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January 12, 2003
"Why is the sky dark at night?"

Well, my talk on Friday night seemed to go well, indeed I was surprised at how well it went. (No need for a link. Just scroll down for the other relevant posting here.)

In my experience, giving a talk to an audience all of whom know you, as turned out to be the case for me that night, can be a serious let-down. They already know your rhetorical devices, jokes, comic mannerisms, and basic ways of thinking. What to people hearing you for the first time might be quite funny, charming, illuminating, even profound, can come over as merely dull. If they are friends, they may face the additional problem of how not to tell you this too bluntly afterwards. Plus, they're thinking: my god, if he's one of our cleverer and sparklier people, how stupid and dull must we be? Not good. An unknown visitor, however mediocre, would have been far preferable.

But, unless I am seriously deluding myself, it wasn't nearly that bad last Friday night. Why not? Because of blogging. Blogging has educated me a lot during the last year. As a result of it I had new things to tell these people, new experiences, new stories, new thoughts.

One new thought in particular which I found myself clarifying concerned the immense virtue of –and of course I've been getting a bit ahead of myself - visiting lecturers, occasional teachers, here-today-gone-tomorrow pedagogues. It is sometimes said that you can't teach unless you are prepared to settle down for the long haul, commit yourself, stick around, blah blah. Well, not all blah blah, of course. All establishments need loyal staff and regular workers to keep them ticking over, year after year. But the visiting teacher can also contribute mightily.

I reminisced about a talk given at my school some time in the nineteen sixties, by a man called Herman Bondi, who was then the Chief Scientific Adviser (or some such grand title) to the British Government, no less. Lesson one was what a funny little bloke he was, dressed no better than I was last Friday night. So, right off, we all learned something, those of us who didn't know it already. In order to become something like a Chief Scientific Adviser to a Government, you didn't have to look like a film star.

Bondi talked about the Theory of the Universe. He covered a blackboard with common-sense statements like: the universe is the same density throughout. The universe isn't moving in an particular direction, any more than the tea in a tea cup is going anywhere.

And then he said: "Why is the sky dark at night?"

Because you see, he went on to explain, if all this stuff on the blackboard here is true, then no matter where you look, even at night, you ought to see a star. You ought to see light. So: "Why is the sky dark at night?"

By the end of his talk he had us all convinced of the Expanding Universe Theory. And then he buggered off back to London or wherever it was he'd come from and we none of us set eyes on the man ever again.

My point being: I've never forgotten it. I still treasure the memory of that talk. (It probably also helped that no one was going to test us to see if we'd listened properly.)

Bondi's talk didn't turn me into a scientist, but it did turn me into a lifelong science fan. It taught me that one of the great things about scientists is, not just their enthusiasm to discover obscure things, but their ability also to register amazement at the commonplace. Commonplace facts like the fact of gravity. We all know that "gravity" – or something like it – is a fact. But what is it? What, deep down, does "gravity" – this bizarre tendency of things to fall to the ground for no apparent reason – actually consist of? It takes an Isaac Newton to think like that, at a time when people as a whole tended not to and even to forbid themselves from such thoughts, and to carry on thinking like that until he had an answer that satisfied him.

Bondi may have inspired some in his audience that day to become practising scientists, but not me. What he did for me was not to tell me anything about how to make money or be more "successful". What he did for me was make the times I already found myself living in more interesting and entertaining and profound and enjoyable. Bondi didn't teach me anything about how to get what I liked. But he did teach me about how to like what I had already got – the life of an educated citizen of the then twentieth century – that little bit more, which is really something, I think.

That last point in particular (about teaching me to enjoy my existing life rather than anything about how to get a better one) is something I had never nailed down in my own mind until I heard myself saying it in my talk. And it is, I suggest, a pretty important point about the meaning of the word "education".

As I say, the same bloke droning on yet again can sometimes work, but there's nothing quite like a visiting shooting star for lighting up the world. Failing that, if you are that same bloke droning on, at least try to talk sometimes about different stuff from your usual stuff.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:40 PM
Category: Brian's education

Fear not, Brian, the talk was great!

Your penultimate paragraph is spot on. One of the many bad things about the school system is its ability to crush the curiousity out of children. Those children's adult lives are impoverished as a result. How many of us have been "turned off" subjects by school, only to rediscover them years or decades later? I just pity those who never get to do the rediscovering.

Of course there is always the exception - the inspirational school teachers who nurtures in a child a life-long interest in some aspect of the world. But my guess is that the ratio of crushing to inspiration is at least a hundred to one. The very nature of the school system makes the job of even the most gifted teacher almost impossible.

Comment by: cydonia on January 13, 2003 11:23 AM

My technical wizard one day father-in-law had an experience like your's when Sir Barnes Neville Wallis (Mr Bouncing Bomb) gave a talk at his school. I think he looks upon it as one of the best moments of his life.

Comment by: Mark Holland on January 15, 2003 04:08 PM
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