either money or practicality in advancing the cause of her science.

She is concerned, as indeed we all are, about the lack of able young women joining her profession. “If we agree we need more scientists because they contribute to the nation’s wealth, then we have to persuade people to do science. At the moment we are patently not doing that,” she told the Institute of Physics annual conference.

“And if we are not encouraging girls into science we are wasting half the talent of the population,” she added.

The problem is one of marketing, or, more precisely, image. In cartoons, scientists appeared as mad professors, while mainstream scientists were seen as anonymous individuals on the “periphery of normality” rather than inspirational figures.

While accepting that not all professors are mad, one might argue with some conviction that some scientists – geneticists, for instance – do indeed teeter at the edge of what most of us would regard as normality and that someone whose life is devoted to breeding the square tomato might be many things, but inspirational is not among them.

Ms Macdonald, of course, will have none of that. So, pursuing her logic rigorously, in accordance with her calling, she addresses the problem of how to make science as a career more appealing to young women.

Unfortunately, she is 41 and therefore has a shapely leg (sorry to go on about that, but I’ve seen the photograph) on the bottom rung of middle age, a position which so distances her from youth that she might as well be in orbit around Saturn. And, like all people for whom acne is but a memory, she believes the way to appeal to young people is to be trendy.

Her solution – her big idea – is that physics teachers should be provided with sports cars and persuaded to adopt a glamorous lifestyle to encourage more girls to take up science.

That is the broad sweep of the brush, the big picture. It is left to the fustian drudges of economics and politics to fill in the detail.

Who, for example, is going to pay for the sports cars – central government or local authorities? Who will determine the choice of model? (I feel a quango coming on.) And who will placate the rest of the (mainly Lada and Skoda-borne) staff room when Miss Simpkins, of physics, roars up the school drive, a thrilling amalgam of twin exhausts, wire wheels, fearsome brake horsepower, tattoos, fishnet stocking, body piercing, and platform trainers? And who will administer the kiss of life to poor old Mr Hodges of history for whom the arrival of Miss Simpkins is a coronary stimulant too far?

To be fair to Ms Macdonald, the platform trainers were not her idea. For them we are indebted to Britain’s highest profile female scientist, the neuroscientist Professor Susan Greenfield, director of London’s Royal Institution. While accepting Ms Macdonald’s general proposition that it “was important to get the right image”, she was not sure about the two-seater. “It is not so much that you have to look very rich,” she argued. “Indeed if you look at Richard Branson, his dubious taste in knitwear might be something you wouldn’t want.” (Not to mention his beard, which few physics teachers of either sex would wish to copy.)

“Young people, especially girls, are very sensitive to how trendy something looks,” said Prof Greenfield. “Rather than having wealthy teachers, it would be more important to have physics teachers looking like the Spice Girls…wearing platform trainers or whatever the Spice Girls wear.”

Thus Prof Greenfield throws herself into the same black hole as Ms Macdonald. For if there is anything an older person can know with certainty about the muddled mind of youth it is that young people find adults who are trying to be trendy “sad”. Jeremy Clarkson’s fondness for jeans, for example, did for an entire industry.

While I can think of many people – mostly male and mackintoshed – who would be inspired by the sight of a middle-aged woman dressed in a gusset-revealing union-jack mini-dress giving instruction in physics, I cannot imagine a class of teenage girls feeling anything other than uncomfortable were their teacher to reinvent herself as a wrinkled version of Ginger Spice as was.

Though there are grounds for believing that human beings pass between the ages of 14 and 18 in a state of near imbecility, in truth they are not quite as stupid as they strive to look. A young girl capable of becoming a physicist is able easily to distinguish between a Spice Girl and a science teacher, and, what is more, to value that distinction. From a Spice Girl you expect entertainment, from a physics teacher you expect physics.

Image and reality are not necessarily mutually exclusive. If science is seen to be dull and difficult that is because it is – for many people at any rate. Did Prof Greenfield set off on the road to her present eminence because the woman who introduced her to litmus paper looked like Dusty Springfield? I think we should be told.

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