Category Archives: children

Confiscation Cabinets at the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood

children's weaponsA Rubik’s cube remade as a weapon. This post first appeared on New Left Project.

Confiscation Cabinets – a new exhibition at the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood by artist Guy Tarrant – shows a series of artefacts confiscated by the artist from schoolkids, while he was working as a teacher.

The objects include homemade games, toys, adornments, weapons and keepsakes from 150 different London primary and secondary schools amassed over the last three decades. A preview I’d seen of it suggested the exhibition was largely about old toys, a trip down memory lane sort of exhibit. But it’s far from that. You can see products like that in the main galleries anyway. What makes this exhibition different is that they are artefacts of confiscation; objects which show the bits of contemporary urban childhood which are much less marketable.

So, after the plastic spiders, friendship bracelets, yo-yos, hairbands, tennis ball and a headless Mr T doll were largely paper-based hand-made items which were in some ways deeply ephemeral but really brought out the sheer boredom of a lot of school. Paper planes, rubber-band balls, notes kids have passed each other (one heartbreakingly, “Sarah, do you like me? Yes or No” with the “No” box very clearly ticked), a magnificently chewed biro and an entire hand-drawn pack of cards.

And then we get to the weapons. Because childhood can be really, really shit and kids arm themselves, sometimes very resourcefully. There was a glue spreader impressively sharpened to a point, an axe made from a stick and a bit of flint, the old breath freshener and lighter turned flame thrower trick, some olbas oil that had been used in an eye attack (and caused a child to be hospitalised), some computer mouse balls stripped down to act as missiles and a toilet handle fashioned into a knuckle duster. Also ingeniously weaponised were also pieces of a shopping trolly, one of those hanging handgrips there used to be on tubes (with the ball at the end), a taped up table leg, a door knob and a fire extinguisher pull. And some bullets. The most inventive was probably the deconstructed Rubik’s cube which had been turned into a missile.

Overall the exhibition was quite unsettling. But in a realistic way. It’s not an image of London childhood I always like to remember, but it was one I still recognised.

Confiscation Cabinets. 9 November 2013 – 1 June 2014. Museum of Childhood, Cambridge Heath Road, London E2 9PA. 10.00 to 17.45 daily Closed 24-26 December and 1 January. Free.

The incredible adventures of Professor Branestawm

This is an edited version of a paper just published in Knowledges in Publics, edited by Lorraine and Simone Locke.

cartoon of Branestawm

Professor Branestawm meets his childhood self, W Heath Robinson, 1933

The incredible adventures of Professor Branestawm: the maturing image of science in 20th century juvenile literature

This essay examines some ways in which images of children or the childlike are used in the construction of the scientist, and does so through the study of a series of books of the mid-20th century; Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawm stories (1931-1983). The character of Branstawm, I argue, was clearly constructed as childlike from the start – perhaps as an attempt to appeal to young readers – and yet as the decades move on the character shifts slightly to a presentation which, if not overtly “adult” looses the more childish aspects and is juxtaposed in opposition to children. The maturation of Branestawm is not offered to suggest science “came of age” in the latter half of the 20th century. Although this is tempting, it is also highly simplistic. Rather, it is an opportunity to explore some of the ways images of the childlike can act on cultural constructions of the scientist. I start with a brief discussion to images of children and science before introducing the case study. I then outline the ways I see Branestawm as a childish (and not-childish) character, before making some more analytical points about how this helps endow the scientist end of the character with some particularly powerful aspects of imagery surrounding the child.

Imagining children and scientists

There are several ways in which aspects of the childlike may intersect with the various qualities generally associated with the scientist. It may appear controversial to call a scientist ‘childlike’: as if it was a criticism, or a form of dismissal. Yet such a link may also endow the image of the scientist with a rather special social status. A child-like science might be seen as trivial, silly and under-developed, but it can also be innocent and innately knowledgeable of nature. I have discussed this in more detail elsewhere (Bell, 2008a) but it is worth sketching a few upfront here. We might endow our ideas of the child and scientists in ways which make them appear very separate social identities. For example, we might imagine children as stupid, or at least naïve, in comparison to the wisdom of science. Such a figuring may then have an impact on the way we imagine the relationship between the two groups, seeing young people as necessarily recipients of scientific knowledge, in need of education to interact with science to be ‘full’ members of society or, for the select few, specific technical training in order to become, after time, scientists themselves. In contrast, however, we might equally see children as inherently good and connected to nature and juxtapose such imagery to depict science as corrupt and corrupting. This trope is arguably dominant in late 20th C children’s science fiction and fantasy, as discussed by Jacqueline Rose (1994), Noga Applebuam (2005, 2006), Perry Nodleman (1985). There are also ways in which imaginings of the child and scientists might be seen as similar; such as the idea that children are “little scientists” or, conversely, that scientists take a positively childish approach to interaction with nature, mixing scientific charactersitics of disinterestedness or curiosity with a sense of childish wonder and naivety (which will largely be the focus on this essay).

It’s important to stress that at am I not trying to suggest children are one thing or another. Rather, I accept that our ideas of the child are generally multiple, and often ambiguously applied (not unlike our ideas of science). In many respects, this essay is less concerned with real children, and more interested in the ways our imaginings of children get replicated and reconfigured elsewhere. To assist us in reflecting on the multiple nature of the child in culture, it is worth quoting a rather long passage from sociologist of childhood, Chris Jenks:

pure, bestial, innocent, corrupt, charged with potential, tabula rasa, or even as we view our adult selves […] whether their forms of language, games and conventions are alternative to our own, imitations or crude precursors of our own now outgrown, or simply transitory impenetrable trivia which are amusing to witness and recollect; weather they are constrained and we have achieved freedom, or we have assumed constraint and they are truly free – all these considerations, and more, continue to exercise our theorising about the child in social life’ (Jenks, 2005: 2).

