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[August 18, 2014]
Christmas lectures hope to revive the lost joy of tinkering with our gadgets: BBC4 talks will encourage budding engineers to try creative experimentation
(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) How to hack household technology and turn everyday gadgets into radical new devices will be the theme of Britain's most prestigious public science lectures this year.
Danielle George, at Manchester University, will reclaim the lost joy of tinkering in her Royal Institution Christmas Lectures and demonstrate how, with some creative thinking, common devices from lightbulbs to smartphones and electric motors can be transformed in ways that could change the world.
"I want to ask how far can we go?" said George, a professor of radio frequency engineering, who among other projects works on the Square Kilometre Array, the largest radio telescope in the world. "Hopefully, people will find out that the only limitation is their imagination." Through her lecture series, Sparks Will Fly: How to Hack Your Home, George will explore how household technology can be used to take control of devices on the other side of the world, to monitor how well people recover from accidents, and even make contact with the International Space Station.
The Christmas lectures, which began in 1825 and were made famous by the likes of Michael Faraday, Sir David Attenborough and Carl Sagan, will this year be broadcast on BBC4 on three consecutive days over the Christmas period. George will be the sixth woman to present the lectures, but the third since 2009.
She told the Guardian that the advent of the iPod and the arrival of smartphones marked the start of a dark age for tinkering, when gadgets became powerful and ubiquitous but were never taken apart, reassembled and repurposed. Now, she said, new technologies, including cheap programmable units such as the Raspberry Pi, are ushering in a new era of home experimentation.
"We are really coming through the period where everything was a black box and people are starting to tinker again like the old ham radio enthusiasts," George said. "Never has there been a generation that is so well equipped to innovate and create in electronics and engineering. I want them to tinker and to know they can really make a difference." Born and raised in Newcastle, George became fascinated with science and how the world worked while at school. Her parents bought her a cheap chemistry set and, later, a microscope. "I used to take the wings off flies, much to my sisters' dismay, and make them look at them under the microscope," she said. But at the age of eight, it was a telescope that made the greatest impact, allowing her to watch lunar eclipses from her bedroom window. It was then that she saw how maths and physics could be applied in the real world.
The Royal Institution lectures were an essential part of her family Christmas, and so being invited to present them was an honour, she said. "You look at it with half excitement, half trepidation." George considers herself lucky to have found her way into engineering, but is dismayed at how engineers are viewed in Britain. "We have a real problem with the word 'engineering' in this country.
"If you look at Germany, the term is protected - you're a professional in same way as doctors and lawyers - because they appreciate that engineers are solving great challenges. In Britain, the public perception is not there." She said part of the problem came from parents and teachers, who were the greatest influences on young children. If parents felt uncomfortable with maths, and physics teachers were not well qualified and enthusiastic, she said, their attitudes might rub off on the children. She praised TV programmes such as Nina and the Neurons on the BBC's CBeebies channel, which explains how engineers - as well as scientists - tackle problems. "I think small steps like that can be very influential," she said.
Beyond the need for engineers in general, there was a need for more women in the field, George added. According to the Royal Academy of Engineering only 6% of professional engineers are women. Meanwhile, figures from the Higher Education Funding Council for England show that the proportions of women in engineering, computer science and physics all declined in the three years to 2011-12, and remained static in mathematics.
"We need more engineers and we need more female engineers, because workplaces benefit from the mix," George said. "I think the female engineer will bring a different dimension to that of a male engineer. It's not better, it's not worse, it's just different. And as a team you'll change the world in a much more effective way." Captions: Danielle George, who listened to the Royal Institution lectures as a child, says the invitation to present them fills her with excitement and trepidation Photograph: Paul Wilkinson (c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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