Archimedes or Stephenson? Chi Onwurah ponders

Written by Chi Onwurah MP Friday, 06 April 2012 15:22
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Chi Onwurah is the MP for Newcastle Upon Tyne.

Chi's educational and employment expertise is in science and innovation and she was, before becoming an MP, head of Telecoms Technology at Ofcom as well as holding various roles in the private sector.

In 2010, Chi was appointed shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills. 


''I cannot remember a time when I was not interested in science. On the council estate where I grew up there were no scientists but there were libraries full of science books. And teachers at my primary school did not so much bring text books to life as enchant you into science so you were captured by the magic of it.


I clearly remember learning how Archimedes was inspired to discover the principle of displacement after immersing himself in a hot bath.  His cousin the King was worried his crown was made of silver and bronze instead of the more expensive gold he had paid for.  As the water slopped over the side of his bath, Archimedes realised that the amount of water he displaced was equal to his volume, and that once he knew the volume of the crown, and its weight, he could tell the King if it was pure gold or not.

Archimedes leapt from the bath and ran naked through the streets of Syracuse shouting ‘Eureka’.  I ran home, filled the kitchen sink with water and proceeded to submerge all manner of pots and pans until I had proven Archimedes discovery to my own satisfaction.  My mother was not best pleased but I explained that she was lucky I was fully dressed and she would have to grow accustomed to this sort of behaviour now she had a scientist in the family.


Fortunately for my mother’s sanity, my teachers had less flamboyant role models to offer me closer to home. 


George Stephenson grew up in poverty in Wylam, a mining village ten miles from where I lived.  Illiterate till the age of 18, he was fascinated by the machinery of the mines in which he worked.  At night he paid a local farmer to teach him to read, so he could follow engineering manuals. During the day he was inspired to put science to the service of his fellow colliery workers tackling the dangers they faced.  His own father was blinded in a mining accident. In 1812, ninety two men and boys died in the Felling Pit explosion, eight miles from where Stephenson lived.


Through a process of trial and error Stephenson set about designing a ‘safety lamp’, which could be used in mines without causing explosions.  In 1815 he succeeded. There followed a long drawn out battle with Sir Humphry Davy, inventor of the Davy lamp, an eminent scientist who could not believe that an illiterate colliery worker could have matched his own invention.  The battle reputedly gave Stephenson a life-long distrust of London-based, theoretical, scientific experts.[i]  Something many of his compatriots share to this day.


After the safety lamp Stephenson turned his attention to the most visible part of the coal mining industry, the movement of coal.  With his son Robert, he improved upon the existing rudimentary steam engines.  In 1829 their engine ‘the Rocket’ won the competition for the Liverpool to Manchester Railway. George Stephenson was now world famous.


Archimedes went on to invent the screw that bears his name and the principle of the lever.  Stephenson’s trains went all around the world and his screw arch bridge was the first to cross a railway at an angle.


I have huge admiration for Archimedes, but my respect is tempered by the knowledge that he was a rich and privileged man in a slave society that gave him the leisure to solve some of the great scientific problems of the age.  Stephenson on the other hand was born with nothing, was self taught and addressed his genius to tackling the problems that the people around him faced.

The question I find myself asking is, why is it that 2223 years after the death of Archimedes but only 153 years after the death of Stephenson, scientists resemble the former so much more than the latter?


I write as someone with an enduring love of science and technology.  But I am much less enamoured of the fact that when I attend Royal Society events or other gatherings of eminent scientists I am all too literally in a class of my own.  Engineering is less affluent but drawn even more exclusively from a narrow male demographic.  That cannot be right.


Class, science and getting your hands dirty


The predominance of those from more privileged backgrounds is not limited to science or to the UK.  In his book ‘Chavs, the demonization of the working class’[ii], Owen Jones describes at some length the limited socio-economic make-up of much of the media and its detrimental consequences.  Though the book was reviewed in papers of all political colours, not one journalist took issue with Owen’s characterisation of the media or contested his conclusion that media from which working class people were absent were more likely to actively or passively allow for the demonization of working class people.


To find out more, visit: The Red Book

[i] Davies, Hunter (1975). George Stephenson. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. ISBN 0-297-76934-0.

[ii] Owen Jones Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class Verso ISBN-10: 184467696X

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