Teaching cosmology to Year 7 students, the lesson included Stephen Hawking’s presentation of the Big Bang and a BBC Schools video on the work of Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace. The lesson concluded with thoughts on the First Cause argument.
It is a lesson that is always enjoyable. To think about the red-shift effect demonstrating the expansion of the universe and to consider the painstaking work of Darwin and Wallace as they considered the adaptation of species to their environment is to think about scientific method.
The lesson is one which intrigues the students. Being Year 7 students they are unafraid to speculate and to share their thoughts. Today, we considered the oscillating theory, the idea that the Big Bang would be followed by the Big Crunch as gravity pulled the universe back to a singularity. There were thoughts that as time went forward in the expansion of the universe, so it might go backwards as the universe contracted.
Science at Year 7 commands confidence. Experimental method provides them with an approach to problems that is systematic and evidence-based. Scientists are people who fill students with optimism. The Year 7 class today believed that science would provide answers to their questions.
To read the BBC News website at lunchtime presented a view of science altogether different from the science we had encountered in the cosmology lesson. There were pages filled with speculative comment. One scientist suggested that it would be eighteen months before things returned to normal, another suggested that five years would pass before the situation of 2019 could be restored. The disagreements extended to the likely impact of the virus, different models suggested widely differing numbers of fatalities.
Science was always thus, a process of trial and error, a process of testing theory against facts, a process of refining conclusions as new evidence emerged, but it was not always done under public gaze, with people seizing upon every comment.
Science has always had political implications: what research is being done and for whom, what results are being published and why, who benefits and who is disadvantaged. Science has been politicised to the point where different interpretations of evidence are used to advance the interests of different political groups.
At a moment of frustration, confusion and even despair, what is most needed from scientists is not public speculation and disputes, not the public airing of statistics, but some encouragement, something to boost morale. No matter how tentative it might be, some science that inspires confidence would be welcome.