We can see this in Rousseau and other Romantics, as well as in 19th and 20th century developments of developmental psychology, but we should not imagine such theorising of the child is merely a matter of work in ivory towers. It is important to note that when Jenks refers to ‘theorising’, he not only means academic work, but the quite prosaic theorising which we all do as part of everyday social life. We all theorise the child as part of social interaction. We draw on others’ ideas and/ or construct our own based on practical experience and personal moral/ political beliefs. Children, unlike other social groups such as those based around professions (i.e. the scientist) or issues of race, class, gender or sexuality has a rather odd status, because we were all one. The child is, in its own way, extremely familiar. Yet it is also quite strange; ‘he or she inhabits our world and yet seems to answer to another; he or she is essentially of ourselves and yet appears to display a systematically different order of being’ (Jenks, 2005: 2-3, See also Hunt, 1994, for introduction to politics of child/ adult relationships in children’s literature).

Similarly, the scientists we are talking about here are very much the ‘imaginary’ ones of fictional depiction. As many sociologists of science have argued, what counts as ‘science’ is a confused, often contradictory notion which is strategically applied depending on context, rather than the consequence of an inherent ‘demarcation criterion’ (See Gieryn, 1995, for critique of this). In terms of the literary representations of the scientist, we might argue there are right and wrong ways to depict the scientist, and complain about incorrect and/ or overly negative portrayals (e.g. Lambourne, 1999). We could, however, acknowledge that there are a range of identities a scientist in culture might have, and a range of reasons why authors would wish to accentuate one or another of these. Taking this latter approach, tracking fictional scientists can become a way of working through the diversity of ways different people at different times have chosen to think about science in society. Rosalind Haynes (1994) seminal study of the scientist in Western literature suggests literary scientists can be sorted into six ‘stereotypes’. Although somewhat reductive, her typology is useful at least as a heuristic and reflects the ways in which scientist characters have in places become cultural tropes, repeated through culture as sketches and allusions. Haynes’ types range from alchemists driven to pursue an arcane intellectual goal that carries suggestions of ideological evil to more romantic depictions of an ‘unfeeling scientist’ where characters renege on human relationships only in the cause of science. Most important for this study is her sketch of the ‘Stupid Virtuoso’, a character out of touch with the society and so preoccupied with the trivialities of his private world of science, he ignores social responsibilities. This has similarities to romantic images of the unfeeling scientist, albeit slightly less heroically presented, and often comical.

None of this is to argue that images of children and scientists remain purely as ‘make-believe’. The fictional, even the fantastical, not only reflects reality (Hunt & Lenz, 2001, Hume, 1984), but may have a constructive impact on the doing, making and selling of science. Although scientists may find fiction worrying, seeking to correct its mistakes (Kirby, 2003a) or put their own work at distance (Mellor, 2003) they may also find it a useful resource either in the construction of ideas (Kirby, 2003b) or rhetorical positioning (Mellor, 2003, 2007). As Megan Prelinger (2010) has shown in terms of discourses of the space race, allusions to science fiction also feature in advertisements for the recruitment of scientists, thereby playing a possible role in the construction at least some areas of science and engineering. Most interesting for this paper’s purposes, literary researcher Elizabeth Leane (2007) applies Haynes’ typology to those images of scientists constructed auto-biographically in non-fiction ‘popular science’ books by scientists, a loose application of Jurdant’s (1993) idea of popular science writing as the ‘autobiography’ of science.

My argument, however, will be that all incarnations of Branestawm are, at once, both childlike and anti-childlike. If we wish to put this in a theoretical framework, I suggest Thomas Gieryn’s ‘cartographic metaphor’ for the boundaries of science (1995, 1999). This considers the cultural entity we call ‘science’ as analogous to a country on a map, its boarders defined through processes of boundary disputes and diplomatic treaties. The particular advantage of such ‘cultural cartography’ (compared to other frameworks for boundary analysis, see Lamont & Virag, 2002, for some examples) is that maps not only show us where two bounded groups are separated, they also declare shared space; demonstrating simultaneously similarity and distinction. It also reflects, although in a very different context, Ian Mitroff’s (1974) description of scientists’ dynamic alternation between ‘norms’ and ‘counter-norms’ of science, as well as what Simon Locke (2005) calls the ‘ambivalences’ of many cultural images of science. As we shall see, Branestawm, and I believe many more ‘real world’ scientists, negotiate the child/science boundary to take advantage of both positive qualities of childishness as well as the advantages of appearing distinctly ‘mature’.

Introducing Branestawm

The first of Hunter’s Branestawm books, The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm, was published in 1933. It comprised of a collection of stories based on those initially read on the BBC Home Service’s Children’s Hour. They were written by Norman Hunter, who had previously worked in advertising and as a stage magician, as well as serving in World War One in his late teens and is sometimes known as ‘Hunter, teller of tales’. Indeed, he is sometimes referred to as such in bibliographic databases, and the British Library copy of the 1933 edition has ‘teller of tales’ sketched in on pencil in the frontispiece (not by me). The book was illustrated by W. Heath Robinson, who by this time was already famous for his images of fantastic and humorous inventions. The Incredible Adventures were followed in 1937 with Professor Branestawm’s Treasure Hunt. After a break of several decades, during which the writer lived in South Africa, Hunter returned to writing for children, and published fourteen more Branestawm books from 1970 to 1983 (he died in 1995). Although all the Branestawm stories were written by Hunter, a new illustrator was brought in for the 1937 collection, and many different artists have worked with the character over the years. Heath Robinson is possibly the most well known, with his images re-used in several subsequent editions (1939, 1946, 1993) and arguably a strong influence on the later artists.

Prof Branestawm and Colonel Dedshott swap clothesProfessor Branestawm swaps clothes with Colonel Dedshott, W Heath Robinson, 1933

Hunter’s stories centre on the character of ‘Professor Branestawm’, a scientist (or engineer, his specialism is ambiguous) who lives in a small English village. Typically the books contain a series of short stories, each of which describe Branestawm inventing something or trying to go about some form of social life, such as attending a party or returning a library book. Either he gets terribly confused himself or he will confuse other people (often both). In most cases, the invention goes wrong and causes some form of havoc and/ or even structural damage. The inventions are in many ways quite magical and are often anthropomorphized; in that respect the books are openly fantastical. It is worth remembering Hunter’s work as a conjurer here, and that the 1976 spin off activity book, Professor Branestawm’s Do-It-Yourself Handbook, includes several instructions for ‘science experiments’ which are largely magic tricks (although this is a long-standing trope in such books, see, for example, Secord, 2002). They might blow up a building or take over the house. In the 1970 collection, The Peculiar Triumph of Professor Branestawm we, unusually, find inventions which do work, although not in the way they were supposed to. However, interestingly, these were ‘invented’ by child readers, who won a competition run by the publisher to design a machine to be featured in one of the stories.

