The Peacock Problem

Last week I had one of my most extraordinary on stage experiences.


Some background first- I deliver science talks or shows, call then what you will. I get on stage and get excited about science. Recently I’ve been delivering talks for The Training Partnership. They organise themed days which see a host of experts and communicators in front of almost 1,000 school students at a time. The scale, enthusiasm and excitement of the events have been utterly spectacular.


Thursday was my third of these events and for “GCSE Science day” I was due to deliver a talk on the periodic table. The audience were particularly enthusiastic, rowdy even. They’d loved the talks earlier in the day including the brilliant Simon Watt. I was excited to get on stage but soon realised I’d be getting a slightly different response to this talk.


My talk starts with a video introduction which is silent and runs with text only. The first person to appear on screen is Nigella Lawson accompanied by a tremendous voiceover by Heather Williams. Sadly the voiceover was never to be heard- the appearance of Nigella had an interesting and unexpected effect: a rowdy all-boys school started wolf whistling. It caught on and spread around the auditorium with many of the boys joining in so many the voiceover was drowned out.


No matter, on with the show!


An enthusiastic audience is the best kind; to get people excited about science is a sight to behold. When it came to talking about gold and in particular the human obsession with it I showed a picture of the iconic scene in Goldfinger where Bond discovers Jill Masterson dead and gilded. A single wolf whistle once again lead to a chorus of them with giggling. I quelled them fairly quickly by saying “you do realise you are wolf whistling a dead woman?”. The whistling turned to laughter. I mentioned that “We might come back to the wolf whistling and what it means later in the talk”.


We did.



Towards the end I talk about the discovery of Radium and Polonium and this section begins with a single black and white photograph of Marie Curie. They did it. They wolf whistled Marie Curie. Why? Because they are lads and it’s a guy on stage and we’re having laddish banter together. Urgh, they picked the wrong lad. This en masse display of chest beating and pawing over any woman presented on stage was the very last straw.


“Ok, quiet now. I told you we might come back to the wolf whistling and I think now is a good time. I want you to know what you are doing. What you are doing is reducing to a SEXUAL OBJECT one of the GREATEST SCIENTIFIC MIND THE WORLD HAS EVER SEEN.”


The cheering and clapping that unexpectedly exploded from the women and girls in the room gave me chills but I wasn’t finished.


“This woman had to fight her entire life. She was the first female lecturer, the first woman to win a Nobel prize and the only person ever to win Nobel prizes in Physics and Chemistry. She had to fight every single day and even her successes people credited to her husband. It makes me so mad! She was even turned away from university because she didn’t have a penis. How utterly, utterly insane. Where could we be now if we hadn’t repressed half of our society throughout our entire history?”


The way the entire crowd erupted after my rant will stay with me a long time. The passionate and spontaneous whooping and clapping was moving and unexpected.  


Many will think wolf whistling a minor thing but to me the little things are important. They’re indicative of a wider problem. This teenage silliness was based on men feeling the need to overtly display their heterosexuality by the reduction of any female to that of a potential conquest.


However going by the noise in that room things are changing. Beware cavemen your days are numbered the decent among us are standing up and by goodness our cheering will drown out anything you try and throw at us.


More on Marie Curie

Related Blogs:

I just wanted to add a little piece. I tweeted this on Sunday night in the hope that a couple of people might have a wee glance over it and check for mistakes but the response it has got already has been incredible.


I thought I’d add in some more as people seem interested:

At the end a teacher from one of the all girls schools came to thank me. She said it was incredible the way I’d handled things. She said the wolf whistling had been rather stressful and upsetting for many of the girls and that what I’d done had meant a lot to them all. A second male teacher had a similar story.


I'm certainly not deserving of high praise though- when I'm on stage it is very much just an enthusiastic vesrion of myself. Make me angry and I'm bound to bite.


Teachers are asked to comment on each of the talks, if I get any further information that might be of interest I'll be sure to update things here.