Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Bon Voyage Tim Peake

The charming Tim Peake, ex army and general good guy is joining the small community of Brits who have made it to outer space. I'm excited in a way that I haven't been since Helen Sharman became the first British person in space. I'm excited because we're going out to space, and that we are going to do some science. Or something - the details don't matter much do they? Tim's going to run the London marathon from space. Yay. That's enough for us, isn't it? Well, isn't it?

I identified with Helen back in 1991 as she was an ordinary person working as a chemist and she was from Sheffield. As someone who had dreams of space travel (don't laugh) it made the whole possibility a lot more immediate. She's working for Imperial College now, and while she's been working to engage the public with science she's also had the chance to return to some Chemistry too. A nice article from the Imperial College here. She was the first, yes, and its important to mark that but other visits need to have more substance.

Helen was in space for 7 days, working scientific experiments for Russia as the private funding from the UK didn't work out. This time Tim goes to do science on the International space station with the financial backing of the UK, all £80 million of it. According to the UK Gov website,  Minister for Universities and Science Jo Johnson said:

"Our £80 million investment in the International Space Station programme supports pioneering research and will inspire Britain’s next generation of scientists and engineers to push the boundaries of science here on Earth."

While I'm excited because of the personal connection, and with the pleasure that comes from knowing that Tim works with children to encourage love of science, I have to ask this. What science exactly is he doing? Are we going to see any glimpses of this, conveyed in a meaningful way for adults and children to engage with? Or are we going to be deluged with more rah rah  he's running a marathon in space? Also, he's doing science? Please stop insulting my intelligence by diluting the science.

There may be good reasons why the full extent of the experiments can't be revealed - I don't know copyright? The need to shield it from competitors? Or are the science agencies working on the assumption that the general public are ignorant of or uninterested in the finer details of science? Must we be spoon fed details of an immediate benefit to everyday life like the use of satnavs? I think not. For there to be a meaningful engagement, long-term with this project, there must be a little more detail apart from "he's measuring stuff". This is part of the problem - going to schools individually isn't going to be enough. To engage with the public it has to be done whole-scale for all ages.

So come on ESA - a bit more detail about the science please. You won't frighten the horses.

Picture courtesy of the NASA Royalty-free picture archive here