Cool science

Watching Stargazing Live last night, I was enthralled, and reminded of why I got into science in the first place. The science that they were talking about was cool.

The great thing about astronomy is that it is huge, endless, exciting, available, and, in itself, absolutely useless. I’m not talking about whether you get spinoffs, and better technology through studying astronomy (of course you do), but that the primary reason for doing astronomy is to find out how the universe works, and nothing more.

As a television programme, stargazing live will probably inspire a generation of young scientists to go and do physics, or maths, or whatever. I think we in climate science could learn a lot from the approach that they take: the science, for the sake of the science, is cool.

A few years ago, while finishing my PhD in Sheffield, I was at a party at a friends house. I met a group of people in the corner, and we got chatting: they soon asked me what I did. “I’m training to be a climate scientist” I said, and told them about my research. I immediately got sympathy “that must be a really tough job” said one girl, “to get up every day, and study how we are messing up our world. How do you cope?”

I explained that I was looking at computer models a lot of the time, and doing stats, and that it was quite abstract really and so on, but I continued to get sympathy for my “tough job”.

So eventually, I asked the group what they did. They were all junior doctors. Specialising in Accident & Emergency. In Sheffield

Climate science has been linked for so long in the mind of the public with impending disaster, endless failed negotiations, and being asked to give up fun things, that they might have forgotten that learning how the Earth works is cool.



  1. Yes, science should and is fun! However, climate science is also deadly serious. I fear this aspect is often lost as many, probably even the majority of climate scientists, continue to lead relatively high carbon lifestyles despite the evidence of their work. Here’s an recent article from Royal MetSoc’s Weather publication articulating this idea:Making our actions consistent with our scientific predictions science has to be fun, but it also has to be responsible and wary of hypocrisy.

  2. Doug McNeall · · Reply

    Hi Chris, thanks for responding.I think I disagree with the premise of the linked article. I think we should be separating out how we behave as climate scientists, and how we behave in our ‘private’ lives.Now, our status as climate scientists gives us a privileged position, in that we are party to a lot of information about the Earth system. This might lead us to come to a set of conclusions about how we live. Or it might not. Any hypocrisy is that of an individual, not of climate science. That is because climate science itself has no values – It is simply a system of knowledge (and the means to generate more knowledge). Individual climate scientists might need to be wary of hypocrisy, but climate science should be, and be seen to be, politically neutral.I think that using our actions as scientists with the stated aim of convincing people that they should live a certain way is dangerous in the long run. It leads to distrust of the scientists by any group that disagrees with the politics. I think everybody deserves to have scientists that they feel they can trust, and that science offers more to society if this is the case.

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