To touch science
2013-06-21 | Text: Tatiana Petukhova | Photo ©: | 3804


In mid-October, Moscow hosted 7th All-Russia Science Festival. These events are often held in many countries around the world. They are meant to make science and society closer, to stimulate interest in science and development of new technologies. The festivals consist of famous scientists’ lectures, bright scientific shows, theme movies and exhibitions of new technique.

Today's young people seem not committed to science. University graduates want all and right now, so they prefer going into the business. Science does not give quick feedback, though requires working hard. Average men consider it as complex and incomprehensible, and consequently it seems boring to them. The scientific community comes back: not interested in uninitiated people, and often not ready to, and even does not consider it necessary to waste the time trying to explain something to them. As a result, the science becomes a «thing in itself» separated from the rest of society, remaining an essential element for its development.

But the science and high-tech manufacturing industry requires for a constant influx of young specialists, which depends on popularity of the science in society. For this reason, an issue of popularization of the science is very important.

The best way to attract attention to science is to demonstrate breakthrough technologies. The aircraft built by the Wrights and just for 12 seconds launched off the ground in the short term led to development of the aviation industry. Gagarin spent 108 minutes on the Earth’s orbit and defined a dream of millions of boys to be astronauts. Armstrong made on the Moon’s surface «one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,» and founded for future solution of the most ambitious scientific and technical challenges associated with other planets. Such events are widely covered and discussed and considered as particular proud of. Young people consider them as the point of self-determination.

But these events are rare, and not sufficient for effective promotion. Fortunately, there are always people and will be for sure who are not only engaged in the science, but also encourage other people around to be interested in it. They have a special talent to transform boring and incomprehensible scientific data into curious information available. Books, magazines and movies produced by these people are related to the genre of popular science. The first literary work of this kind, «On the Nature of Things», was written in verse by Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius Carus. In the history of our country Mikhail Lomonosov is considered as the first popularizer of sciences. His «Letter on the Uses of Glass» was also in verse.

Alfred Brehm made a big step in the popularization of science. In 1863, German scientist, zoologist published six volume «Life of animals.» 12 years later in 1875 something similar was published in Russia, Russian traveler, naturalist and zoologist Leonid Sabaneyev introduced «Fishes of Russia. Life and fishing of Freshwater Fish.» We can remind about the work, «The Life of the Plant» Clement Timiriazev, Russian scientist, historian of science, founder of the Russian and British science schools of Plant Physiology. All three authors’ papers were not only highly valuable scientific works, but also become very popular among readers far enough from science. Books were republished many times and still remain in demand for the public.

In the early and mid-20th century, Yaakov Perelman successfully continued the work started by Lucretius Carus. Today this Russian and Soviet scientist has been considered one of the founders of the genre of popular science and founder of interesting science. Over 13 million copies of the author's books, including «Physics for Entertainment», «Mathematics for Entertainment», etc. were published only in the period from 1918 to 1973.

The modern period of history presented a galaxy of prominent popularizers. Two names - Isaac Asimov and Stephen Hawking – can be singled out. «Asimov's New Guide To Science and Hawking «A Brief History of Time» still remain best-sellers.

Another genre actively popularizes the science as well, called by Yaakov Perelman science fiction. Science fiction is based on assumptions within the scientific perception of reality and not conflicting with existing scientific laws. The plot is based on new discoveries, inventions, researches, and the action is often going in the future similar to the futurology - the scientific forecasting of the future of the world. Fascinating pictures of the future, revealing the potential of new technologies, encourage young people to go into science in order to create the future with their own hands.

This scheme effectiveness can be estimated by works of one of the first science fiction writers - Jules Verne. Many scientific discoveries and inventions are predicted in his fascinating novels including scubas, television, submarines, aircrafts and helicopters unbelievable for that time as well as space ships and even electric chairs. In fact, he set directions of scientific and technological researches for researchers impressed by read novels and open prospects. As a result, almost all what he wrote now became reality.

However fantastic movies are even more impressive for the audience. Technologies of the future appear here as large as life. Modern computer graphics provides maximum effect for eyes, the most sensitive human organs. Of course, Hollywood is a trendsetter in this field. At close looking a very interesting point appears. One of the main themes of Hollywood fiction is the superman theme. But if before central characters have been Superman, superhuman due to his origin, Spider-Man, with abilities appeared upon bitten by a spider, or, for example, Hulk, a victim of radiation, but recently new heroes appear on the stage.