The key feature of the Branestawm character, and basis for much of the humor of the books, is that he is a social outsider, someone the readers (and other characters) should take some amused bewilderment towards. He is, for many of his fans, the epitome of the absent-minded professor. As Branestawm himself reflects at one point: ‘How strange we professors are, to be sure’ (1933: 173). He finds it hard to communicate with people, and often has conversations at cross-purposes (1933: 130). He walks into a swimming pool because he is thinking too much about finding a library (1933: 88) and continually forgets where he is. When he discovers the library, he tries to buy a bun there, thinking it is a bakery (1933: 29). He finds social life difficult, cumbersome and confusing and often feels out of place and lost. The playfulness of this stereotype is very explicit: in one story, he ends up inadvertently doing an impersonation of himself at the seaside, where people think he is a comic pretending to be an absent minded professor (1933: 203). He has a housekeeper, Mrs Flittersnoop and a best friend, Colonel Deadshott, but generally chooses to be left alone to work with his ‘inventions’.

The books have been translated into several languages, including Polish, Swedish, Italian, German and Thai[i]. There was a later BBC radio adaptation in 2001, and a television series in the late 1960s. One study of books used in British schools in the 1970s stated it was one of the top 20 books read allowed in primary schools, alongside the Chronicles of Narnia, The Borrowers, various works by Dahl and beating the Just William stories (Poole, 1986). They are still in print in the UK, although this is arguably largely due to the nostalgic tendencies of children’s publishing, and the books are less common today. Their attitude to race, gender and class would have kept them off school bookshelves from the 1980s onwards. In places, however, Branestawm appears to continue to resonate in British cultural imagery of the scientist; people will still refer to academics as having ‘Professor Branestawm hair’ as if it was an example everyone will know. Christopher Frayling suggests that the shorthand sketches children compose when asked to draw a picture of a scientist may come from computers, comics, cartoons, films or the cover of Professor Branestawm books (Frayling, 1005: 221) Arguably, it is strange that Frayling refers broadly to each media except for books where a very specific, rather out-dated example is given. However this only shows the power and apparent universality of the Branestawm image in particular cultures, which Frayling appears to belong[ii].

Variable Childishness of Professor Branstawm.

I believe the original 1933 Branestawm to be quite overtly constructed as childlike, both in Hunter’s text and Robinson’s illustrations. Yet, Branestawm’s childishness is variable across the twentieth century. As with any long-standing character (Dr Who, Superman, Tom Swift) the cultural referents used to construct the character and stories changed over time depending on the context, although Branstawm retained the same author, albeit changes in illustrator and editors. One of the more overt examples of how shifts in the public views of science had an impact on these changes in the book is that the James Adams’ illustrations of 1937 edition are much more heavily influenced by images of Freud, as a hairier, bearded Branestawm is shown in a neatly drawn pinstriped suit. As I will argue, the character – more in text than illustration – seems to ‘mature’ somewhat when Hunter returns to writing about him in 1970, becoming less and less childlike throughout the decade, before reaching a sort of ‘2nd childhood’ in the 1980s incarnations. This section will provide a sketch of some of the more childlike aspects of the (generally early) Branestawm, sometimes in comparison with (later) more apparently ‘mature, forms of the character.

To start with Branestawm’s childishness, for all his occasional seriousness in the face of social events such as parties, Branestawm has a clearly presented sense of fun. When the fair visits town, he is desperate to go (1933: 69 onwards). There are also childlike references to eating too much trifle and ginger beer (1933: 86); at bedtime he drinks cocoa and falls out of bed (1933: 169). His lack of social understanding also leads to quite childlike concerns, and he takes things to the extreme. For example, at the end of a fancy-dress party where the Professor and Colonel have gone as each other, people do not believe the had changed back from fancy-dress: ‘So they very nearly had to live in each others’ houses for the rest of their lives’ (1933: 154). The early illustrations show both Branestawm and the Colonel as reasonably short compared to other characters, and they often crouch over slightly, without the more confident posture of an adult. In one illustration Branestawm is shown wearing a ‘trouser elevator contraption’ (1933: 3), a set of braces attached to a fishing rod mechanism, which stops baggy clothes, falling down. This also has the effect of bunching the trousers around his bottom, making him look as if he is wearing a nappy. In the Heath Robinson images of Branestawm, he is often shown wearing clothes which are too big for him; as if he were playing at fancy dress, not quite grown into adult roles. The picture in the 1933 frontispiece shows Branestawm’s tie worn back to front, which is there as a symbol of the lack of care he gives to his clothes (a function of his absent minded-ness) but is also reminiscent of an untidy schoolboy. On some occasions the childlike is, perhaps oddly, constructed through references to symbols of old age. For example, he is depicted as balding. A baldhead is in many ways a symbol of old age, however, it is also has the effect of making the character look as if he hadn’t grown any hair yet. We are also told he has a large head explicitly because he is so brainy (1933: 7) but again, a large forehead is a rather baby-like characteristic. Interestingly, this is perhaps most overtly underlined when we see an image of Branstawm compared to himself as a baby. The Professor invents a potion that brings images to life, but his housekeeper accidentally pours it over a photo album, and facilities of Branstawm through the ages run amok throughout the house. One image shows Branestawm tacking aback by himself as a baby (1933: 121). The baby sits serenely on the floor on the left hand side of the page, grabbing his feet. The Professor mirrors this posture; while falling back in alarm, he bends his body in the middle in a direct reflection of the baby’s movement out to touch his toes. Although the professor is much taller than the baby, and clothed, the differences largely end there. They are both generally hairless. Significantly the baby’s hair is the course and frizzy type, characteristic of ageing, rather than light and soft curls. Further, the baby has glasses, despite overtly being much too young to wear them. This, to me, seems like a clear example of ‘ambivalence’ around child/ adult boundaries with respect to a scientist character, drawing similarity and difference at once. I also think it shows that Heath Robinson picked up on the same cues in the text as I spotted.

