21 May 2013

S4M-06643 Public Science Engagement Initiatives

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-06643, in the name of Dr Alasdair Allan, on supporting a science nation: celebrating Scotland’s public science engagement initiatives.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

At the outset, I advise colleagues that I will not be deploying my ever popular Rev I M Jolly imitation this afternoon—others do it so much better than I do.

In his opening remarks, the minister said that he was not speaking in a vacuum. Of course, a vacuum is an entirely theoretical thing, rather like infinity. Given the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and the reverse temporal connection that is associated with the Higgs boson, it is impossible for there to be any part of the universe that is wholly empty of matter. Of course, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle means that we do not know whether there is anything in a particular space until we test it and, after testing and detecting it, it may no longer be there.

That sort of language, while fascinating in a superficial way, is meaningless to a great many people, so we need to speak in more simple ways using simpler examples.

Iain Gray: Will the member give way?

Stewart Stevenson: Before coming to a former mathematics teacher, I want to give just a little story about my mathematics teacher, Doc Inglis. He was a wonderfully bluff Lancastrian, who in our first year at school took us round the school searching for infinity. We took the blackboards down, but we could not find it. We looked in the school dustbins, but we could not find it. We went out into the playing fields, but we could not find infinity. To this day, I remember that exercise and infinity means something to me.

Iain Gray: Perhaps the moment has passed, but I wanted to point out that it is not possible to talk in a vacuum because sound does not travel in a vacuum. The advantage of that, Mr Stevenson, is that nobody would be able to hear the scream.

Stewart Stevenson: The scream of Schrödinger’s cat no doubt—that is a rather private reference.

Neil Findlay: Will the member take an intervention?

Stewart Stevenson: I will make some progress, if I may, before thinking about taking another intervention. The bottom line is that we need people who can inspire and link science to real life.

I want to mention some women in relation to science. Let me start with Mary Queen of Scots and cryptography, which is a topic that I am particularly interested in. Mary Queen of Scots used a method for corresponding with her lover that, in structural terms, is exactly the same as the method used in the public key cryptography on the internet and elsewhere that protects our highly sensitive data. She had a box with two locks, of which she had the key to one and her lover had the key to the other. She would put her message in the box and lock her lock; the box would go to her lover, who would lock his lock. The box would then come back to her and she would unlock her lock; it would go back to him and he would unlock his lock. There was only one key each, which never left the respective people, because compromising the key would make things difficult. Hundreds of years later, that is the basis of how we protect modern financial information. So Mary Queen of Scots gives an historic hook, but an important one that lives on in modern cryptology.

A few politicians have been scientists. Indeed, Isaac Newton was a member of Parliament for a period, although I must say that his contribution to Parliament was relatively modest. He made only a single contribution, when he asked if the window could be shut because there was a rather disturbing draught blowing along the back benches, but at least he was in Parliament and the opportunity was there.

Another woman, Ada Lovelace, was Charles Babbage’s programmer. Charles Babbage had a lot of public money to develop the difference engine and the analytical engine, which were mechanical computers that it was impossible to engineer to the required standard. Ada Lovelace developed the algorithms for those machines. In the modern age, another woman, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, developed COBOL, a language that is still used in commercial programming today. She retired three times and was brought back to the United States navy, because she turned out to be indispensable. She was brought back and died in harness as a researcher at the age of 86. So there are plenty of women around; we just have to get the message out.

The relationship between scientists and public discourse is often a little uncomfortable. We think of the first computer being made in the United States but, actually, the first computer that was capable of being programmed was built by a Post Office engineer called Tommy Flowers, who was based at Dollis Hill laboratory in London. He developed it in 1944. It was available six days before the D-day landings and was an indispensable tool for that. However, he had to pay for it himself and the state never fully compensated him.

There are good examples from good scientists. Richard Feynman was able to show, without speaking a single word, why the Challenger space shuttle failed. Live on television during a congressional hearing, he took a rubber ring like those on the solid booster rockets on Challenger—which had been the point of failure—dipped it in liquid nitrogen, tapped it on the desk and it shattered. He did not say a word, but he found a way of illustrating how science can affect real life. I hope that we have lots of people who can do that.

I can think of a few ministers who have been scientists. I have Iain Gray on the list, as well as Richard Simpson and Sam Galbraith. Of course, Jack McConnell introduced tobacco legislation because he understood many of the scientific arguments. It is not all good news, however. Margaret Thatcher was the first and only Westminster Prime Minister who was a chemist, but one of the first things that she did was to cut grants for chemistry research.

Another woman, Dorothy L Sayers, put a very important point about science into the mouth of Peter Wimsey, the detective that she created. She has him say:

“The only ethical principle which has made science possible is that the truth shall be told all the time. If we do not penalise false statements made in error, we open up the way for false statements made by intention. And a false statement of fact, made deliberately, is the most serious crime a scientist can commit.”

Scientists are the guardians of truth and knowledge. We should do everything that we can to support them and to encourage others, especially women, to follow in their illustrious footsteps.


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