The World at Large: Schoolkids to learn warp drive theory.

As if it wasn’t already a laughing-stock, the British government — or at least one part of it — recently demonstrated that it doesn’t understand the significance of the “fiction” in “science fiction”. The part I am referring to is the Science Minister, a certain Malcolm Wicks. At least, I assume he doesn’t know what fiction is; the only other option is that he doesn’t know what science is.

A bit of background. For some time now, it has been obvious that British schoolchildren are no longer studying the sciences. Most thinking people blame government policy, in particular their league tables which encourage schools to make their pupils take subjects they don’t have to study very hard, in order to make their pass rates look better; the Science Minister blames science teachers for being boring.

As far as it goes, that would just be a slap in the face for many science teachers who work hard to engage their pupils, but are constrained by the dictates of the National Curriculum and the fact that headteachers don’t want children taking exams they might fail.

If all else fails, reverse the polarity of the neutron flow

But he went further than that. He suggested that the way forward was to use science fiction shows and movies, like Star Trek, Star Wars and — and I can hardly bring myself to type this — Doctor Who. This way, students would automatically become interested in science and beat their league-table-obsessed headteachers into submission.

Most of you will have heard of Star Trek and Star Wars, and probably realise that the science isn’t up to much (although Star Trek does at least make the effort to have some grounding in something vaguely resembling science). Many of you may not be familiar with Doctor Who, and so maybe I should give a brief synopsis of the show. You decide whether this is a good way to teach science.

Rotting chalk smells like halitosis

Doctor Who is about the adventures of an alien known only as “the Doctor” who, although he looks human, has two hearts and is (at last count) 900 years old. He travels through time and space in “Tardis” which looks like a 1950s British police telephone box (due to a failure in the chamaeleon circuit) and is vastly bigger inside than out. Although he is an excellent marksman and an accomplished swordfighter, he never carries a weapon, preferring instead to rely on his trusty sonic screwdriver, which can (among other things) reprogram computer systems, reattach cut barbed wire, scan for and locate certain types of signal, disable robot spiders at a distance and set off hidden bombs.

A list of things Doctor Who has taught people, which will come as a surprise to science teachers, are:

  • Bad breath is caused by “calcium decay”.
  • Ordinary black holes can destroy neighbouring solar systems.
  • You can cure every nasty disease known to future science by mixing all the medicines you can find up together and throwing it over the patient.
  • When you are ten miles beneath the surface of a planet with no atmosphere, you can hear the sound of a rocket blasting off from the surface.
  • It is possible to build “subatomic robots” (out of what?).

Now, I speak as a big fan of Doctor Who, but I can’t think of a worse way to teach science. Hello, Mr Wicks? Doctor Who is family entertainment. It doesn’t make sense.

The picture this conjours up, though, is quite delicious. I imagine all these 13-year-olds, fresh from a marathon viewing of scifi shows, trooping into the science lab hoping to be taught how to build a light sabre, or a tricorder, or a transcendentally dimensional phone booth, and instead being taught how to grow copper sulphate crystals.

But that’s OK. The government can now claim that the dismal performance of British students is not down to government policy, but TV scriptwriters. And that, I suppose, is all that counts.

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