The 1930s Branestawm is seemingly terrified of people. Characters from the rest of the village, when we see them, are shown to like him, but generally he hides from social life, with the exception of one friend, Colonel Deadshott. Such anti-social behaviour is also in some ways quite childlike, reflecting a child’s lack of socialization or shyness. The distinction being that an absent minded professor is innocent of society by choice or inclination; for a child it may be more temporal, but effects are similar. Branestawm’s lack of socialisation is also symbolised through references to his odd approach to clothes, language and food. Again, these could be seen as childlike, having not learnt. They are humourous because they are incongruous to what might be expected as normal, but there are also ways in which they figure the character as cute, almost useless in a childlike way (underlined by the housekeeper character, there to take care of him). They also make him slightly inhuman though, almost alien. On food, he would have breakfast overnight so he could start earlier the next morning on an important job (1933: 15). With clothes, as well as the fancy-fress and trouser contraption incidents mentioned earlier, he is referred to as making notes on his shirt cuffs (1933: 16) and at one point inadvertently puts on a ladies bonnet (illust., 1933: 48). Hunter obviously enjoyed linguistic play, and although notes like “He had very few friends because people found it so very difficult to talk to him” (1933: 1) are perhaps a nod to scientific jargon, the language used by the character is more a matter of being vague and imprecise, suggesting a lack of familiarity with language rather than having developed his own advanced form of it: (saying “thingummy” and “whateveritis” (1933: 3). Perhaps most significant, people are indulgent, or at least tolerant of his odd behaviour – Deadshott pretends to understand him (1933:4). In one incident he blows a man’s house up. The professor offers to build him a new one. “But the clock-man said he’d rather invent his own house, thank you all the same” (1933: 66).

In the 1930s Branestawm hid away in his own private space of the home, and in the 1970s we see him out and about, interacting in more public spaces of libraries, school and parks. In the 1980s, we see a sort of synthesis of the two locations; the public world is brought into the home. It is thus a very domestic setting, but one at home and familiar with the outside world. In 1980s, he becomes much more explicitly affable and loveably foolish again, he has parties with jelly and ice-cream (1983b) and writes letters (1981b) although interacts with the world in a familiar way, not as terrified as he was in the early books, he generally stays at home (pleased when guests go home, producing a machine because he doesn’t like writing thank yous). He doesn’t want people around, although this rime around it doesn’t seem as if it’s because he is scared of others, more that he’s learnt they are annoying. In the 1970 book, there are also several encounters with children, emphasising the distinction between the two social roles, and with less of the juxtaposition performed to also show similarity we saw in the 1933 Heath Robinson illustrations. As Branestawm moves into the 1970s, the central characters of these books are now ones for the children to laugh at and look at from afar, not play at being. They are funny because they are odd to the children, not odd like the children.

Where as the 1930s inventions tend to be based in Branestawm’s home, designed to solve problems on running the house, in the 1970s, inventions are on a larger scale, working for public good of whole village, not just himself, based in the outdoors, in the centre of social life (parks, shopping streets, school). In the 1974 book, Professor Branestawm’s Great Revolution, the last story reveals what the revolution of the title is, the professor is asked to design a revolving restaurant. He also lectures at an institute for science and other scientist characters are brought in. There are references to the links between science and the military, as well as commercial culture. There is a greater sense of specialization. In first book it is not clear what he was a professor of; he invented machines, with the suggestion that he was an engineer, but he also had books on languages. Post war, he is more explicitly fashioned as a scientist/ technologist when he goes abroad it is not to anthropologically study the people, but to learn more of their inventions (1970: 37). Looking at the language, the Professor also discusses the science in slightly more detail, suggesting a rather more ‘adult’ vocabulary (compared with the thingummy and whatiscalled’s of the first book). There is even a rival Professor, Gasket Basket, who he gets into an inventing competition with, but uses underhand methods, employing “rascals” to steal Branestawm’s invention. Inventions in 1980s books return to rather more domestic settings (1981ab, 1982ab, 1983ab).

Professor Branestawm looks upProfessor Branestawm’s Trouser Elevator, W Heath Robinson, 1933

The Rhetoric of the childish scientist

There is a sense that the inability to interact with society is a necessary consequence for scientific achievement, and by that vein, also socially acceptable:

For although the Professor was so clever, or perhaps because he was so clever, he was very absent-minded. He was so busy thinking of wonderful things like new diseases or new moons that he simply hadn’t the time to think of ordinary things like old spectacles (Incredible Adventures, 1933: 1)

This is very similar to what Rosalind Haynes (1994) calls the ‘stupid virtuoso’, and arguably pre-dates the more Victorian image of childhood present in the book. Certainly, an absent minded professor is not unique to these books. However, there are ways in which stupid virtuoso characters can be endowed with aspects of childishness, and worth reflecting on this to deconstruct them, and consider the ways they may influence our ideas about children’s relationships with science (and vice versa). From a study of Richard Feynman’s popular writing, she argues that behind anecdotes of asking for lemon and cream in your tea, or asking a servant to dance lies a notion of ‘the wise fool’. As Leane puts it, ‘the boy who saw the emperor’s nakedness’. These stories are applied to show how the scientist can debunk unnecessarily or cruel social practices and find the efficient, true and (morally) right way ahead (Leane, 2007: 151). She does not reflect on it being a boy (rather than a person of any age) which manages to see the ‘nakedness. Yet, this unconscious reference to youth is significant, as we see the idea of the innocent child intersecting with notions of the scientist as either ‘disinterested’ (Merton, 1973) or a ‘modest witness’ of nature (Shapin and Schaffer, 1985).

