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Meet the Rough Scientists

Carriacou Interview: Mike Bullivant

Mike Bullivant

What do you do?
I work as a course manager at the Open University helping to produce Chemistry courses.

How and why did you end up working in science?
I ended up working in science largely because of the inspirational Chemistry teacher I had at school.

Who in science do you admire today?
One of the people I really admire in science today is Richard Dawkins, who's a Professor at Oxford for the Public Understanding of Science. And I think he's such an effective communicator and that's what science needs: people who can communicate with the general public about science and the exciting side of science.

If you weren't a scientist, what do you think you would have done instead?
If I hadn't been a scientist I would have loved to have been an airline pilot, but I think that's a little optimistic on my part! You know, life is like a river — you just throw yourself into it and you get swept along. I got swept into the branch of the river that said Chemistry.

How would you define the differences between the scientific theory and Rough Science practice — what problems are you encountering?
Things just don't go the way you want them to, particularly in an environment like this where we're not working in a fully-equipped laboratory. Scientific theory is okay but when you come down to doing it in this kind of environment, it's very, very difficult.

What sort of things are difficult?
It's things like the chemical reactions. You need heat and sometimes chemical reactions only happen when you've got a particular temperature — if it's too hot it'll produce something else, if it's too cold it won't react at all. It's very hit and miss in the chemical reactions I'm doing.

Do you see the problems in terms of the individual scientific disciplines, or do you need a more holistic approach?
Well, some of the challenges we've been set have just needed one scientific discipline. Like the the preparation of the ether, for example, there's no way that that any of the others could have helped me with that. But the nice thing about Rough Science is that some of the challenges have brought all disciplines together, and I think that the way science is going it's becoming more and more multidisciplinary.

What have you learned?
So one of the things I've learned during this series is that you shouldn't despair when things don't go right. I mean, a lot of things have gone wrong for me in this in this particular series but you mustn't let them get you down. If we had more time we could have done some of the challenges. That's the frustrating thing about Rough Science — you're limited to three days and you're rushing around like a mad thing. So if day one doesn't go right you've got two days left — don't let your despair of day one affect what you do on day two and day three.

And do you think that has wider implications for anyone trying science?
Well yeah, and for life in general. I mean, it does have a wider implication. I think people take the attitude don't get down when things go wrong, pick yourself up, brush yourself down and start all over again. But I take the attitude that if at first you don't succeed don't try hang gliding!

Are you concerned about any recent scientific issues?
There are quite a few, yeah. I don't think the politicians and the law makers are keeping up with some of the advances in science — things like genetic engineering where the ethical questions are following the science. And that's a real problem because a lot of the time the law makers aren't informed about the science. That's why people in the House of Lords, people like Robert Winston who are very good communicators of science are listened to by politicians. You know, it's important they're listened to because science does raise a lot of ethical questions. But it's often post hoc when we answer those questions.

Why is science important?
Science is so important because it's changed over the last hundred years. It's made life a lot more comfortable. I mean, a lot of the things that we're surrounded by are products of science and ultimately technology and we take them for granted: the colour in the world, the colour around us — not the natural colour but the synthetic colours. More and more things are synthetic, are products of scientific discovery and technological application. I think they've been around for so long that we take them for granted. But if we really look closely we'll see that fruits of scientific endeavour are all about us.

Why should we bother trying to understand it?
Well, of course, you don't need to understand science. It's like watching television — you don't need to know how the set works to be able to get some enjoyment from it. But I think the quality of life can be improved just by knowing, for example, how a bird's wing works. Bio-engineering and things like that are just wonderful, remarkable. It's an extremely complex world and I sometimes get the impression that the general public think that scientists will have all the answers if you throw enough money at the problems. But that's an arrogant attitude because we don't even know the questions yet.

How is science fun?
Science is fun for me because it means getting your hands dirty and I'm always saying Chemistry is like cookery — a bit of this, a bit of that, heat it up — and I just love that transformation. Drop a copper coin in nitric acid and you get these brown fumes coming off and a green solution forming. Now that transformation for me is magical — it's like alchemy, it's like a magician, and that's fun. But there are too many people going round saying "science is fun" and many people just back off when they hear those two words in conjunction.

What do you think is the largest impediment to scientific advances at present?
One of the biggest impediments these days is research funding. Now I'm not asking for governments to throw lots and lots of money at research but they could certainly throw a lot more money at us, and be more open to the possibilities of failure as well. The people who do the funding are always looking for an application at the end of it and I think the blue sky research where people don't know what the outcomes are going to be fall by the wayside as a result of that. There've been some remarkable discoveries as a result of people being allowed to go off on their own track without any end point in sight.

How does the Media affect scientific research?
I don't think the Media affects scientific research that much. What they do is affect the public's perception of science and scientists and I think that's dangerous because often they're misinformed and they pass on that misinformation. That's where scientists come in because scientists have a responsibility to explain their science to the Media. Often the words that they say are in the hands of people who aren't familiar with the language that's being used. But that's partly the fault of the scientist and partly the fault of the Media who distort and sensationalise. The Media do have a role in generating interest but I think they misuse that role. I wish they'd just take a bit more of a responsible attitude towards reporting science correctly.

On a day-to-day basis, what scientific discovery do you find essential?
It's the trivial things. There are so many little aspects of my life that would be so much more difficult without science, soap for instance.

What do you find hardest to cope with in your job as a scientist?
E-mails. I'm desk-bound so e-mail is very intrusive. And also having so much to do in such a short space of time. You never get any thinking time, you never get any downtime — there's always a job there to be done, that's the problem.

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What would you really like to be good at?
Ooh everything. I'd like to be really good at something instead of being mediocre at everything.

What's the difference between art and science?
If you're a scientist and you have an understanding of science then there isn't the same kind of kudos attached to it — that's such a pity. They're both human endeavour and they're not so different. This two cultures thing is a lot of nonsense I feel sometimes.

If you were to make a scientific discovery and become very rich, what would you do with the cash?
If I became very rich as a result of scientific discovery I think I'd give it away to my friends.