Legends but not rock stars

Last night at the official launch of National Science Week 2008 I was excited to speak to some fascinating people: Dr Luke Hunter, big cat conservationist; Shane Gould, Olympic swimming medallist and expert in new swimming techniques; and the likely lads of the Great Big Science Gig, comedy rock science cabaret artists. (Those boys rock, don’t miss ’em if you can make it to their show.)

But perhaps the two most exciting people I talked to were Simon Pampena, of The Angry Mathematician and the Maths Olympics fame, and Rob Morrison, one of the two presenters of Australia’s best-loved science show, The Curiosity Show. Here’s a photo of the three of us:


Rob has so many fascinating things to say that I hope I can bring you the full interview, but a couple of his ideas really struck home with me. He believes that we don’t have to get children interested in science; rather all children are interested in science, but are turned off it by bad teaching, a lack of exposure, or peer pressure. He pointed to popular media as the prime example: every newspaper has a devoted Sports section, a devoted Arts section, and is full of news on politics; a person’s interests in such things are constantly reinforced, and on television too. But someone interested in science is lucky if their newspaper has a devoted science journalist, let alone a separate science section. Even if there is – and most are weekly, if they exist at all – it’s generally lumped in with and dominated by Technology, which is not the same thing at all. So his role was to be some guy on television saying “hey, it’s cool to be into science, I’m into it too”.

I suggested Rob and his cohort Deane were rock stars of science, but he rejected that idea. It wasn’t the personalities on the screen that mattered, he said, it was what they were doing. Kids would often come up to him, not caring if he was Rob or Deane, to complain that the demonstration they’d seen on the show didn’t work when they’d tried it at home. It was the ideas and science that they remembered, and which fascinated them. Even today, if you mention The Curiosity Show to someone, they won’t remember the presenters but their favourite bit of science – and it’s often a surprisingly strong memory. Everyone has this passion for science, the curiosity and desire for discovery and learning, if only they let themselves show it.

Simon Pampena is certainly a guy who wears this passion on his sleeve, and he’s someone I could listen to endlessly. He wasn’t sure I was serious when I asked him to tell me the subject of his honours thesis on camera, but listening to him explain the Banach-Tarski paradox was one of the greatest moments in my career as an interviewer. His show, the Maths Olympics, is in your face and serious about maths. His excerpt at the launch had everything: music, war cries, national pride, the first x digits of Pi… Go see The Maths Olympics when he comes back to Melbourne on August 26. I know I will. (Incidentally, Simon had the kind of strong Curiosity Show memory I mentioned above, about a demonstration involving scrimshaw.)

One comment

  1. Leigh says:

    This is starting to sound like Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development. He called children little scientists too.

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