Linked to this idea of innocence is a strong sense of simple-ness in the image of Branestawm, which I would also sits within some of the figuring of him as a childish character (whilst at the same time not being dependent on it). For example, again from the start of the first book:

Professor Branestawm, like all great men, had simple tastes. He wore simple trousers with two simple legs. His coat was simply fastened with safety pins because the buttons had simply fallen off. His head was simply bald and it simply shone like anything whenever the light caught it. (1933:1)

This equating an idea of simplicity to both science and greatness, which reflects cultural ideas of the scientist as humble, as well as more philosophical points such as Occam’s razor. It also implies we need not question him; he just is. Yet, interestingly, behind the appearance of simplicity lies a more complex sense of magic, as the character also plays up to the idea of the scientist as having an intuitive or hidden ability to work nature. E.g. in the description of one of his inventions (pretty standard for many throughout the whole series, until the 1980s):

Blue and yellow smoke shot out from every part of the machine. Wheels whizzed. Levers clicked. Little bits of stuff went buzzing up and down and round and round. And far beneath them the landscape rushed by quicker and quicker until at last they could see nothing but a grey haze all round them (1933: 4-5)

Similarly, from 1981: “Suddenly he had an idea. Right out of nowhere it came. Like catching measles, only nicer” (1981b: 5). It’s maybe worth remembering Hunter as a stage conjurer who fancied himself the fancy-dress of the mad scientist; an odd reflection of JBS Haldane, perhaps, who in his Mr Leakey stories (1937) adopts the costume of a magic man, but equally uses a children’s book to play with ideas of the scientist as magician. As Haynes’ history of fictional scientists shows, this idea of scientist as magic man has a long history; if anything it is an especially old form of the character. However, it’s also worth noting that this an almost magical connection between the child and nature is a very common theme in children’s literature too. As Rose puts it, the child is “constantly set up as the site of a lost truth” (Rose, 1994: 43). Applebaum (2006) has argued that such nature-child connections are used to distance children from science, and critique the latter in many science fiction books written for young people. However, I think Branestawm is an example of the ways in which the two can be combined, endowing the scientist character with the various positive characteristics of the child mysteriously in nature (for other examples of this, see also Bell, 2008ab).

Branestawm makes a messBranestawm makes a mess, W Heath Robinson, 1933

Concluding points

This essay has considered some of the ways in which an image of the child might be woven into those of a scientist. I hope this helps us consider some of the detail of our cultural construction of scientists, in particular their rhetorical appeal. Oddly perhaps, the childlike can endow the image of the scientist with a rather unthreatening and intuitive association with natural knowledge, even if childlike scientists will also have to work to distance themselves from other images of youth such as the more pathological notions of ignorance, triviality or thoughtlessness. As Elizabeth Leane’s (2007) discussion of constructed public face of Richard Feynmen suggests, there is a rhetorical appeal to such constructions, as childlike imagery may provide powerful symbols of an apparent link to truth and/ or purity of purpose. Leane’s study also shows how these fictional representations make spill into non-fictional ones. Branestawm is not part of a concerted public relations campaign for science, but such images can be extended elsewhere to be.

It would be a neat piece of analysis to argue that between the differences in age-based allusions of Branestawm are reflective of the emergence of ‘Big Science’ as a form of coming of age, but that would be too simple. To some extent this analysis is ahistorical anyway. Or rather, cross-historical. Not because what Branestawm depicts is in any way universal, but because children’s literature is so often carried across time. Due to the nostalgic tendencies of children’s book production and dissemination (i.e. that it is made by the generation before its audience, and parents often give books of their youth to their children), what Branestawm said about science then is largely what it says now. Branestawm is interesting today not only as an expression of science in the mid 20th century, but of one that both looked back nostalgically at the time and is still resonant in its nostalgia today; either through various recycling of post modern culture or more directly, as readers of the 1970s give it to their children, who give it to theirs. Instead, the variability and contingency of Branestawm’s symbolic childishness perhaps provides an extra analytical point. In the latter half of the twentieth century, Scientist characters became more central to public life, but at the same time would emphasise their special qualities to appear distinct. If I was to hazard any broad statement about the sweep of time the books reflect, it is that images of science became, perhaps, more ambivalent, drawing on the childlike images of the past and adding in new. The most recent edition of the 1933 book (which is the most long-lived) I could find was over a decade ago, but there are e-book versions, BBC last re-broadcast a reading of the stories in March 2011 and an online bookshop listing suggests a “Vintage” edition will be published again in 2013. So he may yet return, perhaps re-fashioned by a new author, illustrator or production team.


  • Applebaum, Noga (2006) ‘The Myth of the Innocent Child: the Interplay Between Nature, Humanity and Technology in Contemporary Children’s Science Fiction’, The Journal of Children’s Literature Studies, vol3, issue 2, July 2006.
  • Applebaum, Noga (2005) ‘Electronic Texts and Adolescent Agency: Computers and the Internet in Contemporary Children’s Fiction’, in Reynolds, Kimberly (ed) Modern Children’s Literature. (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave).
  • Bell, Alice (2008a) ‘The Childish Nature of Science: exploring the child/science relationship in popular non-fiction’ in Bell, Alice, Davies, Sarah & Mellor, Felicity (eds) Science and its Publics: Following Scientists into Popular Culture (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars), 79-98.
  • Bell, Alice (2008b) Science as Pantomime: Explorations in Contemporary Children’s Non-Fiction Books, PhD thesis, Imperial College London.
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  • Hunter, Norman (writer) Rose, Gerald (illustrator) (1982b) Professor Branestawm’s Building Bust-Up (Bodley Head, London)
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This work was carried out as part of doctoral research (AHRC grant no: 05/116470) at the Science Communication Group, Imperial College. Drafts of this paper were presented at several conferences. My thanks to the organisers of these events, as well as all attendees for their attention, suggestions and questions.

[i] My thanks to the ‘academic discussion of children’s literature – uk’ listserv for assistance in tracking down Branestawm in translation.

[ii] It should be noted that here Frayling is discussing a set of drawings produced by 7-11 year olds in the South West of England in summer 2003. An argument for the resonance of Branestawm in the subjects of the 1983 UK study he is replicating might be more convincing.

