Science week assembly

What is British Science Week?

Firstly, I am convinced that British science week was devised by a Mathematician, British Science Week is 10 days long so they’ve turned it decimal.

Geeky jokes aside, Science week offers us all an opportunity to look at where science lives within our lives. It’s an opportunity for us to look at how science benefits us and the impact it has had upon our lives. Many of you may sit here and ask why you need to know that acid + metal gives salt and hydrogen. Or if you aren’t going to be a doctor, why do you need to know that the gall bladder stores bile and why oh why do we need to be able to define an isotope if we aren’t going to be a nuclear physicist?

You are right, beyond getting a GCSE these facts aren’t going to help you, but the skills you learnt from science will.

The skills and attributes of a good scientists are applicable to many areas of everyone’s lives.

How can a composer produce new sound worlds without curiosity and creativity? How can a violinist work with an orchestra if they have no accuracy? An instrument repairer needs to have superb powers of observation to make and repair instruments. All these are skills that science builds.

I’d like to introduce you to someone who had these skills, Joseph Priestley, the grandfather of chemistry

Priestley, wanted to be remembered as a teacher. But in addition to this he was a scholar, a scientist, a theologian, and the man who discovered oxygen.

Bizarrely, he would be very upset if he were around today and overheard that he was the discoverer of oxygen. If you were to read his notes, you would have no idea that he had anything to do with the substance oxygen. Priestley’s aim was to show that a substance of was pure energy existed in air. He called this substance phlogiston

In order to do this, he made observations like these.

<<<<Take oxygen gas jar, place glowing splint inside>>>>

<<<<candle in beaker>>>>

He also did some less pleasant experiments with mice, which I won’t demonstrate here to show that this substance phlogiston also supported life. Or rather the lack of it didn’t…

With all of his observations he decided that there must be an invisible substance in air which not only supported life, but also a flame. He called this ‘energy’ Phlogiston.

What’s odd is that we know that this is just wrong.

Even now, 200 years after Priestley’s death we still celebrate his work, I was lucky enough to attend a Royal Society of Chemistry lecture in London a few years ago along with 100’s of lecturers and chemical researchers who went to celebrate the life and works of Priestley. Why do we celebrate Priestley?

Well it’s because he was the first to really look at life scientifically and whilst his conclusions were wrong at the time, the way that he worked set the standard for all scientists following in his footsteps. Priestley certainly exhibited the skills of a scientist.

Without the skills of a good scientist he could never have made the discovery of oxygen. He needed Creativity to believe that there was something there he didn’t yet know existed. He needed his curiosity to want to find out what was in the air. He needed accuracy to design an experiment to test his ideas out carefully without the possibility that there was another explanation. His powers of observation led him to his conclusions and then his superb communication skills meant he was able to tell the world about his discovery.

Whilst Priestley fundamentally got the knowledge bit wrong, his scientific skills led the way for others to develop his ideas. Imagine not having the industrial revolution because we didn’t yet understand combustion? Where would we be? We would be very unlikely to have electricity in the same quantity. Would we have even the most basic computers yet? What about spotify or youtube and let’s not start on snapchat, Instagram and twitter!?

Now why am I standing up here talking about science and Joseph Priestley? Because the first question that comes to mind is this:

  • ”How does this affect us at the Purcell School.”

Of course many of you sat in this hall want to go on to study music of some form or another.

But, if we look at the skills of a good scientist, for a minute I’d like to suggest we think about the skills of a good musician.

Would this list look out of place with a different title?

So, this week, in order to help us think about the science in our lives there are going to be a large number of events and activities going on. Many of your academic lessons will include a science based theme. Our school physio will be talking about your muscles, in the kitchen we’ll be looking at how food can affect you, we’ve got scientists coming in to talk about their work with musicians, technicians showing their skills and best of all, just like all science, it’ll fit into your normal everyday goings on.

Beyond enjoying some of the science events this week, I would like to finish by encouraging you to think about the science in your lives this week. How could you apply those 5 scientific skills to the way you work?