For example, Tony Stark. He is Iron Man. The genius physicist. The entrepreneur and inventor. Progressively thinking with wide knowledge in the technology and innovation. A successful man who can afford almost everything. He has superpower, but obtained not due to some kind of mysterious accident but by a super suit of his own design. Tony Stark is MIT graduate. Definitely for many American boys watched this movie dream now about the Massachusetts Institute of Technology?

This is not spoken much, but one of the key factors in science popularization is a teacher. Very often students’ interest in the science depends on him. In practice, often if they do not like the science, it’s caused by their teacher.


Teacher’s tools are a blackboard and chalk. Usually this is not enough to arouse the interest in science in students. But there are teachers dared to step away from standard lessons. Some show entertaining experiments, turning their lessons into an impressive show even for adults. Others use modern game techniques, turning boring lessons into exciting scientific travels. Others involve students into the real scientific or technical projects. The problem is that educational institutions do not prepare teachers of this level, so the above cases are the exception to the rule rather than some kind of rules.

There is another way to popularize - it's museum education and science museums demonstrating the achievements and potential of science and technology. Science museums are situated almost in every corner of the world. One of the most famous and oldest - London Science Museum, opened in 1857. Museum «Heureka» in Helsinki invite visitors to participate in the process of making paper, to turn a wheel of the energy or to travel through the universe. Museum «Corpus» in Holland can be proud of a title of the most extraordinary museum. Once inside, a visitor does not move from a hall to another hall but from one organ to another, for example, from the heart to the lungs. The National Museum of Science and Technology: Leonardo da Vinci in Milan stores a collection of his technical achievements. «Exploratorium» in San Francisco is divided into several theme sections, offering experiments with thoughts and feelings. For example, «Hearing» section helps to sort out the mess of speech sound, noise and music. In the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum visitors in stereo glasses travel in a cart through the digestive tract and can taste the astronaut food. The main building of the National Museum of Science in Gwacheon (Korea) is built in the form of a spaceship. Here visitors learn how to make fireworks, experience the pressure difference at the North Pole, and feel the typhoon from a special capsule. The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago offers a possibility to work in a coal mine, to visit the trophy German submarine or spaceship from the mission «Apollo-8.» The Polytechnic Museum in Moscow hold the only exhibition in the world devoted entirely to the bicycle history.

At last we’ve come to the point we started - the method of science popularization, uniting almost all of the above instruments though for a short period of time. This is the science festival.

Science Festival originated in the UK. It is not strange: the science of this country in the XIX century was leading in the world. A lot of important inventions and discoveries, such as steam engine, screw propeller, multi-stage rocket steam turbine, electromagnet, internal combustion engine and many others. Over 70 British scientists have been awarded the Nobel Prizes. Today the UK share in global expenditure for the science is about 4.5%.

Historically the British Association for the Advancement of Science, founded in 1831, popularized the science in the United Kingdom. Its primary goal was to demonstrate the science role and place of in life to society, to provide organizational and financial support for researches and to help in the scientific information distribution. Thanks to efforts of the Association public, lectures, discussions, demonstrations of experiments were held and gained popularity in England. For example, at these events, Joule experiment (1840) was first demonstrated, the term «dinosaur» (1841) was used, the first debate on Darwinism (1860) was held. During these meetings, the concept of “scientist” was formulated. Much later, the Association has turned annual summary meetings in the form of presentations into the science festival, today named the British - the largest and most prestigious in the world.

But Association was not involved into the first Science Festival. It was held at the other part of the UK - Scottish city of Edinburgh, relatively no long ago, in 1988. Its concept was developed by John Wall then worked at the Edinburgh Council Department of Economic Development. Today John is 60 years old, but being a member of the Board of the Heriot-Watt University he is still engaged in this festival.

In the 80s as part of the rebranding of Edinburgh, including as a city of the science, John proposed to host the Science Festival, in the spring, at the tourist season, thus to complement the famous international festival of the arts. Idea was to make a «holiday», similar to the Arts Festival. It was a far-sighted idea. Scientific developments were curious only for scientists and enthusiasts, while the rest of society tried to avoid such kind of events or participated in only in bounden duty, while the famous Edinburg Arts Festival gathered people from everywhere. Nobody believed in Edinburgh it would be possible to combine the science and art. But the idea was supported, and in April 1988 Edinburgh hosted the first festival in the world of science. Its opening was held with Valentina Tereshkova’s participation, the first female astronaut.

Gradually the Edinburgh Science Festival has spread around the world. Now, similar events are held annually in Europe, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, China, India, UAE, and Africa. Since 2002, the European science festivals are held in concord under European Science Event Association. In the U.S. a tradition of scientific festivals comes with delay. The first example was the Wonderfest in 1998. Since 2008, the World Science and Engineering Festivals have been held in New York. Though all of the science festivals devoted to technique, but only the United States particularly focused on it.