Captain Eco and the World of Tomorrow

My set the inaugural Green Showoff last night was also a chunk of my talk at the Story today, so I thought I’d post it here.

eco books

I did my PhD on kids science books. When I tell people this, they often get a sort of “aww bless” expression on their faces.

Patronising f*ckers.

Written by one generation for the next, children’s books are full of concern over what aspects of the past to maintain and what might be different in the future. They can be deeply anxious often self-conflicted cultural products; both futuristic and nostalgic at once, full of guilt and pride about what sort of world we leaving along with fears and hope for the future. Such anxiety is especially obvious when adults try to tell stories to young people about the environment. There are all sorts of inter-generational hang-ups going on here and it’s bloody fascinating.

There was a boom in kids’ environmental media loosely surrounding the 1992 Rio summit and another running up to Copenhagen in 2009. I have a small collection of the books that were part of that, which I thought I’d share with you, and I want to focus on something interesting I found in them – the recurring character of the eco-superhero.

At first I wanted to turn my nose up at these characters. Who needs a bloody superhero to save us? I kind of find it offensive even. I don’t like a great man view of history, why the hell should we have it about our future? We need to find ways of talking about mass, cooperative action, not some magic pseudo-religious superhero savor from the sky. But – actually looing at the books – these eco-superheroes are quite diverse (well, gender aside). Some are, indeed, quite patronizing. But others take the piss. And they all sit an a social context which say something about our ideas of agency with respect to climate change.

Books aren’t the only place you see this character. Flying far above all eco-superheroes stories is TV star, Captain Planet. As the theme tune repeatedly told viewers, “he’s a hero, gonna take pollution down to zero”. Created by Ted Turner and Barbara Pyle, the show ran from 1990-1996 and is still syndicated today. Though Gaia “the spirit of the Earth” was awakened by human destruction of the planet (a nod to James Lovelock) and sends five magic rings to five chosen young people across the globe, “the Planeteers”, to fight environmental destruction and, occasionally, social injustice. When the Planeteers faced a particularly tough foe, they could pool their magic rings to create the superhero character of Captain Planet. This caped crusade may fly in to assist us, but as a booming voiceover informed audiences every episode, it is only “by your powers combined” that change really happens.

Captain Planet is anything but subtle, and very earnest in its message of world peace as well as care for nature. There was a memorable episode where Captain Planet and the Planeteers tacked peace in the West Bank, South Africa and Northern Ireland, as well as episodes on animal rights and attitudes to HIV (there are quite a few online, google). When a movie remake was announced last year, Funny or Die satirised this tone, as well as contemporary inaction, with Don Cheadle as the Captain gone rouge; cynically loosing faith in humanity he manically turned people into trees ignoring the pleas of preppy Planeteers before switching his hand from a peace sign into single middle finger and shouting “the power is MINE” as he flies off.

As earnestly played as the original Captain Planet, but published more recently, in 2007, is “Understanding Global Warming with Max Axiom”.

Max Axiom  and Global Warming

Part of a series of science-themed comic books, Max is a muscle-bound (and not always fully clothed) character who, after being struck by lightening, was inspired to travel the world collecting degrees in as many subjects as possible to become a Super Scientist. His lab coat allows him to travel through time and space, he has x-ray sunglasses and the ability to shrink to the size of an atom. Other books cover photosynthesis, bacteria, sound or light. Importantly perhaps, here the heroism is less about saving the planet, and more about the adventure of finding out.

It’s not just Americans who apply superheroes to green issues. Take, for example, Jonathan Porritt’s 1992 large full-colour hardback, “Captain Eco and the Fate of the Earth”. We’re told Captain Eco comes from the Earth, angry with the way humans are mistreating it (again, perhaps a nod to Lovelock) he flies around waggling his finger at everyone for being lazy or stupid.

Captain Eco

After being introduced to “Clive” aged 9 and “Michelle” aged 12 (both more interested in books, television, sleeping, music and football than the environment) Captain Eco exclaims “Suffering Solar Systems! If these are “standard” earthings, no wonder the Earth’s in such trouble”. Whereas Captain Planet was powered by the collaborative action of young people (albeit in response to a supernatural force), Captain Eco only really features child characters to be spoken down to.

Fast forward to 2009, and the Science Museum’s “Your Planet Needs You” takes a very different approach. Here the superhero character is called upon from space by politicians but, with very British tongue in cheek, he is clearly constructed as possessing more glamour than intelligence and has to turn to a group of young people to explain the problem of global warming. They take him to their climate club where the force of knowledge is clearly introduced as the science teacher, Miss Weatherbottom. He’s a joke, as well as a sort of scientific straightman the explanations can be told to.

Equally interestingly, the Eden Project’s “George Saves the World by Lunchtime”, from 2006, features a small child dressing up as a superhero, making small changes around the home. Similarly, in “Michael Recycle” (2008, Ellie Bethel and Alexandra Colombo) we see a superhero fly in from the sky, but it is one with a colander as a helmet, clearly painted as a child playing fancy dress. Further, crucially, change here is enacted by people in the polluted town in question talking to one another (there’s a joke about threads of environmentally friendly toilet paper connecting them).

In these last three books, the superhero guise is a bit of a joke, domesticated and made juvenile, with a knowing rather postmodern incredulity for saviour narratives. Like Don Cheadle’s satire of Captain Planet, they laugh at the earnestness of the 1990s and yet, less cynically, they seem to revel in the basic narrative too.

Perhaps they are best described as having their superhero and eating it.

Looking at my collection of eco-superheroes as a whole, one omission was strikingly recurrent: a clearly articulated villain. Some locate blame with human stupidity or laziness but its usually kept vague. The closest we get to anything concrete is Captain Planet, though even here it is a cohort of baddies symbolizing a range of problems such as misapplied, uncaring science or reckless business as well as characteristics such as greed, gluttony or hate (and interestingly specifically, nuclear power). In a few episodes they even join forces in an echo of the composite powers behind Captain Planet to make an alter ego, Captain Pollution. Environmental problems have multi-causal, complex explanations, even on the Cartoon Network.

