National Science and Engineering Week 11 – 20th March 2011

This week (and the associated weekends) is National Science and Engineering Week in the UK.  Basically this is just an excuse for us to put on various events for schools, the general public and anyone who may be interested in science and engineering stuff.  You can find events near you via the British Science Association’s pages.

I’ve got two events on this week, very different but equally interesting.  The first is on Wednesday when I’m doing a couple of lecture-workshops on ‘Scientists Through The Ages’, focussing in on who scientists were throughout history.  I’ve not quite finished the plan yet but so far I’ve been including scientists that are less well known than the usual Nobel Laureates or typical examples of minority groups in scientists.  I’m trying to make the session interactive (which sounded easier before I started trying to do it).  Its for 13 – 14 year olds and so an hour is quite a long time to sit and listen to me talking at them!

The scientist I’ve picked so far are:

Jãbir ibn Hayyãn, also known as Geber in the west.  He was a polymath and is often viewed as the father of chemistry.  He lived from 721 to 815, in various locations in what is now known as the Middle East.

While not attributed to any one scientist, I’m briefly covering the Four Great Inventions of Ancient China (the compass, gun powder, papermaking and printing), because they are all quite tangible things as examples of invention.

August Kekulé for the structure of benzene which he allegedly imagined to be like a snake swallowing its own tale (Ouroboros) during a daydream.  I like the idea of chance discoveries being dreamt up during forty winks.

Lavoisier and Wedgwood.  Bit of an odd combination, but Josiah Wedgwood is a local connection to Stoke-on-Trent, and had a great interest in chemistry leading him to publish several papers on instruments.  Lavoisier was a tax collector and chemist, and contemporary of Wedgwood.  Indeed Lavoisier contacted Wedgwood for information of a ceramic that could withstand the high temperatures needed to fuse Platinum.  Lavoisier was beheaded during the French Revolution, apparently not for his tax collecting activities, but rather because he criticized a young scientist Marat who went on to become a leading figure in the revolution.  Marat got his revenge by concocting a suitable charge to find Lavoisier guilty of and had him beheaded.

Marie Stopes – not for the work with family planning and clinics that now carry her name, but rather for her position as the first female academic of the University of Manchester, her double first class honours degree in botany and geology and her doctorate awarded just  two years later.

I’m struggling to pick out some more modern scientists, and am looking for nice background stories.  For example, I’m always quite enchanted by the idea that Marie Curie bought a black dress to get married in because it would be more use to wear in the lab afterwards.  I’ve put Brian Cox in because there’s a fair chance the students might have heard of him (plus the used to be in a band/now on TV a lot bit is great).  I’ve included the Blackawton Bees, the paper published by a primary school class in Totnes and also several so-called ‘citizen scientist’ projects to get across the idea that anyone, anywhere can do science/be a scientist.

So if you had a similar brief – 1 hour, ‘who are scientists?’ – what would you do?


3 thoughts on “National Science and Engineering Week 11 – 20th March 2011

  1. Just give an account of the scientists within the Chemistry department! There’s a wealth of personalities to talk about, lots of interesting research and then at the same time you’ll be bigging up Keele for when they’re applying for universities.

    Okay nevermind.

  2. Some great choices! The Kekule story is brilliant, isn’t it? The ridiculous tragedy of Lavoisier getting his head chopped off makes his story more interesting on top of his great achievements too. Wedgwood is a good choice too – the amount of experimentation he did in perfecting his pottery is phenomenal.

    More modern people? Maybe it’s just because I’ve just read this post by Wavefunction (, but Feynman is always a good call. And there’s a lot of video of him on YouTube for you to point the more interested students towards.

    Mary Anning (whose name I’m ashamed to admit I had to find by Googling ’19th century fossil lady’; wiki page: was as unconventional a scientist as you could hope to find in those days: a non-Anglican carpenter’s daughter. And as we all know, kids love dinosaurs…

  3. I included Mary Anning in the end – I thought her story was fascinating. Thanks for the suggestion.

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