Tag Archives: science communication

Two Cultures, or Many?

One of the most pernicious myths in neuroscience is that of the left brain/right brain divide. You have surely heard it before: the idea that half our brain is logical, scientific, and calculating while the other is creative, artistic, and empathic. There is no evidence for such a distinction in the actual brain, but the simplistic categories give people easy ways to identify themselves, and others, as members of tribes with specific values. It’s just as easy to feel good about yourself for supposedly having a brain that’s rational or creative as it is to put someone else down for being too cold or impulsive. This myth isn’t about the brain or neuroscience at all: it’s about putting ourselves, and others, into groups.

false dichotomy

In the pursuit of knowledge, similar false dichotomies can arise. Those seeking to understand science may think of themselves as fundamentally different from those seeking to grasp history or literature, and vice versa. This was most famously written about in C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures essay, where he noted the division and in fact the disdain that had arisen between intellectuals in the humanities and the sciences, and how this prevents people from pooling their knowledge to solve the great problems facing humanity. After all, if you do not respect the source of someone else’s knowledge, why would you bother to listen to them?

We should know better. After all, knowledge isn’t just a dry list of facts, but a set of underlying connections between those facts and ideas, as well as an understanding of context (whether it’s human context or physical context). People who study interdisciplinary fields like nanoscience, my area, know that a chemist can bring a very different approach than a physicist does to the same problem. Often both are useful in gaining understanding. Why not extend this same respect to the social sciences and humanities? And why do we not bat an eyelid when someone says they ‘don’t get’ science, when we’d be appalled if they said they couldn’t read?

In my view, an open mind is critical to any pursuit, whether it’s scientific, literary, or even comedic. Don’t limit yourself by how others think before you; go outside the pre-existing accepted framework to solve problems. Isn’t that true creativity, which is required for any academic pursuit as well as for the simple but rewarding task of making sense of this world? Rather than drawing a line between science and the arts, between types of people, we should share our knowledge and natures, expanding our understanding by sharing our humanity.

world

Bright Club Dublin

Awhile back I was over in London, to give a talk at the Institute of Physics and to give a monologue about science for a Project2 improv show. At both places I found myself chatting to audience members afterward about my passion for comedy as well as physics, and in both places people said, ‘So you know about Bright Club, right?’

I had never heard of it before, but as soon as I learned about the format—academic researchers give stand-up comedy style sets about their work, alongside comedians and musicians—I knew I wanted to bring it to Dublin. It sounded like a really fun type of variety night to put on, entertaining and thought-provoking and dipping in to all sorts of interesting ideas. Plus for the academics, I loved the idea of public engagement that uses humour, and they receive training to develop a set with real jokes that may be massively different from anything they’ve done before. To paraphrase Richard Feynman, everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough, but everything is funny if you look at it the right way. So I wrote to Steve Cross, who came up with the idea and ran it in London, and he kindly gave his advice and his blessing for me to start a Bright Club in Dublin.

Before the first event, I will admit that I had some difficulty getting people to agree to do Bright Club. Academics would say, “wait, I have to be funny?” Comedians would say, “wait, is the audience going to be all academics?” We sat down to do the speaker training, and an alarming fraction of the room gave their reason for being there as “Jessamyn twisted my arm!” And I had a nagging fear that I was designing the perfect variety night for me, but maybe other people would want something different… I wanted people from across physical science, social science, and humanities, but maybe an audience would prefer strictly science or strictly art, so was anyone else actually going to turn up? Fortunately they did, the first event was a splendid success, and it got a lot easier to fill lineups for Bright Club once I could point to past shows, and past speakers who’d had a great time. While I could still reach out to my networks in academia and comedy, people were now coming to me to ask to be in Bright Club!

Photo courtesy Sandra Duffy.

I was also fortunate that the outreach office of the institute I work in, AMBER, agreed to help fund the early events. They took a chance on a crazy idea I brought to them, and it helped the thing get off the ground. Soon conferences like Sci:Com and the Society for Applied Microbiology were asking for Bright Clubs with their events. And now, I am delighted to have Science Foundation Ireland onboard as a sponsor alongside AMBER, which has enabled me to broaden the team of people involved in making Bright Club great.

Humour is a great way to engage with complex subjects—how many people watch The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight or Weekly Wipe instead of straight news shows? But the bottom line is, Bright Club is fun to be at and a joy to MC and run. If you’re in Dublin, you can swing by our next show on January 29th! And if you’re somewhere else, we’ll be putting videos online soon, or you can always follow us on facebook and twitter.