Whether this relative lack of baddie is because such stories accurately depict the abstract nature of climate change or more simply because media producers are too nervous to point fingers at people who might advertise with them, I’m not sure.It might also reflect an approach to climate communication which focuses on the positive actions people can take. One might argue fantasy super-villain characters devolve public responsibility as much as the idea of a savior from the sky, so perhaps it is for the best.

Moreover, Captains Planet and Eco, Michael Recycle and Max Axiom are merely the stories adults offer to young people. They may be offered ready-made, but they can be re-made by their audiences too, or simply ignored. There is Captain Planet fanfiction if you know where to look. I’ll leave you with that thought, and you can make your own mind up about what it means for public engagement with climate change.

inside captain eco

Five Books

Marvin standing

I was interviewed for the Browser’s “Five Books” feature last week, talking about children’s science literature.

I did my PhD on kids’ science books. People sometimes think it was a strange, even trivial, thing to study – that children’s literature is just a bit of fun compared to the serious business of science, or that non-fiction somehow lacks artistitic credibility – but it’s an incredibly rich subject. Literary, and yet also often explicitly rooted in a sense of the material, hands-on and yet abstract, deeply metaphorical in places and often overtly realist, wonderous and mundane, textual and illustrated, diadactic and keen to inspire and open questions. In fact, did you know first ever children’s book was a science book? (well, ish, I like to tell people this anyway).

You can’t really pick five children’s science books that everyone is going to enjoy, and I’m certainly not about to provide a ‘canon’ everyone should read. Instead, I went for five books I thought reflected some of the diversity and sub-genres of the form as well as its history. Here they are:

1) How Your Body Works. I picked this as a nice exampe within the sub-genre of kid’s books about the human body (which at times can be more self-help than science). It  also reflects the number of children’s science books which use cartoon-ish illustrations that offer a somewhat metaphorical form of visual explanation. White blood cells as white knights guarding the ‘battlements’ of a scab, lungs as bellows. One of the illustrations adults seem to remember vividly from reading the book as children is the sex education via robots bit. Clearly the illustrator has really thought about the reproductive system – if you know what you are looking for you can see how it is meant to link to parts of the reproductive system – but it is also taken out of explicit reference to human sex with very box-like robots (second picture down in this blogpost).

2) Eyewitness: Dinosaur. I wanted to include an Eyewitness as they are such an iconic brand in the field. I could have chosen any but thought dinosaurs should probably be included in my list in some way too, so went for this. In many ways, it’s a quite interesting example because they have to rely on several artists’ impressions of dinosaurs, compared to most other books which are very photo-based, reflecting a museum-like approach to science as something immediate, about things you can see and possibly touch. In many ways it is very photo-realist in its approach (like Walking with Dinosaurs, maybe) but still reflects how much content in any science book is based on ideas, whatever the rhetorical references to a sense of the hands-on.

3) The Boy’s Playbook of Science. Here we have a clear sense of the hands-on, as this is an activity book, which instructions of things to make and do. This is also an example of a Victorian book (old blogpost from last winter on it and some others) but there are still a load of science books published sold on the premise of having a go with science. A suggestion that you should put the book down and do something more empirical instead, perhaps. There’s a great essay on John Henry Pepper by Jim Secord if you are interested (and I think everyone should be, a fascinating chap).

4) Uncle Albert and the Quantum Quest. This was a bit of a personal choice in some ways. I never read this as a kid, but writing an essay on it in the middle of my BSc was what sparked the interest that my PhD. I also picked it as an example of fictionalisation to explain science. The Magic School Bus books being a key brand I was tempted to include in my list, which do similar things. I also really wanted to choose it as a book which, despite it’s narrative structure, ends with questions. This might go against the idea of children’s science books (or narratives in science literature) necessarily presenting science as finished fact, but the idea that there might be further questions is key to many views of how science works, but is, I think, especially important in children’s literature because it provides a sense of the possible future of science which young people might contribute to if they choose to grow up to be scientists.

5) How to Turn Your Parents Green. I chose this because to reflect the wave of books on enviromental issues aimed at children that have come out in the last five to ten years. As I’ve written before, there was a wave of similarly explicitly green media for young people in the late 1980s and early 1990s too, and a long history of nature books for kids. What makes this book slightly different from others is that it takes a sort of ‘kids know best’ attitude, compared to the ‘sit down and listen now, dear child’ tone. A load of analysts have talked about this in the context of fiction and enteratinment media (brilliant essay on this using Timmy Mallet as case study in this book) but it’s less common when it comes to books about something as serious as science, which tend to be a bit more reverant to adult authority. So this stands as an example of some of the generational politics implicit in any children’s media as well as, being a ‘green’ book, the way science is political even (or especially) when discussed with young people.

Other books I wish I’d had space for include any and every piece of science fiction, one of the many popup scuience books, any of the Horrible Science books I did my PhD on, an Isotype book, a manga science book, a revision guide (dull, boring and possibly a bit evil, maybe, but they are also a significant bit of the market), books for under 7s, books for over 13s and the more nature-spotting literature end of things.

What else have I missed?

Memories of kids’ environmental media

big old pile of dead tree media telling us to recycle

A small pile of dead trees.

I’m giving a short talk later this month about children’s science media and memory. I thought I’d pick up an idea I’ve been playing with for a while, and discuss memories of childhood and environmental media, and I’d like your help.

There’s loads of great material here. EDF Energy’s It’s Not Easy Being Green ad, “made entirely of recycled clips”, or the news of a Captain Planet movie in the making. Captain Planet is just one example of several green-tinged media products aimed at kids in the early 1990s. If you’re of the right age, you might also remember the Blue Peter Green BookUncle Jack or FernGully (great book on this, by the way). It goes back a lot further than this though. A strong thread of Romanticism has run through much of children’s fiction for centuries, often reflecting ideas about the natural world (see Rose’s The Case of Peter Pan on this). Mary Welsely’s The Sixth Seal (which scared the poo out of me as a kid) was first published in 1969. There is also a long history of non-fiction media on natural history aimed at kids which will, on occasion, overlap with environmental issues.

