The magic and wonder of science

I hated science as a child but have come to see that understanding it underpins the imagination

I have long been fascinated by science, which bored me rigid when I was a child. Nowadays, I think it's slightly different – my six-year-old, Louise, now gets involved in discussions about the big bang versus God (she's come down on the side of the big bang) and my 11-year-old, Eva, appears happy to accept that time is a relative rather than absolute value, which is fairly obvious given her patchy ability to make it to the school gates on schedule.

My elder daughters both took science subjects at A-level. However, my children's interest is not reflected in the wider world. Last year, it was revealed that around half of all state schools did not have a single girl studying A-level physics. Girls are no less capable, so I can only think that it is either the teaching that is at fault, or the lack of imagination about science, which is a wonderful store of real-life magic and wonder.

I have just published a novel for children on this subject, How to be Invisible. The idea of science seemed colourless and drab to me when I was growing up, but now I find it the most fascinating of all fields. To understand science is vital to underpinning the creative imagination. The main character in How to be Invisible, Strato Nyman, I felt compelled to make a boy because he is a physics nerd, and there aren't many girl geeks when it comes to that subject (although I do give him a female friend, Susan Brown, who has a penchant for biology).

Through these two characters , I do – rather didactically I suppose, but not, I hope, unentertainingly – explore concepts such as where life comes from, the fundamental subatomic nature of reality, the behaviour of energy and the origins of the universe. I cannot see how these questions would not be interesting compared with, say, the thoughts and behaviour of Kim Kardashian, but clearly a lot of young girls see them as irrelevant.

Well, they are irrelevant – at least to getting money, achieving status, being popular and looking good at a nightclub. What they are relevant to is the shape of your imagination, or rather, how you perceive the world to be.

Even the most rational and "common-sense" people hold unexamined assumptions – myths, if you like – about the way things work. If, ultimately, you think the world is only what you want it to be, you will end up like Strato's mother, Peaches, a new-age freak who lives a life of quiet self-delusion. But science shows us how the world really works, with all its uncertainty and oddness. However, I also try to suggest in the book that science is also a sort of mythology – that it seeks to rob the world of mystery and yet mystery is unassailable because there are certain questions science just can't answer.

I hated science as a child because it seemed so unmagical. But the moment I learned, for instance, that subatomic particles react to being looked at – a revelation that didn't come to me until I was in my 20s – I knew science was at the heart of everything mysterious.

When I later learned that we are all made of infinitely ancient stardust, that you can travel back in time (if you can travel fast enough), that your body is a process rather than a thing, that everything comes out of nothing (the so-called quantum froth), that matter is mainly made of empty space – then you realise that "we are such stuff as dreams are made on".

And what is more liable to appeal to girls than such a magnificently quirky vision – which has the remarkable bonus of being absolutely true?

How to be Invisible is published by Walker Books, £6.99

Contributor

Tim Lott

The GuardianTramp

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