Azara Blog: Royal Society seems to have no purpose

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Date published: 2010/08/28

The BBC says:

Two-thirds of the British public are unable to name a single famous female scientist, according to an ICM poll.

The same survey, organised by the Royal Society, revealed that 90% of 18-24 year-olds could not name a female scientific figure - either current or historical.

Almost half were able to name at least one famous male scientist, such as Albert Einstein.

The Royal Society's Lorna Casselton described the results as "frustrating".

But the same poll also indicated that parents see scientists as good role models for their daughters.
According to the findings, public knowledge of the role played by women in major scientific breakthroughs is also low.

Just 6% of those polled knew that a female scientist (Jocelyn Bell Burnell) played a major part in the discovery of pulsar stars. Only 18% were aware that another woman, Dorothy Hodgkin, discovered the structure of insulin.

The Royal Society has long seemed to serve no purpose except for its members to pat each other on the back about how jolly good and wonderful they all are. And unfortunately this kind of report just reinforces the idea that there is no point to the Royal Society. Albert Einstein is easily the most famous scientist. It's not surprising that a lot of people could name him. But it's not surprising that most people would struggle to name another scientist (or two).

Marie Curie is easily the most famous woman scientist. She had two Nobel prizes so was obviously no slouch. But it is pretty obvious that Einstein had a far, far bigger impact on science that Curie did, so it's not very surprising that people know more of him than of her. The Royal Society might find this odd, but nobody else should. Stephen Hawking is probably the most famous living scientist but even he is probably relatively unknown to the public.

And it would be pretty bloody amazing if anyone much in the public knew who was involved with the discovery of pulsars or with the structure of insulin, so it's not very surprising that the public happen not to know that Bell Burnell and Hodgkin (neither of whom are well known) were involved. Nobody would know that Hewish (a man, also not well known) was involved with the discovery of pulsars either. Well, maybe the Royal Society asked some kind of pathetic leading question to trap people into the male / female distinction, rather than actual names. It doesn't matter. The point is that most scientists are unknown to the public, not just female ones. (Of course, over the last hundred years there have been far fewer female scientists as well. That is certainly changing in biological research, if not in physics or maths.)

The Royal Society should not waste money on pop sociology.

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