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Helen Keen


Helen Keen is an English comedian.  In 2008 she began touring science festivals with her stand up show ‘It is Rocket Science’, a lecture about the history of the space rocket.  She also curates ‘Spacetacular’, which is a sort of space themed variety night.

I only got a B in my GCSE Physics.

On getting interested in science

I always change my mind about this, but a person I look up to is Valentia Tereshkova who was the first ever woman in space.  The 50th anniversary of her first space flight is 2013.  I think for me, I’ve always kind of been interested in science.  The kind of way in, as a kid, I was always really interested in space, sort of as far back as I can remember, I was absolutely fascinated by the moon.  I would just kind of stare at it and be, ‘Oh, that’s amazing’, so that was kind of my gateway in; I’ve never studied science, I have to admit this.  In spite of having shows that are very science-y, I’ve never actually studied science.  I only got a B in my GCSE Physics.  And how easy are they?  You know, come on…

As I say, my particular interest in science is very much focused on space and if you don’t feel joy, if you can look out at the night sky, if you can look at the sort of pictures that come back from Hubble, if you can look at these wonderful images we get coming back from all the space telescopes and not feel joy, then probably there’s something wrong with you.  As I say, it’s a very accessible thing, and that’s why I think it appeals to sort of amateur people like me who aren’t, because it’s one of those few, one of the very few sciences, probably the only science I think, astronomy, where you can actually make a valuable contribution as an amateur.  You don’t have to have studied for years, you can actually just discover things and find out things and know about things just from a point of view of being a sort of interested amateur.

On broadening the appeal of science

I think science should be, and I can understand when people worry that maybe it becomes sort of popular, and knowing about science, it becomes a slightly exclusive thing that’s maybe identified with one group more than others and becomes and kind of, you know, a snooty, separatist thing or whatever but I don’t think, I mean, I think science should be a part of popular culture.  I’m sort of increasingly aware of, in my life, and I’m not that old, in my lifetime, how things, I mean I grew up with things that seemed to be a part of popular – imagery from science, images from space and things that was used in, say, pop videos or in TV shows, you know, in a very mass culture way and that maybe has waned a bit in the last few years and we’ve seen a change recently, I think, obviously with shows like ‘Wonders of the Universe’ and things that have had this really mass appeal and I think that can only really, ultimately, be a good thing.

On science in your daily life

The scientific method is all about putting theories up and then knocking them down and reexamining things.  I think science is pretty robust.  I think science can kind of take it on the chin.  But I think there really is an issue, particularly with things, like what I’m quite interested in, like space, people don’t see the practical application to their every day lives always and I think sometimes it’s obviously very important to, you know, there are lots of wonderful studies you can draw on and show the amount of money that went into, say, the Apollo programme and the amount of work that that’s generated in America, the amount of stuff that, you know, came out of the research that people were able to do, so I think, on balance, quite often it does have an impact on people’s lives, it does affect ordinary people, it’s just that quite often we don’t get to hear about that because it’s maybe in less exciting ways I guess.

It’s really important to understand the world around you.  So just in a really basic way I think, and certainly as a woman I think, there’s an enormous amount of advertising, this is just one example, an enormous amount of advertising aimed at you as a woman tying to get you to buy products based on this bizarre pseudo-science about nanospheres and all this kind of stuff and I think the more scientifically educated people are, the more you’re able to make informed choices about that sort of thing.  Also just about the food you eat and things, understanding about organic food, understanding the pharmaceutical industry, there are so many everyday things that you are, there’s sort of so many traps for the unwary and I think the more you know about these kinds of things the more, or the better choices you’re able to make in your every day life.  I would hope so.

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