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.
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.
Because of the importance of communicating with as wide an audience as possible, the Simonyi Professor is not expected to undertake substantial teaching and administrative duties within Oxford University: any such efforts should be directed primarily towards the education of non-specialists. The Professor should communicate scientific ideas through a variety of media, in order to reach a wide range of people. These include, but are not limited to, public lectures, writing articles and books, and television and radio appearances. The Professor’s role in disseminating scientific knowledge is also expected to involve travel from Oxford to other cities and countries.
The Simonyi Lectures
The Simonyi Lectures are a series of annual lectures in Oxford. They were set up in 1999 by the Simonyi Professor, Richard Dawkins, in order to promote the public understanding of science. In his words:
The Simonyi Lecture will be an annual event, at least for the duration of my tenure, paid for through a donation by me to the New College Development Fund. Where the Simonyi Professorship is in Public Understanding of Science, my hope is that the Simonyi Lectures will attempt to mediate, within Oxford, between the sciences and those subjects which, for want of a better word, are sometimes call the Arts.
from Richard Dawkins’ speech after the 1st Simonyi Lecture dinner
The lectures are open to all. Each year, a speaker is invited to present a talk on a topic of their choice.
Charles Simonyi's manifesto
Since I am a computer scientist, it seems appropriate that the present description of my intentions to create a chair in “Public Understanding of Science” at Oxford University should be called a “program”! Just as a computer program sets the processor on an inexorable future course, shouldn’t this program guide the chair’s Appointing Committee for generations to come? Quite evidently, the metaphor is weak. Administrative affairs being as they are I can only vainly hope that the distinguished committee members will take my comments to heart before deciding on a new appointment. Yet I begrudge by no means the uncertainty and flexibility that is built into the appointment process so that the University can adapt, evolve, and flourish.
This flexibility can be used for experimentation and exploration of new arrangements but over time it can also result in an accumulating creep or drift in direction that may not even be noticed. The purpose of this program is then to be a fixed navigation point on the sea of possibilities. It says: this is where we were in 1995, this was the kernel of agreement between me, between the University, and between Prof. Richard Dawkins, the first occupant of the chair. Deviate from this point if you must, but do it knowingly. Return to it if you can.
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.
Understanding’ in this instance should be taken a little poetically as well as literally. The goal is for the public to appreciate the order and beauty of the abstract and natural worlds which is there, hidden, layer-upon-layer. To share the excitement and awe that scientists feel when confronting the greatest of riddles. To have empathy for the scientists who are humbled by the grandeur of it all. Those in the audience who reach the understanding sufficient to reveal the order and beauty in science will also gain greater insight into the connectedness of science and their everyday life.
Finally,‘ science’ here means not only the natural and mathematical sciences but also the history of science and the philosophy of science as well. However, preference should be given to specialties which express or achieve their results mainly by symbolic manipulation, such as Particle physics, Molecular biology, Cosmology, Genetics, Computer science, Linguistics, Brain research, and, of course Mathematics. The reason for this is more than a personal predilection. Symbolic expression enables the highest degree of abstraction and thence the utilization of powerful mathematical and data processing tools ensure tremendous progress. At the same time the very means of success tends to isolate the scientists from the lay audience and prevents the communication of the results. Considering the profoundly vital interdependence between the society at large and the scientific world, the dearth of effective information flow is positively dangerous.
In order to accomplish the above goals, the appointees to the chair must have a pedagogical range that goes beyond the traditional university setting. They should be able to communicate effectively with audiences of all kinds and in different media. Above all, they must approach the public with the utmost candour. Naturally, they will interact with political, religious, and other societal forces, but they must not, under any circumstances, let these forces affect the scientific validity of what they say. Conversely, they should be also candid about the limits of scientific knowledge at any given time, and communicate the uncertainties, frustrations, scientifically perplexing phenomena, and even the failures in their area of expertise.
Scientific speculation, when so labelled, and when the concept of speculation and its place in the scientific method has been made clear to the audience, can be very exciting. It is a very effective communication tool, and it is by no means discouraged.
We recognize that persons with these combined qualifications are rare. Therefore, the preferences listed above for particular scientific specialties should be taken secondary to the appointees’ pedagogical and communication talents.
The appointees should have the opportunity to continue their scientific work. This is best accomplished if their appointment in the Department closest to their field would be held jointly with the Department of Continuing Education. While being firmly based in Oxford the appointees should receive every possible support from the University for travel and for visiting professorships. In accordance to this, their teaching and administrative responsibilities within Oxford should be correspondingly limited and should be directed primarily towards the educations of non-specialists. They would be expected to write books and magazine articles in any medium for the popular as well as scientific audiences, participate in public lectures, whether through the University or otherwise and generally participate in the expression of the “Public Understanding of Science”.
There is always a potential danger that a benefaction can prove counterproductive if the first holder’s previous post is not filled when he or she vacates it. I make this gift on the assumption that Richard Dawkins’ existing post in the Department of Zoology will be filled, in a similar field, as a matter of routine when he vacates it.
I gratefully acknowledge the contribution from Prof. Dawkins, who provided me with a framework for the present program.
Bellevue 15 May 1995