As part of a program to promote science at second level my Leaving Cert physics teacher asked me back to give a talk. I decided to focus on something that the curriculum certainly never does, the stuff we DON’T know. The curriculum teaches science as a set of laws and equations. It all seems very much set in stone, almost like commandments chiseled into tablets. What the curriculum doesn’t really teach kids is how science evolves or how it is evolving today. Right now scientists are trying to thrash out some really very fundamental questions about the universe we all live in. It’s the continuation of a never-ending epic struggle to better understand our universe. Students generally don’t get to see that, so I dedicated my talk to explaining just two of those very fundamental mysteries which scientists are trying to get to the bottom of right now.

My talk was yesterday (Friday) and I was on leave all of last week so I had a lot of time decide on an angle for my talk. I thought of going for the “wow” strategy – some pretty Hubble Space Telescope images and some discussion on Astronomy perhaps. I would have enjoyed giving that talk, after all, Astronomy is probably my biggest passion. But I decided against that – it wouldn’t have had any real message. Then I thought of putting on my skeptic’s hat and having a go at the loony fringe on the religious right. I certainly could have gotten my teeth into that! But really, that would have been a very negative message. So, instead I opted for a positive talk, and concentrated on telling the story of science. Where it’s come from over the last hundred years and, more importantly, where its going – into the vast open spaces where science meets the un-known, where there is ample room for fresh young minds with lots of interest and enthusiasm. So, it was a talk that concentrated, not on giving answers, but on posing questions to which we don’t have the answers – yet. Well, that’s the theory anyhow. Not sure how well I succeeded but I’ve posted a PDF of the slides from my talk so you can have a look yourself.

Last month it was 10 years since I last set foot in my old school. That was the day I collected my leaving cert results (for non-Irish people those are state-exams that determine the third level courses you can take). It was very strange to drive up the steep driveway to the school with it’s high walls holding back the gym and the all-weather pitch. The first thing that struck me was how little had changed. It was like I’d been gone a few weeks, not a decade. There were a few very obvious cosmetic changes, a new coat of paint (in much brighter colors) and indeed a new and grander name for the place, but it’s essence was still the same. Gone is the Cavan Vocational School, in it’s place, Breifne College. Gone too is the old principle, Eugene Lynch, a man I had a lot of respect for, even while I was a student. He had a great ability to see the potential in everyone and an ability to stop them from throwing it away. And yet, there were a lot of familiar faces in the staff room, thankfully they were all smiling and welcoming, I guess I must have left on good terms way back in 1997 šŸ™‚

The vast majority of my visit was punctuated with bursts of recognition and nostalgia, my old desk in the science lab, my old seat in the mall, the school library, still mostly devoid of books and used as an assembly hall. I could have worn my old uniform and not stood out at all because the students were still wearing the same grey trousers, grey shirt, blue and grey stripped tie, and blue jumper with yellow crest and grey stripes on the arms. However, there were a few very strange differences, firstly, I was addressing my old teachers by their first names! Secondly, I was the exotic outsider being stared at as I went down the corridor because I was the one not in blue and grey. It was also very strange to cross the threshold into the staff room. That was totally out of bounds to students and we only ever got to glance in the door as we waited for a teacher. To enter it and to sit down on one of the couches was very very strange. Then, as I was about to give my talk I remembered a day back in my school years when a former student who had gone on to become a medic of some sort came back for a visit to the school to tell us all about his exploits in some far flung part of the world fighting disease. I remember thinking “some day I’ll be back here giving a talk”. I don’t think I deserve to be listened to even half as much as he did, but it was a memory I hadn’t remembered till I was back in the library. Funny how places can trigger memories.

I’m rambling on a bit so I’ll stop now. The bottom line is that it was great to be back in ‘ the tech’. I just hope that the students who had to endure my ramblings for 45 minutes got even a tenth of the enjoyment out of my talk that I got from my visit.