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Sunday, August 09, 2009


Reflections on ScienceAlive!

I was at Science Alive!, South Australia's Science Expo today, both as an observer and as an helper at the University of Adelaide stand.

Now, my observations are relevant to the current debates on "Unscientific America" and Dr. Dembski's science envy. It was a wet , horrible day and Science Alive! was packed. There were line-ups to the slugs-n-bugs, make your own LED torch, the planetarium, the live science show and the science magic shows.

The Universities stand was deluged, we were making slime, getting kids to extract DNA from strawberries, doing colour change tricks with pH sensitive dyes and CO2 pellets, getting kids to make models of what's in their bodies and my bit, making molecular models using peanut starch packing beads.

People had been working on the stand since the doors opened at 10:00 am and had not stopped talking. They ran out of slime! Overall it was estimated that over 20,000 people came today, on a day most people would want to stay inside. Somewhere in the vicinity of 40,000 people visited over the weekend, out of a city of just over a million people, that means 4% of the population took time off to come to a science expo!

People (at least in Australia) are interested in science. I had an interesting discussion with someone on exoplanets, I heard someone say they came to Science Alive! with their kids every year. It's the sort of thing that is Dr. Dembski's nightmare, people interested in and engaged with science. It's what Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum want, scientists passionate about their work meeting and engaging with people.

And yet, and yet ... Australia does as bad as everyone else when it comes to science literacy. In terms of global warming Australians are just as misinformed as the rest of the world, as evidenced by the letters pages in our major newspapers and online science forums. Despite our interest in and engagement with science at live events, science in the pub (an such like), newspapers and radio and TV and online science shows, we do badly at the things that matter.

Since we are doing everything Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum want (and our Universities have special science and media training for academics, I've done the course), but our science literacy hasn't risen, what is the way forward?

PS Don't Forget National Science Week

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Read your review of UA. The more I think about this situation, the more I think the use of Pluto really was a bad idea. Redefining microbial organisms happens all the time. Yet there is never a fuss about it. Is it just a matter of numbers? Since tens of thousands of organisms have been classified, making it too hard to memorize, does this mean it doesn't matter to the public ... but since there were only nine planets, it was a "big deal" to the public?

When I was growing up, Pluto was a planet ... but East and West Germany were countries, as was the USSR.
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