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Why is science important?

Alom Shaha chats about his most important film to date

Jennifer Rohn 22 March 2009

A positive spin: Shaha does some strange things to help answer a very important question

I literally walked on fire to make this film

Editor's note: Alom Shaha is a physics teacher, science filmmaker and science communicator in London. LabLit recently caught up with Alom on London's South Bank to learn more about his latest project, Why Is Science Important?

What were the origins of the project?

I went back to teaching science after a seven-year sabbatical and it struck me that we weren't teaching the most important thing of all: that science is important. The curriculum doesn't get that across. It made me re-examine my own motives as a teacher and science communicator.

Were you surprised by the way people respond to the question 'why is science important'?

It sounds like a really simple question, but we interviewed more than 35 teachers as part of the project and only about ten per cent of them could give an answer that was satisfactory.

What were the 'unsatisfactory' answers like?

British teachers seem to have the notion that we should teach science because it's 'relevant', because we live in a technological world: "your iPod was made with science so you should understand science". This is bollocks. It misses the point of science. Science is an amazing way of thinking, of looking at the world, at arriving at answers; it's an entire culture. But it's not the teachers' fault for feeling this way: the system promotes this philosophy of relevance.

What would a kid get out of knowing the culture of science?

I teach in a London inner city comprehensive school comprised of students with a wide range of abilities and socio-economic backgrounds. And I know from experience that knowing about science can liberate you from cultural and socio-economic roots. Actually science is very similar to literature in that way: it opens up new worlds and allows in other ways of thinking. Science and literature should both give my students intellectual freedom, which is a much better reason than the utilitarian philosophy touted by the establishment. Can't we just teach science because it's one of our greatest cultural achievements?

Tell us a bit about the blog.

Initially I was going to make a film, and the blog was going to be about my journey making the film. But then the blog took on a life of its own: people started volunteering to contribute and before I knew it I had about eighty diverse answers to the question "why is science important", with more coming in every day. So then the film sort of became about the blog!

Who funded the film? How did it go?

It was funded by the Wellcome Trust and Teachers TV. I did it while I was also teaching three days a week – it was the hardest thing I've ever done. I put my heart and soul into it – and I'm proudest of this film than of anything else I've ever done, except possibly my first film. I literally walked on fire to make this film – and spun myself in a giant centrifuge!

How has the response been so far?

It's been good, which was surprising. This was an experiment. It's a thirty-minute film on the internet – it's not a cat falling into a fucking puddle. I didn't know if people would watch something that intellectual, if they would engage on a medium that seems to be best for cats and porn. But apparently they are – it's only been up for two weeks and it's already been viewed more than 6,000 times: my goal is to reach 100,000. It's clear from the comments people are leaving that they are watching it all the way through. I don't have a marketing budget so it's just me telling everyone I know, and hopefully word of mouth. I'm getting lots of emails – it's gratifying when people I respect tell me it's worthwhile. In fact, I've been overwhelmed by the generosity I've encountered with this project, so many people contributing for free.

Do you think this will make a real difference?

I do sometimes worry that I'm just preaching to the choir. It's too soon to tell if I'll reach a wider audience – which is the main problem with a lot of science communication. And there's a lot of back-patting that goes on.

It's not just about kids, is it? Don't you also want to reach the people who set the science curriculum?

Well, I'm still waiting to hear what the teaching community makes of this. They might just think, who is this arrogant prick, who does he think he is? By presenting the film as well as producing it, I'm really putting myself out there. There is always a fear of rejection.

What's next for you?

It's very hard to know what to do next, once you make the film you've always wanted to make. How do you top that? I think I'm going to explore why science is important in the context of Africa.

Who is your favorite scientist character in a work of fiction and why?

It would have to be Lydgate in George Eliot's Middlemarch. Because he was a real person, not some ridiculous caricature. And because I love Middlemarch!

Related information

Learn more about Alom's project and join the debate on the website.