I had originally set out to write two blogs from last weeks antics but then the crystallisation of a idea happened. Why not write one blog post? To the reader (that is you) it may perhaps seem lazy but bear with me and you will see why I did.
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On Thursday (28/11/2013) many things happened. I went to the library, I had lunch with an old work colleague, I had my STEM Ambassador induction and importantly for this piece I went to see the Infinite Monkey Cage (IFC) being recorded. The IFC recording was a The University of Manchester Alumni event co-run with the BBC, for obvious reasons, and held in “The Place” theatre. As you would come to expect from these kind of things the organisation of the event was perfect - barring some spare seating everything went off like clockwork.
The show itself was themed on science communication. For me it seemed a little bit hung up on its own mortality as in will the show survive for another season or not? However it did cover some really nice points regarding science communication in the mainstream media, practical demonstrations and using non-scientists to present science.
Now bearing in mind I had just spent the afternoon on an induction course about bringing, presenting and teaching STEM in schools I perhaps did not agree with all the content the speakers were saying but the underlying message certainly I did agree on - “science communication is important”. I also felt that there was scope for expanding female role models in STEM on the TV etc. The panel guests did have a nice 50:50 breakdown of science and arts, male and female presenters.
At the end of the show I did feel entertained but I did not feel any more informed on science communication than I did at the beginning. So was the message lost on me?
The following day, Friday, I got the opportunity to attend a “Talking Science” event at Daresbury Laboratory (DL). The talk was originally entitled: “Underground Britain - What really lies beneath our feet” and presented by Prof. Ian Stewart from the University of Plymouth.
Digg following -> Rather annoyingly the website which I think is the new Daresbury website, see previous link above, shows nothing about upcoming talks and I had to use the STFC website and search through that to find it <- Digg over.
Now I can only say that Prof. Stewart’s dedication to science communication goes way beyond the norm and can clearly be seen by the mammoth efforts he made to present the DL talk. You see he set out from Plymouth that morning quite unaware that after nearly 12 hours of travelling he would then leap from a car run into a lecture theatre and go on and present a talk to a PACKED audience (full theatre over 150 people) with only a minute to get a microphone attached and his laptop booted up. In fact whilst that was all happening he was chatting and engaging with the audience.
To me that is professionalism to the “max” but more importantly he was about 30 minutes late. The audience stayed and waited in the lecture theatre. They listened to a talk on the scale of space - not really my cup of tea - but they did stay. Do you see that they had a hunger for information, for science communication great enough to go out on a cold evening, to travel to DL to sit in a cold lecturer theatre, to wait 30 minutes for a speaker, to keep their attention through a dreary talk on the size of our sun and importantly to instantly engage with Prof. Stewart as soon as he arrived. True the Daresbury Events team did a great job filling the breach, talking to the audience and keeping them updated. Well some of them did. Others did even more spending a great deal of time sat waiting in cold train stations ready to shuttle Prof. Stewart to the campus ASAP.
The audience was to me the star of the event. The talk by the way was fantastic. I did not take any pictures, unusually for me, as I was so hooked by the speakers presence and material (as one person put it “and all that charismatic energy that few people have”). The audience was also clearly hooked and asked a fair few questions at the end. They had probably been in that lecture theatre for three or more hours. Very impressive.
So science communication is clearly important but the idea that non-scientists can communicate science better than scientists I think is wrong. I think that anybody with a passion and desire to understand and to pass on that knowledge can do it. Prof. Stewart by far presented science in a clearer and more understandable way than the non-scientists trying to explain how “they” presented science better on the IFC did. Well he did for me.
The two events also showed something very important. They showed that both mainstream entertainment science shows like IFC can draw a large audience but importantly so can classical lectures. They also show the dedication that people have both audience and speaker to receive and transmit scientific knowledge. And importantly to engage with science.
One interesting thing I came away from the whole science communication thing and IFC was the message regarding the “continued production of IFC for another season”. Now perhaps it is me but if you are that passionate about communicating science and you have the internet, a microphone and a couple of web-cams why not take a different route and move IFC to the web. Ironically one of the speakers (James Burke) suggested that was the future for science communication, so why not take up that challenge, do a Robert Llewellyn “Fully Charged” or “Car Pool” a “Transport Evolved” like show? Car pool shows you can get celebrities to do this kind of show and with the IFC fan base it would easily be a success.
And yes James Burke I think you are correct that the internet is the future for mainstream broadcasting as well as specialisation broadcasting of science. AND yes I think the Universities should drive and brand this revolution and by doing so give authority and reliability to the content. In the same way when a great speaker like Prof. Ian Stewart presents a public engagement lecture we understand the source and can trust the content. And where there is uncertainty, just as Prof. Stewart did, state there is uncertainty that certain problems are more complex than perhaps people are willing to portray?