Science embraces its radical side

Einstein Image copyright Getty Images

It's official: science is the new rock and roll.

That's according to the physicist and author of Free Radicals Michael Brooks, who argues that scientists have laboured under the suffocating blanket of sober respectability for too long. It's time to throw off the shackles and celebrate the truly creative endeavour that science really is.

After World War II, he argues, science was given a makeover - turned into a brand much like Coca-Cola, Disney or McDonald's.

Science had proved its worth in the heat of battle, but while Penicillin and radar had helped us survive it was the awesome destructive power of atomic energy that had won it.

Science's importance was acknowledged but it was also mistrusted, and the brand identity of this new product was deliberately designed to emphasise its subservience to society and reinforced with adjectives like logical, responsible, trustworthy, objective and rational.

"The scientist became the monk of our age - timid, thwarted, anxious to be asked to help," he writes.

But science, Michael Brooks argues, has never been about dull conformity. From Galileo's defiance of the Pope, to Newton's obsession with the old testament, it has always been a radical, rebellious and anarchic pursuit.

"To make a breakthrough or to stay on top scientists take drugs, follow crazy dreams, experiment on themselves and on one another.

"They break all the rules of polite society, trample on the sacred, and show a total disregard for authority. And all in order to get to the truth about how the world works".

Talking of breaking the rules of polite society, Brooks' thesis does seem to have upset many in the firmament of science's Great and Good.

Image copyright SPL
Image caption Science is often seen as a very serious persuit for very serious people

Speaking on the programme this morning the president of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse, defended the conventional role of science and the crucial part it has to play in producing the knowledge that will improve our quality of life and stimulate economic growth.

"In an advanced country like the UK we can't rely on cheap labour. We have to rely on science generating knowledge, that knowledge generating innovation, and that innovation generating economic growth.

And while he couldn't remember ever having taken hallucinogenic drugs to help him in his 40 year career as a research scientist, Sir Paul did acknowledge the crucial role of creativity in scientific advance, but insisted he doesn't have a pointy head.