The young and the curious

2007-11-29 00:00

Can science conquer fear? What are the secrets of the teenage brain? Is there an African gene in sport which can explain why Kenyan athletes are masters at marathon running?

These are just some of the questions raised in Hip2B2 (Hip to be Square), a newish magazine aimed at promoting science and mathematics in schools across South Africa.

The brainchild of Afronaut Mark Shuttleworth, Hip2B2 goes out to 720 schools in all nine provinces of South Africa and its circulation is increasing all the time.

“If you have ever been curious about anything, this magazine is for you,” says Hip2B2 editor Nevelia Heilbron, when we meet for an interview at New Media Publishing offices in Cape Town.

According to Heilbron, the magazine — which was launched in June and is now in production for the fifth edition — is Shuttleworth’s gift to the youth of South Africa. It is circulated at no cost to about 80 000 pupils and has a readership of about 500 000.

Shuttleworth — a self-confessed “geek” who became a billionaire in his 20s by breaking new frontiers in computer technology — launched the Hip2B2 brand five years ago, in a bid to make subjects such as science, maths and technology attractive to high school pupils. Shuttleworth wanted to send a strong message that these subjects are often launch pads to exciting and lucrative careers — and can open many doors to pupils. A key message is that, while these subjects require more discipline, pupils are almost guaranteed a future if they persevere with them — and that science and maths are not only the domains of the super-intelligent.

Shuttleworth’s main mantra to young people is “stay curious” — and this sentiment pervades the articles in the magazines. The mags are peppered with titbits of his philosophy, such as “if you do only something you know will work, you will never learn anything.”

An interview with Shuttleworth in the latest edition gives more insight into what makes him tick: “It’s very difficult to be successful when you’re not doing something you love,” he says. “I just try to do the most interesting, scariest thing that is going to have the most impact.”

The response to the magazine has, in Heilbron’s words, been “amazing”. “Our main goal is to demonstrate that science and maths are not only the domains of the super intelligent, or the ubergeeks.”

Heilbron, who majored in English at the University of Cape Town, is a relatively recent convert to the joys of maths and science — and wants to make the magazine the “smartest youth mag on the planet”.

“When we think of science, we tend to think of a mad scientist with bushy hair in a laboratory coat. But I have learnt that there is science behind everything. When you use a cellphone, when you send an sms, when you switch on the washing machine, science is involved.

“We recently ran a feature in the magazine on “maths as the hottest CSI agent in town”, which explains how maths is used to solve crimes. We use maths when we look for fingerprints, we use maths to analyse skid marks. We use maths for just about everything,” says Heilbron.

A recent issue of Hip2B2 features an article on the mathematics of the 2010 World Cup.

“Everybody is excited about the World Cup. More children are playing soccer and there is general national excitement. What we point out in the article is that it is maths which is making it all happen. We go into the maths behind the architecture of building a stadium.

“When we go off to watch our favourite soccer stars in action, we forget that somebody had to sit with a computer and figure out a whole lot of things.

“For instance, in the article, we go into the maths of the ‘sightline’ — and how the designers of a stadium have to work out how to seat people in a stadium for optimal vision. People should never be more than 190 metres away from the action. We think it is done randomly, but a huge amount of mathematics goes into enabling everybody to be able to see a match in a stadium.

Since starting her job as editor, Heilbron has also learnt a great deal about the maths and science of everyday life. “I have learnt about the science behind gaming and technology. “I am learning about how to develop your own programme for a game, about the latest technology on the market as well as about simple technology.”

The articles in the magazines are written by maths professors and people with science degrees, or by experts in their respective fields. Local artists are asked to review CDs and books and the pupils themselves are also asked to write reviews.

It’s not surprising that demand for the publication from schools is growing — and that, in some cases, teachers are making colour copies so that more issues can be handed out.

“The motto for Hip2B2 is ‘think what you can be’. When Mark Shuttleworth was here in August, he spent the day with more than 50 pupils — and this was the message he tried to convey,” says Heilbron.

“Mark’s vision is for the magazine to be as accessible and as inspirational to boys from smart private schools as it is to children from the platteland.

“All he wants for them to have in common is curiosity.”

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