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A new currency

February 14, 2011

Today is the fortieth anniversary of the decimalisation of UK currency. This marked the end of Britain’s arcane imperial system of coinage, and heralded a brave new world of bright shiny copper and silver coins which obeyed simple, sane rules like 100 pennies to a pound – rather than the previous 14o. Children of the nation rejoiced. A trip to the sweet shop no longer involved a hundredweight of mathematical voodoo for a quarter ounce of midget gems.

I was a child of eight when decimalisation happened. But the reason I remember it with particular clarity is that I experienced it through the polythene window of an oxygen tent. I was in a hospital ward, seriously ill with pneumonia –  a beneficiary of clinical practices and scientific insights that had transformed the century I lived in. For the first time in my family’s social history, a child like me could hope to survive such an illness.

It was progress writ large. A public good that was transforming the relationship ordinary citizens had with people who wear white coats. It would transform the way we think about science, and the way we hope about its products. It would give our relationship with scientists a new face, and a new value. A new currency.

February 15th 1971. My father comes to visit me in hospital. He’s smiling. In his hands he holds up a commemorative strip of new coins, which he presses to the plastic window of the oxygen tent. I smile back through the condensation and the pain.

An oxygen tent is a simple but effective device. It is a plastic tent that hangs over a bed, sealing off the environment so that oxygen enriched air can be administered to the patient. It also keeps humidity high, so the lungs don’t dry out. I remember that well. I sweated profusely, the sheets soaked with it. My dad hated my discomfort, but was far too respectful of authority to question the medical wisdom of it. I can still see his pensive face through the fogged plastic sheeting.

Yet dad remained hopeful. He placed most of his hope on the other part of my treatment. This was the three-times-a-day visit of the nurse to inject me in the backside with intravenous Penicillin. My father loved Penicillin. He really loved it. Not just a that’s-a-great-drug kind of love, but a fully-fledged worship of the miraculous. And he had good reason.

June 1944. My father is a commando, racing up a Normandy beach in a battle that surpasses any horror Spielberg can imagine. He is just twenty years old. He reaches a sea wall as a German grenade is hurled from the other side. He turns to protect himself, and receives fifty separate, filthy shrapnel wounds deep into his body. In every previous battle in recorded history – Sumerian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Napoleonic – a deep, dirty wound is blood poisoning and death to a soldier. Every battle until this one.

My father doesn’t die. The allies have a new secret drug for their wounded troops. As the days pass in the infirmary, he watches the gashes on his body shrink and heal. He is astonished. Penicillin. Fleming’s discovery, industrialised by Florey. Society had a new language with which to describe its hope. A new currency with which to value life. It wore a white coat.

I got better. Years later, there would be a sad reversal of our roles. 1984. I was twenty one. I watched by the hospital bed as my father faded with heart disease. Yet the white coats were there with their merciful pain relief. No longer was death the prolonged agony of a Victorian garret, but a bearable thing that allowed a family to spend its last precious words of kindness in peace. A new currency.

So why does my memory of little coins take me to these things, and to thoughts of science communication?

Because what links all of those events is the clinical background in which those mercies took place. The bleeping of the medical equipment. The smell of disinfectant. The sterilised instruments. The starched uniforms. The organised and logical air of the staff. The methodologies that underpinned the discoveries. Simple, sane rules. It was the currency of science, and its applications.

Most importantly, this ‘scientised’ environment was now the backdrop to the most significant events in ordinary people’s lives. Birth. War. illness. Death. No longer was it the dim, damp churches which drew our hopes and fears. It was a clean, white, human ward. And it could deliver on promises with a decimal precision. Not in some vague hereafter. Right now.

Yet the same white coats were worn by those who designed the weapons that wounded my father. By those who concocted the chemical filth that polluted the nearby river of my childhood. By those that mutated the limbs of the children in my playground – the victims of Thalidomide. That enabled the irradiation of Kiev and Cumbria in 1986. This was a fickle kind of mercy.

Recently, as part of my MSc, I’ve been studying the comments of scientists on certain blogs – talking to each other about science’s relationship with “the public” (however one might define ‘not-science’) – and debating what it actually means to communicate science to the wider society. Some of the language of science practitioners about non-specialists was vitriolic and deeply condescending. What astonishes me about some of the comment is the enduring idea that the communication of the meaning of science is entirely within the gift of scientists. That it is some sort of ‘reserve currency’ of knowledge held by the elite few, which can be thrown as shiny new coins to the grateful masses on a “need to know” – or a “can be bothered to tell” basis.

Yet society is communicating its own meanings for science every single day. All by itself. Without the help of scientists. In every hospital, through every shiny mobile phone, in red-state chapels, on the factory floor, through every oil spill, on TV, on the Internet, in every science fiction blockbuster, on every billboard advertising the latest hairspray. Are some of these meanings inaccurate? Misleading? Dangerous? From a scientific point of view – absolutely!

But since when was the real business of life and death ever described from a purely “scientific point of view”?

The real value in the currency of public science is significance, not facts. What it means to us, not what it is. Citizens get science. They even like it. They know what it can be. And also how it can hurt them. They’ve taken the drugs. They’ve seen the mushroom clouds. They’ve watched their children saved by it, and watched it kill others. So should scientists get in a huff and slam the lab door behind them if the public seem too ungrateful, or too religious, or too political, or too superstitious?  Sure, go ahead. But the conversation will continue outside without you – accurate or not. And when you finally reappear, pleading to be understood – and funded – maybe the conversation will have moved away from you for good. Because maybe the conversation never belonged to science in the first place.

The public doesn’t need to be spoon-fed semantics, or methodologies, or lectured on its own ignorance. Maybe people don’t need another hundredweight of scientific voodoo. Perhaps they just need to trust that this brilliant, brave new currency is more valuable than the old. And that the person in the white coat is holding penicillin, and not another hand grenade.

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