I studied physics at Cambridge University. Technically, I followed the ‘Natural Sciences’ course that saw me take maths, physics, chemistry and cell biology in my first year, maths and physics in my second year and finally specialise in physics alone in my final year. So, I have experience of a number of university level maths and science courses.
Most of the time involved discussing concepts and then solving problems or performing experiments. We completed titrations and synthesised aspirin in chemistry and studied Fresnel diffraction and radioactive decay in physics. I learned about the role of mitochondria in cells and how to etherise fruit flies. And I did a lot – and I mean a real lot – of sums. Pages and pages of them.
What I did not spend a great deal of time doing was discussing people and places. Occasionally, a lecturer would try and add a little human interest by relating an anecdote about a scientist. But this was rare and never the main point. We were not expected to remember these. The only time people became an object of study was when I took a short, optional unit in the history and philosophy of science, my main memory of which was writing an essay arguing against Richard Dawkins.
I sometimes wonder what people with a background in the humanities think science and maths degrees are all about. Do they imagine something like that history and philosophy of science unit? Do they think we have seminars discussing great scientists and their work?
Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, has a background in political science. The Times is reporting that she has written to Oxford’s student union in response to the killing of George Floyd in the U.S. and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests. In this letter, Richardson apparently informs students of a grant that has been made available to develop resources to ‘decolonise’ Oxford’s maths and science courses, “an area that is frequently overlooked”. The Times quotes Richardson as stating:
“Many departments in social sciences have begun work on making their curriculum more inclusive and adding diverse voices to it. This includes steps such as integrating race and gender questions into topics, embedding teaching on colonialism and empire into courses, changing reading lists to ensure substantial representation of a diverse range of voices, and ensuring better coverage of issues concerning the global South in syllabuses.”
The reading lists given to science students typically consist of textbooks that explain how to do particular calculations and the like, so what would it mean to ensure a ‘diverse range of voices’? I wonder how you would integrate race and gender questions into topics such as Fresnel diffraction. I have never looked into who Mr Fresnel was or what he did, but perhaps, if he is found out to be morally compromised by today’s standards, we could rename that particular form of diffraction after someone else. Is that the sort of thing we are talking about? If so, such a move would be both confusing and incidental – because the main focus will still be on doing the actual physics.
Unless, of course, we try to turn maths and science into humanities subjects – less technical stuff and more history and philosophy of science. Since the start of my career, I have been aware of people arguing for this shift in school science teaching, so perhaps this is a natural development.
If so, I wonder where future generations of people who can actually do science will come from? Presumably, not Oxford University.