Carriacou Interview: Mike Bullivant
I work as a course manager at the Open University helping to produce Chemistry
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
If I became very rich as a result of scientific discovery I think I'd
give it away to my friends.
Mike's main page
Major funding for Rough Science was provided by the National Science Foundation. Corporate funding was provided by Subaru.
Copyright © 2002 The Open University and WETA.