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HideRobyn Williams: It's a very noble line in science—Isaac Newton, Lord Rees, and even the man, the Rev William Whewell, who gave us the word 'scientist'—all masters of Trinity College in Cambridge. And you'll meet the incumbent in a couple of minutes. Before you do, a puzzle: can you guess who Professor Merlin Crossley is referring to in this quotation about a legendary figure who was sure that there's a limit to the number of facts you can store in your brain?

Merlin Crossley: I want to take the liberty to read a short section of scientific writing to make two serious points. I think it's from someone who I would describe as one of the finest science writers of the 19th century, and it captures something about what science is and what it isn't. You'll see. Here we go.

"My surprise reached a climax however when I found, incidentally, that he was ignorant of the Copernican theory and of the composition of the solar system. That any civilised human being in this 19th century should not be aware that the Earth travelled around the Sun appeared to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly believe it. 'You appear to be astonished,' he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. 'But now that I do know it, I shall do my very best to forget it.' 'To forget it?' I replied.

'You see,' he explained, 'I consider that a man's brain originally, is like a little empty attic and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out and at best is jumbled up with lots of other things so that he has difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now, the skilful workman is a very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work. But of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that the little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it, there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance therefore not to have useless facts elbowing out useful ones.'

'But the solar system…' I protested. 'What the deuce is it to me,' he interrupted impatiently. 'You say that we go around the Sun. If we went around the Moon it would not make a pennyworth's difference to me or my work.'"

Robyn Williams: So who was Professor Merlin Crossley quoting? Here's a clue, though not an easy one.

[Music: 'Baby, Please Make a Change', Hugh Laurie]

Robyn Williams: Dear Hugh, he was my fag at Eton. And the answer later in this Science Show on RN.





Robyn Williams: PhDs are now encouraged to try science communication, which is a good thing, and it's just been recognised with a Bragg Prize for science writing, for scientists and journalists. And it was at the presentation of the prize that Professor Merlin Crossley had that quotation from a 19th-century writer about the limited capacity of the brain to hold facts. Did you guess?

Merlin Crossley: So, did any of you guess it? This is Dr Watson talking to Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet, and it was the first Sherlock Holmes book ever published in 1887. So what, if anything, does it tell us? Well, to start with my friends from psychology explained to me that our attic-like brains are actually very expandable, they are like TARDISs; very big on the inside. And apparently you can learn as much as you like, or people who study learning languages tell me you can learn many, many languages and no one has yet run out of space. So I'm not sure if Sherlock Holmes is right there.

But why did I choose this, what does it tell us about science and science communication? Two things. First it illustrates that science is not a thing or a set of facts but is a process. Sherlock Holmes was not a trained scientist, but he was rational, he looked at data and he logically deduced conclusions. He was careful to determine the quality of the data and the limit of the conclusions, and therefore he was successful. He used scientific methods to solve problems and to make the world a better and fairer place. So science is not about knowing everything, it is not about being a geek or a nerd with a specific set of arcane facts that no one else cares about, it is a way of thinking and of acting.

The second point this extract makes is that scientists can be and should be expected to be quite ignorant about areas where they are not a specialist, and this is extremely important. What it does is open the doors and allows scientifically minded people to embrace the ignorant and invite them in to the scientific world, and this is wonderful. I'm a biologist, but I am effectively ignorant in many areas of science. I'm the dean of science here at UNSW, and UNSW is famous for quantum computing and solar energy research, but I don't know much more about those topics than any intelligent layperson. I am ignorant about science too.

In a democracy we have to mobilise the group of people who believe in reason and logic and the scientific method and ensure no one is excluded or feels excluded just because they don't have a degree in science and are not currently practising scientists. We don't have that many practising scientists in Australia, but we do have a lot of well educated laypeople, and all we have to do is to invite the people in and invite children and students in to enjoy the wonderful stories of science.

The scientific method is not hard, it is commonsense, and children are particularly good at it. Everyone can be like Sherlock Holmes, whether they have done a science degree or not. Everyone should be rational and as perceptive and logical as Sherlock Holmes so that they can understand, enjoy and survive in this world.

Robyn Williams: Professor Merlin Crossley, dean of science at the University of New South Wales. And you can hear more from him and the chief scientist Professor Ian Chubb on Big Ideas on RN this coming Wednesday at 8pm. And you can see Professor Crossley in the Sydney Morning Herald magazine just published of Sydney's 100 most influential people.

As for that clue, the blues man from Eton:

[Music: 'Baby, Please Make a Change', Hugh Laurie]

Well, Hugh Laurie of course, who played Dr Greg House in the long-running hospital series which finished this year. His bizarre character, Dr House, and his friend Dr Wilson were based on Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes.