Tuesday 25 June 2013

Meanwhile, in a Parallel Universe...

For a brief moment yesterday Richard Dawkins was trending on Twitter. Dawkins has, of course, a rich and impressive research career behind him, and was formally the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford. The reason he was trending, however, was not so much research (beyond his coining of the concept of the 'meme'), or even public understanding of research, but for this fabulously beyond-parody video.

It certainly did the trick - sort of - in demonstrating the idea of a 'meme', as the Twitter trend showed. But did it lead to a better understanding of science by the public? I imagine not: most who viewed it would be mystified rather than enlightened. Those who weren't too busy wiping away the tears of laughter, of course.

This, in turn, raises the larger question of the remit of those working on advancing the public understanding of science. Should they be saying 'yes' to any opportunity to engage with the public? Is being out there, being seen by the public, enough in itself, or should they choose their engagement carefully?

You won't be surprised that I think the latter. I believe there's a danger, with these kind of events, of public intolerance with both boffins and conceptual artists becoming conflated. And that, ultimately, will be to the detriment of both.


  1. Phil,
    Excellent as ever.
    However, Professor Marcus du Sautoy is the current Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford (as, in fact, your wiki reference points out).
    You could see the website for the Chair (

  2. Ah! How embarrassing! I've now changed it. Thanks for pointing it out.