Intended for healthcare professionals


Science night

BMJ 1999; 318 doi: (Published 30 January 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;318:339
  1. Trisha Greenhalgh, general practitioner.
  1. London

    “Science,” announced my 9 year old son recently, “is BORING.”

    In a household where everything from cookery to bicycle maintenance is hypothesis driven, and where the younger sibling invariably has experiments on the go in the compost heap or outside drain, this statement is the ultimate heresy. We book our elder son and six friends in urgently for a night at the Science Museum.

    For £20 a head, we get to pitch our sleeping bags under the exhibit of our choice—from a 30ft double helix to an original prototype of the internal combustion engine. Our own personal trainer in a red sweatshirt runs us from one hands on activity to another until just short of midnight, and resumes again at 6 30 am. Four hundred of us make our own slime by adding the three “carefully measured” and very smelly ingredients up to the black line in a tall plastic beaker, placing lids on tight, and shaking on down to Chubby Checker. The kids feel chemistry happen in their hands, and the slime goes into the party bag.

    “Does hydrogen burn?” asks an impish demonstrator, as if she genuinely cannot remember. A show of hands suggests we are not sure either. She holds a taper to the balloon, which explodes in a blue flash and a loud bang. Everyone is now paying attention. Another demonstrator holds an air filled balloon in liquid nitrogen and we watch it slowly collapse—“Must be about minus 79 in there now, which means it's snowing pure carbon dioxide”—and re-expand exactly on rewarming. This time, no bang. We discuss the anticlimax.

    An astronaut in a space suit and with an authentic American accent tells us what we really wanted to know about flying to the moon—how to get the bubbles out of cherryade, and how to go to the lavatory when there is no “down.” Later, we have a midnight feast in the shadow of a real lunar module, and press a button to hear Neil Armstrong's crackling voice, “One small step for a man….”

    We've seen and heard most of it before, but when you're sliding in your socks along the polished floors hours after official bedtime, and still no one is telling you to stop fiddling with the switches, science is no longer boring. My son is a willing convert to a career in science, which gives me an idea for the various recruitment crises in medicine. Anyone fancy running a sleep over at the Royal College of Psychiatrists?

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