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Knowledge: Rise of the layman

The internet is quite simply a glorious place. Where else can you find bootlegged music and films, questionable women, deep seated xenophobia and amusing cats all together in the same place? Granted, some areas of any town centre may offer you these pleasures, but there's not a chance of you getting away with browsing their wares in nothing but your pants. Aside from being a stage for videos of people injuring themselves and filling cups, the web holds another, more beneficial purpose - it's a veritable treasure trove of information. The answers to practically any question the mind can conjure can be found in mere seconds. For example: The standard seat height of your average dining room chair is 18-20 inches. Karl Marx was definitely NOT gay with Friedrich Engels. The Large Hadron Collider in Geneva has so far failed to destroy the world. Having that kind of access to that much knowledge is a fantastic thing. Education is, after all the key to progression of self. But can you educate yourself without the aid of a teacher or specialist? Without the constraints of context, raw information serves as nothing more than a mildly interesting pub fact. There was a time when people relied on the printed word for data consumption. 1988 saw the publication of a very important book for those wishing to delve a little deeper. Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time provided an insight into a world that many thought themselves too uneducated to comment upon. Although definitely not the first of its kind, a book about black holes, bizarre quantum level sorcery and he very origin of the universe explained by Cambridge University's Professor of Mathematics was enough to pique the interest of practically all and sundry. So much so that conversations about the latest goings on in Albert Square were replaced with ponderings regarding the metaphysical nature intrinsic to preventative observation of quarks and gluons. The fact that Hawking's layman gospel has, to date, sold over ten million copies and spent 237 weeks on the bestseller's list is testament to the idea that people want to learn themselves up on some of those big league smarts.The reason he was so successful where others may have failed is that he was astutely aware of his audience, omitting all equations (bar that famous one that begins with 'E') in the knowledge that each would halve his readership. That didn't stop it from being bloody difficult to understand. Layman's terms equate to pure accessibility. As of January 2011, there are 282 books in the Oxford University Press A Very Short Introduction range, with subjects as diverse as social and cultural anthropology, animal rights, existentialism and witchcraft. The Guardian published a slew of Introduction books with comic book illustrations, either for the inquisitive illiterate or children with a somewhat worrying interest in Nietzsche. Any scientist worth his or her salt now has a TV show with a tie-in publication. Physics poster boy Brian Cox represents the next step - a hip young science buff, ex-keyboardist for pop group D:Ream with nice hair. The people who actively sought out their learning have been appeased. The hip young folk with nice hair like Brian's are an untapped resource. His epic show Wonders of the Solar System drew in over 2.8 million viewers for its first episode. The companion book sold in equal measure and his latest print, which was slyly promoted on the show, was snapped up in droves. But does providing 'dumbed down' explanations of painfully complicated concepts hold any negative consequences? You can take it one of two ways. First is the idea that everyone should have the right to educate themselves further than academia currently allows. No one wants to be a mindless consumer whose only talent is being able to name every Big Brother winner in chronological order. What these publications, television shows and caches of web information provide is a catalyst; a spark of inspiration for an inquisitive mind to broaden its horizons. However, these are stepping stones to further reading or learning. The second point is that people can, and do, take these explanations as gospel. The amount of people I've met who actually think Erwin Schrödinger put a live cat in a box is rather worrying. Taking this and other 'lay' explanations at face value offers you no understanding of what they are truly about. For the time being the only downside to the layperson rising is a higher calibre of pub conversation and questions like: "You haven't read 'The Selfish Gene'? Richard Dawkins is a God!" [NB: amusing irony]. Maybe for the moment it's the rise of the smartarse. The rest of us are too distracted by Brian's shiny hair to do anything else. )

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