We really better have a good answer to this question next year...

2009 will see scientists, science communicators and science teachers all over the world celebrating “Charles Darwin’s scientific ideas and their impact around his two hundredth birthday” (it also happens to be 150 years since the publication of “On the Origin of Species”).

2009 has also been designated “International Year of Astronomy” by the United Nations, to mark the 400th anniversary of Galileo looking at the sky with a telescope. And there’s more…with all these anniversaries and what not, some Americans have gone ahead and decided that 2009 might as well be “Year of Science” and that they are going to have a “year-long celebration of science”.

We’ve had this type of thing before - 2005 was “Einstein Year” or “World Year of Physics” depending on where in the world you happened to be. This was not quite the global celebration of Einstein’s genius it should or could have been, perhaps doomed from the start by the pathetic attempt to make Physics seem “cool” by having someone do a bunch of BMX stunts at the press launch (I still haven’t stopped cringing). The bike thing was “Science Communication” at its worst, a cheap, poorly thought-out gimmick which smacked of a desperation to seem cool rather than demonstrating a conviction that Physics really is cool.

Indications so far are that Darwin 200 is going to be a much bigger and better organised state of affairs - many of the UK’s best science organisations are involved in putting on special events, there are a whole bunch of impressive looking film and TV projects lined up and a wealth of educational resources are going to be made available.

There seems to be a buzz about the whole thing that was simply missing from “Einstein Year” and it feels like people actually care about it. Of course, it’s probably got something to do with the fact that it’s easier for people to relate to evolution than it is for them to grasp the significance of Einstein’s relativity, and that there’s a general sense that promoting understanding of Darwin’s ideas is important in the battle against creationism, but I think there’s more to it than that.

It feels to me that the fact that science is actually cool is zeitgeisty. I think the LHC has created more excitement about science than has been felt by the general public in a long time, and I think we’re still riding the crest of that wave of interest and enthusiasm. I sense that 2009 is going to be a year when science will very much be in the spotlight, a time when it’s more important than ever for those of us who care about science to be able to give a really good answer to the question “why is science important?”

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