National Physical Laboratory

Celebrating Science Protons for Breakfast

A six-week course for people interested in science and its impact on our lives.


Protons for Breakfast is the name of a project designed to bring together two quite different conceptions of science: the personal and the technical.

PFB Tutor Michael de Podesta
Tutor Michael de Podesta eating
his 'protons for breakfast'

At school, great efforts are made to teach the technical side of scientific subjects. This gives successful students the chance of a scientific career but also gives less successful students (who are actually most people) the sense that scientific understanding is inaccessible to them.

This course is designed to show that this is not the case, and that it is perfectly possible for anyone to develop an effective understanding of the scientific 'world view'.

In order to gain this understanding, people need to become familiar with science. And in order to become familiar with science, people need an introduction to it. This course offers that introduction, but not in the sense of an 'introductory' lecture or an 'introductory' book. The course offers a very personal introduction to science from a tutor who is on first name terms with atoms!

The Name

'Proton' is the name we give to a type of particle which exists in the centre of every atom in the universe. None of us will ever 'see' a proton (they are much much too small) and they sound 'technical' and 'scientific'. And yet, being in the centre of every atom in the universe, we are ourselves made substantially of protons (around half of our bodies by weight is protons). And every day-to-day activity involves moving protons around.

Indeed, when we eat our breakfast, no matter what we are eating (cornflakes, toast, bacon, eggs, etc), we are in fact consuming billions and billions of protons.

We found the combination of this 'technical' word with the commonplace activity of having breakfast quite pleasing, and somehow the name stuck.

The Tutor

Michael de Podesta was 40 in the year 2000. He lives in west London and is married with two children.

Michael has worked as a physicist in universities, and at the National Physical Laboratory for about 20 years. He once wrote an undergraduate textbook on physics.

He is a generalist rather than a specialist, finds almost everything fascinating and enjoys understanding the links between different phenomena. He has a sense of humour and, despite the way he sometimes writes, is not really very pompous or self-righteous.

He mainly work on projects connected with measuring temperature and am currently building the world's most accurate thermometer.

Michael was awarded an MBE for his science communication activities in the 2009 Queen's Birthday Honours List.

Michael's thoughts about this course:

"I think that our scientific understanding of the world we live in is humanity's greatest achievement, bar none."

"I feel frustrated that many people feel excluded from this achievement. My motive in creating this course was to reduce people's sense of alienation from this collectively great achievement."

"Our society faces many challenges in which a sound public understanding of science would greatly enhance the contribution that individuals can make towards meeting these challenges. I think this will make people happier, and improve society. This course is my small contribution to this lofty goal."

Read Michael's Protons for Breakfast Blog


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