Usually the Science Festival represents events on various subjects: lectures, discussions, workshops, exhibitions, demonstrations, master-classes and more, and lasts from a few days to two weeks. It is not limited to the one institution territory, and conducted simultaneously at several places across the city: at universities, zoos, museums, cinema, botanical gardens, observatories, research labs, theaters, libraries and even in the streets. The festival is marked as «interesting to all» but some of the events are focused onto a specific audience: students, teachers, family, etc. For example, scientific summer schools are organized for children of 8-12 years old, where every day is dedicated to different fields of science and technology, and practical training sessions, experiments and demonstrations are conducted. In the U.S. the school program «Lunch with the winner» is applied when secondary and high school students meet invited Nobel Prize winner.

Russia has adopted this form of science popularization just recently. The first Russian festival was in 2006 in Moscow, but since then it has been held annually. Since 2011, the festival has got the nationwide status. This year it was held at MSU under the motto «Touch science!» The event lasted three days at the same time at over 80 venues in the city. The number of visitors of the festival exceeded 380,000 people.


How to make learning interesting, Dr. Hal from the University of Brighton knows very well. Edutainment - education in an entertaining style - it's Hal’s principle.

Hal with his team perform all over the world. He showed his show at The Festival of Science in Moscow. The largest hall of the Central festival site - the Fundamental Library of the Moscow State University - was overcrowded: the audience was sitting even on the stairs and on the floor. Children were standing for the whole performance under the stage, and some of them even took part in the experiments. Despite the presentation was in English, viewers did not need translation. This is another important benefit of this method of lessons.

The show represents a demonstration of scientific experiments at the edge of chemistry and physics. The performance is very spectacular and accompanied by a good sense of humor. Experiments may seem be kind of magic. But it is not. All experiments were subject to the science laws.

We talked to Dr. Hal and asked a couple of questions:


- Please, tell us how did you come to teaching chemistry?


I started to study chemistry at 19 years, and I did not like it at all. But I did not give it up, thinking that as I got involved and achieved the middle, I have to complete it. This is just like running a marathon, when you have already 20 km behind you and 20 km to go. I considered the chemistry boring till started teaching it at 28 years old. Only then I felt it. By the way, there are not any innate chemists in our team. One - a farmer-environmentalist, and another - 20 year old self-taught person. We are enthusiasts loving our subject.


 - How appeared an idea to turn science into the show?


One day I was busy with «serious science» with my graduate student, she, by the way, was Russian. And suddenly something went wrong in the experiment and my assistant shouted with a Russian accent, - «Not my fault! Not my fault!» Everyone around laughed. At that moment I understood that the experiment entertainment and performance in a comedy style - just what the audience likes.


- Do you think many of your viewers may want to be a scientist?

Science is perceived as a difficult and boring thing. When a student is not interested in the science, it is easier to say, - «I'll be a sociologist». The science may be interesting only if it is entertaining and saying more unpredictable. Through our shows, we just tell about what science can offer. But in order to make somebody be a scientist, the approach should be more systematic.


Interesting Facts

In spite of the hostility and competition of the Soviet Union and the United States, after the successful flight of Yuri Gagarin, U.S. President John F. Kennedy sent a letter of congratulations to the Kremlin. It declared: «The people of the United States share with the people of the Soviet Union their satisfaction for the safe flight of the astronaut in man's first venture into space ... It is my sincere desire that in the continuing quest for knowledge of outer space our nations can work together to obtain the greatest benefit to mankind».


Perelman, the greatest mind of our time and namesake of the famous popularizer, managed to solve one of the «millennium problems» – to prove Poincaré conjecture. It is hard to understand for ordinary person even the wording of this hypothesis: Every simply connected, closed 3-manifold is homeomorphic to the 3-sphere.


How popular a new book of science would be depends on many factors. Not only the author’s talent is very important, but also a number of technical issues. Stephen Hawking told on one of them in his introduction to «A Brief History of Time» of 1988: An editor warned me that for every equation in the book the readership would be halved, hence it includes only a single equation: E = mc2, Einstein's famous equation.


How big is a role of science fiction in the science popularization and in the development of mankind is clearly demonstrated by Salvador Dali on Jules Verne. Although this statement is negative, it shows very clearly the writer’s impact on society. Dali said: «Every time someone dies, it is Jules Verne's fault. He is responsible for the desire for interplanetary voyages, if the fabulous sums wasted on these conquests were spent on biological research, nobody on our planet would die anymore».

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