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Science
SCIENCE FRICTION
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Thursday 9 - 23  August 2007 21.00-21.30 

Scientific ideas are always changing, but often not without a fight. Sue Nelson brings two scientists together to discuss and argue about their strongly-held opinions on issues of fundamental importance to the science that they do.

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Sue Nelson

Programme 1 - Women in Science

If you’ve worked your way to the top in a university maths, physics or engineering department – the chances are you’re a man. The figures are stark. In 2005/6, while more than 40% of all UK academics were female, just 3% of maths and 2% of civil engineering professors were women. Compare this to, say, psychology and the behavioural sciences where 1 in 4 professors are female.

Why should this be? In 2005, Harvard University president Larry Summers provoked a storm of protest when he suggested that at least part of the reason for the dearth of women in these fields was biological – in other words the result of innate differences in tastes and aptitudes between men and women.

There is evidence for differences in male and female performance at certain cognitive tasks concerned with spatial reasoning, and there are also studies showing, for example, marked differences in toy preference from early infancy. But when it comes to explaining the different life and career choices often made by men and women, the job of separating nurture from nature becomes much harder. Many psychologists insist that social and cultural pressures, including inadequate childcare, male prejudice and sexual stereotyping from an early age are of overwhelming significance when it comes to explaining differing outcomes. But a significant minority argue that the biological evidence can’t be discounted, and to do so is to allow science to become the victim of politically-correct ideology.

To debate the issues, Sue Nelson is joined by Dr Helena Cronin who works on evolutionary theory and sex difference at the London School of Economics, and by Helen Haste, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Bath with a particular interest in gender and science.

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Programme 2 - Unravelling the Laws of Nature

In the three hundred or so years since Isaac Newton described the laws of gravity and of motion, fundamental physics has been on an astonishing journey of discovery. In the 18th and 19th centuries physicists probed the properties of heat, matter and light and started to explain the behaviour of the world around us in terms of atomic theory and the forces of electricity and magnetism. By the end of the third decade of the 20th century, physics had been revolutionised by the invention of quantum theory, giving an extraordinarily successful description of matter and energy on the atomic and sub-atomic scale; and by Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity describing the relationships between space, time and gravity. In the following decades, physicists were to discover two new forces operating inside the atomic nucleus and a whole raft of particles, culminating in the 1970s with what’s known as the ‘Standard Model’ of particle physics – currently our most complete description of all the elementary particles of nature and the forces that operate between them.

But according to theoretical physicist Lee Smolin, progress on some of the most important, remaining questions in fundamental physics has now ground to a halt. In his book, ‘The Trouble with Physics’, Smolin says “what we know for certain about the laws of nature is no more than what we knew back in the 1970s”. He adds that this situation, where three decades have passed “without major progress in fundamental physics… is unprecedented”. Smolin believes the fault lies largely with one particular theory, string theory, which has come to dominate research in fundamental physics.

To debate the issue of whether or not fundamental physics has lost its way, Sue is joined by Lee Smolin, professor at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada, and Professor Neil Turok, Chair of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University.

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Programme 3 - Tackling the Biodiversity Crisis

The Earth is losing its biodiversity at an alarming rate. Species are becoming extinct between 100 and 1,000 times faster than normal, as a direct result of human activity. In 2005, the UN-commissioned Millennium Ecosystem Assessment highlighted the damaging effect that declining biodiversity is having on human well-being, by for example threatening food supplies and the provision of clean air and water that we all depend on to survive.

But what should we do to tackle the problem? One strategy, first proposed by Professor Norman Myers of Oxford University is to focus conservation efforts on ‘biodiversity hotspots’. These are special places where there are very high concentrations of threatened ‘endemic’ species – that is, species that are found nowhere else. A recent assessment has identified 34 such hotspots, covering just 2.3% of the Earth’s land surface, yet harbouring between 40 and 50% of the planet’s estimated 10 million species.

The hotspots idea has certainly caught the public’s attention and has attracted a great deal of funding. So far at least $900 million has been raised to support hotspot conservation and there are many successful hotspot conservation projects running around the world.

But some conservation biologists worry that hotspots are the wrong priority for conservation. They question whether the strategy is cost effective and wonder if the goal to save the maximum number of species is the right one. Some have suggested that a focus on conserving ‘protected areas’ is like putting money into intensive care beds as opposed to vaccination – it’s a distraction from the real issue which is the need to change people’s attitudes by integrating conservation into our everyday lives.

To debate the arguments for and against focussing conservation efforts on biodiversity hotspots, Sue is joined by Stuart Pimm, Professor of Conservation Biology at Duke University in the USA, who has his own hotspot conservation charity – savingspecies.org; and also by Professor Georgina Mace, Director of the Centre for Population Biology at Imperial College, who worked on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

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