Why do public engagement? Diamond Nine activity

This week I had the pleasure of attending the BIG ‘How to train researchers’ event at Newcastle University. It was an excellent and thought-provoking day and I took away a lot of useful tidbits and ideas.

As our focus was on improving how we support researchers to do public engagement one of my favourite sessions was the ‘activities circus’ where we were able to visit various brave souls who had activities or exercises they have tried and tested for our perusal. One of the ones I enjoyed was the ‘Diamond Nine’ of public engagement – a hands-on tool for facilitating discussion around researchers’ reasons for doing public engagement.

I was so inspired I’m incorporating it into my next training session; I’m looking forward to finding out what the researchers prioritise and hoping that the conversations will spur some introspection on their part!

I’ve included a print-out of the activity and instructions below – if you give it a try let me know what you think!

PDF: Why Do Public Engagement Diamond Nine

Ignite: Entropy

How would you explain a scientific concept in five minutes? Would it help to have slides? What if the slides automatically advance?

This is the concept behind Ignite talks, which are held at volunteer-organized events around the world. Explaining any concept clearly and simply is a challenge, but the strict timing of Ignite talks is especially tricky! I was fortunate enough to be asked to give one last year for the Science Gallery, and since they’ve now put video online I thought I would share it with you all here:

I spoke about entropy, which is an old favorite topic on this blog. And the Science Gallery has quite a few other Ignite talks online for you to peruse. But I think we’d all do well to try to follow the Ignite motto: “Enlighten us, but make it quick!”

What science communicators can learn from #ThatDress

If you were on Twitter, Facebook, or any type of social media last night you were probably inundated with one of two things: the live llama chase in Arizona or #ThatDress. As fascinating as I find camelids, I’m going to talk about the more polarising of the two memes.

that dress

So if you haven’t seen it, there it is. What colour is it? Families, classrooms, and friends feeds are divided on the answer, and it’s sent countless people onto the Google results page for colourblindness. Various experts have weighed in with their opinions and technology has been rolled out to tweak, correct, and perfect the picture. Already there are comprehensive scientific articles and videos about why we perceive the colours differently and the fascinating subject of how humans process and interpret light hitting the back of our eyeballs.

What I find interesting about the phenomenon is the completely organic way it came about, and how a few smart cookies jumped on it to do some science communication. The original post went up on Twitter and within hours it was circulating around the world, drawing comments and creating debates among friends and strangers alike. ‘Experts’ (who have now been proven wrong) shared their opinions and amateurs griped and argued in the comments section of various articles. So what made this such a widely-spread discussion?

Firstly and most importantly, I think it was because it was something everyone could have an opinion of. If you could see the picture, you could form an opinion (based on what the rods and cones in your eyes told you), and that was all you needed to join the fray. Experiences that relate to inherent human perception are great jumping-off points for science communication because they are shared among many backgrounds and profiles. There’s a reason sex, death and food are common popular science subjects – they’re rather unavoidable topics and ones we all share!

Secondly, the potential opinions were so different from one another. Blue and black or white and gold are quite distinct, hardly the difference between ‘is this reddish-pink or pinkish-red?’. Once you stated your opinion you were firmly in one camp or another, and you needed no prior knowledge or expertise to back it up. The debate was accessible, something everyone felt comfortable taking part in. Sometimes science engagement can require a level of knowledge of a subject that is off-putting to non-experts. #ThatDress has no such problem.

So what can we learn from this? I’d say it’s the fact that the most gripping science communication is relatable, approachable, and adaptable. It needs to have a topic that interests people, that relates to experiences or knowledge they already have. It needs to be something they feel comfortable forming opinions and talking about (engagement is a two-way street, after all, and a conversation is far better than a lecture!). And most importantly, it needs to keep its finger on the popular pulse, ready to jump on the zeitgeist of the moment. Sure, a sustained campaign of building interest is important, but there’s nothing like hooking into a meme to reach millions of people who might otherwise not have time for a bit of science communication.

Sweat The Small Stuff

Let’s talk about science! Literally, here I am talking about science, the quantum world, scientists, and answering audience questions from a kindly bunch at Pint of Science this May in Dublin. There is also a bit of a surprise in the middle.

Link

The Fermi Paradox

The Fermi Paradox

For a great example of science communication (and some fascinating thought puzzles) take a look at Wait But Why’s The Fermi Paradox, which addresses the question: where is all the other intelligent life out there?

(NSFW language in the article)