Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Oxford Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science

The Simonyi Professorship Chair for the Public Understanding of Science was founded in 1995, by a donation from Dr Charles Simonyi. It is currently held by Professor Marcus du Sautoy, and based at Oxford University’s Mathematical Institute and Department for Continuing Education.


The aim of the Simonyi Professorship is to contribute to the understanding of science by the public. The chair is intended to be filled by a scientist of distinction in their field of expertise, and the Simonyi Professor may hold the post while also pursuing their scientific work. Just as important as scientific accolade is that he or she has a talent and interest in communicating science to a wide audience.

Primary goals

The task of communicating science to the layman is not a simple one. In particular it is imperative for the post holder to avoid oversimplifying ideas, and presenting exaggerated claims. The limits of current scientific knowledge should always be made clear to the public. Once done so, however, there is also a role for presenting speculative ideas, which can convey to non-scientists some of the excitement of doing true science.

From Charles Simonyi's Manifesto

“The chair is for ‘Public Understanding of Science’, that the holder will be expected to make important contributions to the public understanding of some scientific field rather than study the public’s perception of the same. By ‘public’ we mean the largest possible audience, provided, however, that people who have the power and ability to propagate or oppose the ideas (especially scholars in other sciences and in humanities, engineers, journalists, politicians, professionals, and artists) are not lost in the process. Here it is useful to distinguish between the roles of scholars and popularisers. The university chair is intended for accomplished scholars who have made original contributions to their field, and who are able to grasp the subject, when necessary, at the highest levels of abstraction. A populariser, on the other hand, focuses mainly on the size of the audience and frequently gets separated from the world of scholarship. Popularisers often write on immediate concerns or even fads. In some cases they seduce less educated audiences by offering a patronizingly oversimplified or exaggerated view of the state of the art or the scientific process itself. This is best seen in hindsight, as we remember the ‘giant brains’ computer books of yesteryear but I suspect many current science books will in time be recognized as having fallen into this category. While the role of populariser may still be valuable, nevertheless it is not one supported by this chair. The public’s expectation of scholars is high, and it is only fitting that we have a high expectation of the public.:

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