Putting ET into education

Putting ET into education: An interview with Mark Brake and Neil Hook

Malcolm Smith, FBIS


I spent a fascinating and wide-ranging hour in the company of Professor Mark Brake and theologian Rev Neil Hook. They had been invited to Canterbury in mid-April to give a paper at the University of Kent’s UK astrobiology conference. The theme? The world’s first undergraduate BSc. degree in astrobiology – the search for life in the universe – run from their home institution, the University of Glamorgan, south Wales.

With a total project cost of around £1m, the University of Glamorgan runs the world’s largest astrobiology outreach course. Over four years the target is to cater for 750 accredited students – and by year three (2006) the total stands at 607 students. The European Union (EU) provided funding for the astrobiology outreach course via its European Social Fund. That the EU provides funding for such science outreach was, in Brake’s own words “rather unusual”.

Three different space-related degree programmes are offered at Glamorgan, covering astrobiology, astronomy and science fiction. The three-year astrobiology BSc. degree contains modules in astrophysics and biology, whilst astronomy teaching follows the origins of science all the way from the hand axe to the H-bomb. The science fiction and culture degree course looks at the philosophy, history and evolution of science fiction within popular culture; all of the degree courses contain astrobiology modules.

Glamorgan’s approach focuses on developing critical thinking skills, not just the regurgitation of fact. Students don’t need a traditional hard science background, with only one science “A” level from the required three permitting admission to a degree course. A “big picture” approach to cosmology is adopted, not just looking at the physics, but also at how various theoretical models originate, live, evolve and die based on evidence, so giving both the context and the evolution of how we reached our current understanding. The importance of science communication skills is also taught, and student evaluations are based on presentations, not just solely from exams.

An evangelical approach to astrobiology

NASA set up an Astrobiology Institute (NAI) in 1998, which grew out of a 1996 roadmap suggesting that such research should be both interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary. However it wasn’t until attending a NASA-Ames astrobiology research conference in 2004 that Brake and Hook realised how exceptional their course was. It was then they discovered “Everybody else’s idea of outreach is opening the lab doors one day a year – whereas ours is more evangelical.”

Commenting on their planned appearance at a science festival later, Brake adds with amusing irony, “There’s a lot of saleability in the two of us: the atheist and the vicar!” This is further reflected through a busy UK lecture and debate tour that includes dates into early autumn.

A former Open University lecturer, Brake feels Glamorgan’s course could be described as astronomy for the masses. Having taught astronomy in the 1990s, he felt no attention was given to the humanistic elements by the existing approaches, which instead seemed to focus entirely on the mathematical and astrophysical aspects.

Exploring the boundaries of both human and scientific experience when researching his courses, Brake has encountered some interesting answers to some very old – but nonetheless still controversial – questions. Travelling in America once, he asked about science, evolution and intelligent design, and received the answer “To deny the findings of science is to deny the God-given intelligence scientists have.” A reply well worth bearing in mind when dealing with some of the irrational attitudes he has had to face from the UK public when discussing astrobiology outreach topics.

Brake feels there has been a revolution going on in astronomy, over the last ten to fifteen years. The development of astrobiology as a new multidisciplinary field has been spurred on by increasingly frequent discoveries of extra-solar planets, and stories such as the possible fossil bacteria in Martian meteorite ALH84001. Something particularly encouraging which he thinks reflects this new, much broader approach was the European Space Agency’s canvassing of science fiction fans – not just science fiction authors – about their own suggestions for future space missions.

A popular science book – most definitely not a textbook they are keen to emphasise – is in the final stages of completion, to be published by Macmillan. The Glamorgan-based authors are putting the finishing touches to a work examining the role and representation – “the symbiosis” adds Brake helpfully – of science in science fiction. Entitled “Different Engines: How science drives fiction and fiction drives science”, it concerns the relationship between the two, and places science fiction within the culture of science, something that surprisingly has not been done before, it seems.

Vive la difference!

So what are they doing differently with their book? As a theologian Hook comes from an arts and humanities background. Attending science fiction conferences he meets other science fiction academics – either lecturers coming from Creative Writing or English department backgrounds. Whilst they might run modules on science fiction, Hook, working within Glamorgan’s science department, uses science fiction as a tool for science communication, both in the present and the past. Rather than abstracting knowledge, the authors of “Different Engines” aim to contextualise it, by getting readers involved in their subject, and creating word pictures of the scientists involved.

Depending on your definition of science fiction, the genre can be traced back at least 200 years and – suggest Brake and Hook – back 400 years: the earliest work being Kepler’s “Somnium” from 1634, and Bishop Francis Godwin’s “The man in the moon”, in 1638. A long history indeed.

Another area the authors address is the idea that science fiction is the conscience of science, and that from the Enlightenment science became an overly rationalised affair.

“The discovery of extra-solar planets and the interest in astrobiology is a continuation of the Copernican revolution of 1543. It’s only now we have the instrumentation to be able to support some of the more profound ideas”, says Brake, adding that the burning of Giorda
no Bruno
, in 1600 Rome illustrated the Catholic church’s initial, heretical, attitude to the idea of the plurality of inhabited worlds.

Hence to do justice to astrobiology – and the profound nature of the questions it addresses – Brake and Hook feel it should be studied as a multidisciplinary subject, i.e. not just in scientific terms but also in philosophical and psycho-cultural terms.

One leading practical astrobiologist, whose work is used in Glamorgan’s course, is Steven Dick, from the US Naval Observatory. His book “Many Worlds” looks at the consequence of the plurality of worlds debate in terms of the ordinary people in the street, with sociologists, psychologists and theologians of different faiths all considering the implications of the discovery of extraterrestrial life. Glamorgan’s students are encouraged to think in broadly similar terms. By contrast it could be said many of the scientists active within astrobiology today are so focused in their own areas of research they don’t consider its broader consequences, and how this might impact on the general public. From this Brake makes another interesting observation:

“A result of the way modern science is funded, and the essentially conservative nature of science, means that if an area of research is to be taken seriously you must be “talking the latest talk” to get research funding. However science is driven by the sceptical spirit, meaning it should ask questions about everything, including the paradigm of the day.”

Defining what science is

He suggests that for some topics funding would not be forthcoming if they explored research areas that undermined the current paradigm. So what is science? The best definition of science Brake has heard recently was from a colleague, Carol Oliver, of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology (ACA). The ACA’s working definition of science is: 

“The best (implying that there are others) current (implying that it is transient) interpretation of the natural world” – meaning it may become outmoded in the future.

Brake goes on to highlight Popper’s famous definition of science – that it is falsifiable (i.e. if it is not falsifiable then it is not science) and cautions against the entrenched positions that may develop in any scientific debate: something is or is not.To sum up, the concentration of the majority of work at Glamorgan is on teaching science communication and critical thinking, rather than on pure scientific research. Quoting a picture of an alien craft hovering above the Earth from his son’s English homework composition and the assignment question “When is this event taking place?” Brake challenges another chronological assumption. Whilst the correct answer was “the future”, he points out it could just have easily have been in the past!

With such a broad minded philosophical approach to perhaps the biggest question in science, Glamorgan’s students are well equipped for the 21st century and beyond. 

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