I often wonder if kid’s green media of previous era’s had any impact. I noticed Laurie Penny referenced childhood memories of FernGully and what she described as “traumatic colouring books full of sad baby seals and herons choking on plastic bags” (missed that one myself…) in a recent piece about a trip to the Arctic. In his book about children’s news media, David Buckingham cynically suggests a focus on environmental issues  is a way adults can put off taking action themselves: label it a kids issue and leave it for the next generation. I wonder if, now those kids have grown up, they are doing something. Or perhaps not. Perhaps they are just enjoying the nostalgia of the recycled clips on the EDF Energy ad.

Anyway, as a way of helping me think about this, I’d be interested in people’s memories of environmental media they encountered as children. On TV, books, films, in lessons at school, whatever. Whenever or wherever you experienced your childhood, and however you reacted to it. Do you remember the Blue Peter Green Book, FernGully, the Lorax, something else?  Did they worry you, bore you, inspire you, annoy you?

I’d love to hear your memories.  Do please leave them in the comments, and pass this post on to anyone you think might have something to share.

Involving kids in research

I have a piece in the last week’s Research Fortnight on the ways young people might contribute to research, as opposed to simply being asked to sit back and listen to ideas being delivered to them; a challenge to think of under-18s as more than what I have previously described as ‘in waiting’ for adult interactions with science and technology.

It’s very much behind the Research Fortnight paywall, but many UK research institutions have subscriptions so try this link, hit ‘campus access’ and see what happens. Or, to provide some summary for those who can’t read it, I partly inspired by my visit to the Google Science Fair (see also my pieces for the Guardian on this, in March and July) but also the news that the Researchers in Residence scheme will end, which I see as a chance to re-evaluate what we think young peoples’ interactions with science are for.

People often see projects like Researchers in Residence as a chance to showcase scientific careers, but I suspect such work is most important for the young people who don’t end up working in science and engineering. As I’ve argued before, schools are so important because it’s the only time when everyone is exposed to science, and exposed to it together. Before we go about the ever-so-modern business of specialisation, school is a time where we can build shared experiences and so sow the seeds for trust between those who grow up to be scientists (or historians, or any other specialist) and everyone else. Similarly, that’s how we can see researchers working with schools: a chance to build relationships between science and the rest of society.

Above and beyond that issue though, I think more people should try applying a more ‘post-PUS’ approach science education. By this I mean an interactive approach which doesn’t just see young people as receptacle for science, but a resource, one you might have conversations with and draw ideas, critique and inspiration from.

It’s all too easy to over-romanticise youth and science; to argue that science may be endowed by some sort of mystical power of the child. Still, as with any engagement project, connections between young people and scientists help bring the latter out of their professional bubble. We should be wary of loose assumptions that youth necessarily provides a strikingly different perspective, but young people may well bring useful and often missing perspectives to both science and science policy. Arguably, the high investment they have in the future could have implications for the discussion of both scientific projects that run over long periods of time, as well as environmental issues.

As with adults’ contribution to science, collaboration is probably the best model here. It’s not a matter of kids simply telling scientists what to do, or doing science all on their own, but people working together. The overall Google winner had used resources in her local university, others had read scientific papers. Ideas are rarely plucked out of the air. I also mention the Blackawton Bees paper and the new Decipher my Data project (it’s not just super-stars I met at Google).

As I concluded the Research Fortnight piecethe end of Researchers in Residence doesn’t just have to be an opportunity for hand-wringing over cuts. It can be a chance to tap into the potential power of multigenerational science, not just in terms of building a science of the future, but the ways in which young people may be a resource for science and science policy today. It’s a chance to build more sustainable relationships between science and the rest of society. The next question is how? Personally, I suggest we start by asking the young people themselves, but I’d be interested to know what others think.

Edited to add (14th Sept): The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee have published their report into practical experiments in school science lessons and science field trips. You can make your own mind up about whether or not you think this report takes an appropriately imaginative attitude to young people’s relationships with science. See also an old rant on media coverage of science education policy.

Fair’s fair

What questions would the public choose to invest scientific time and resources in, if given the chance to shape research policy? This is an old and largely unanswered question. Indeed, it is one that many members of the scientific community go out of their way to avoid testing.

Ben Goldacre touched on it a couple of weeks ago, in his Bad Science column, where he repeated an idea that’s been around for a while – that each year, a very small proportion of the research budget should be spent on whatever the public vote for. Goldacre mentioned this idea because he wanted to argue that at least some of the money would go on useful research. Still he was also fast to quip that ‘Most of it would go on MMR and homeopathy, of course’.

But we don’t really know what the public would fund. That’s the beauty of the experiment: we’d give ourselves a chance to find out.

We’d also give publicly funded science a chance to enrich its scope of inspiration, and make itself more clearly accountable to the communities which fund it. Researchers often say they should be to be left to research what is “interesting” without public, or at least political, interference (see about any reference to the Haldane Principle…). Ok. But we need to appreciate that any idea of “interesting” is socially constructed. I don’t say that to undermine the point necessarily. We’ve put 100s of years of effort into constructing a world of science which trains people to have a keen sense of “interesting”. But I see it as an ongoing process, open to development and, potentially, open to input from a broader social network.

I was thinking about this issue while at the Google Science Fair last week, in particular the broad range of sources of inspriation the finalists and drawn upon, and have a post about it on the Guardian Science blog. There, I suggest children sit in a sort of mid-way space between science and ‘the public’, and that this is is something we might try to replicate in at least some parts of grown up science:

It is perhaps best to think of schoolchildren as holding a liminal position with respect to science and the rest of society. They are not quite inside the scientific community or squarely outside it either. They are both science and “the public”, and they are neither of these things [...] what can we do to further this sort of liminality in grownup science? How can we extend the social spheres of our professional scientists, especially those who define the research agenda, so they might draw inspiration more effectively from the diversity of publics that fund them?

When thinking about the question of how the public might shape research policy, I think this sense of liminality is key. To me, this is better than a straight public vote, which just seems a bit blunt. I much prefer a model of co-production which aims towards mutual learning between science and the public so they can build something better than either alone would be able to dream up.

Afterall, a question that on first glance looks like a call to homeopathy or MMR might well contain a nugget of a more scientifically credible challenge for public health, if only given a bit of discussion to help bring that point out.