Dissolving the Illusion of normality

Why is science communication important?


Normality as we think of it is not real!

Normal life, normal ways of thinking are based on assumptions.

Take a look deeper into the physical universe and the normal illusion dissolves. Detail inside detail inside detail – zoom in and solids become tangled networks of molecules, molecules become arrays of atoms, atoms turn into vast tracts of vibrating spinning space punctuated by tiny specks of dense nuclei. Zoom in further and the nuclei themselves turn into space and energy. Sharp definitions have gone, position and shape are defined by probability and possibility. Strange new quantum rules apply. Particles can be in more than one place at once, can pass through walls. Nothing is solid. All semblance of normality has gone. Where are we? Right here! We could be inside any of the objects around us – the desk, the computer keys, the walls, the trees…

Normality dissolves…

What are we made of? Energy? Particles? Potential?

Not what we thought anyway.

See this seamless image of reality we see around us – in the bus, in advertisements, fashion, shops, landscapes, walls, computers, TV ….

Science digs into it. It makes the strange unseen worlds, patterns, energy and structures visible.

I think we forget how bizarre it all is – how precarious, subtle, moving, balanced, uncertain. We exist in and through this uncertain, pulsing vibrating landscape. But we forget it. We get tricked into an illusion of normality

Science Communication is about bringing this to people’s attention – about breaking through the comfort and boredom of certainty and normality – An scientist explorer comes back from a strange new land and we don’t listen because they speak a different language – jargon – we recognize some of the words but the meaning isn’t there.

Science Communication is travelling to the frontiers of science and communicating just how bizarre it all is – it’s about making those connections.

BUT! The whole purpose is to crack through the blank expression – to create little explosions that destroy normality.

That’s the purpose.

And to encourage exploration.

Shatter assumptions. Don’t bother building new structures – more beautiful broken. More open. We have more fun. We meet more. Break through the blank, the seamless image of the world – and we can step out and meet each other.

No real conflict. Only small views and blank expressions.

The Ripple Effect - what NZ can offer the world

Imagine what would happen if you lifted New Zealand up out of the ocean one calm windless day and dropped it back in again. Imagine the ripples it would create over the vast expanse of clear water as it plunged in – concentric circles expanding outwards over the ocean, gently lapping on the shores of Australia, Asia, Africa, America, Europe…. Imagine what messages those ripples might carry…

It’s a silly idea but it seemed to give form to thought that has been growing in my mind for the past year – something about what makes New Zealand such a unique and special place to work.

I’ve always felt a sense of magic and possibility in New Zealand. The land has a depth and quietness to it that humbles me. The air is clear. There is space to think and to reflect. People are open and willing to consider new ideas. There are less rules, less history weighing us down. The natural world feels wild but safe. You can walk barefoot through the bush without getting eaten. The drafty wooden houses and freezing southerlies make sure you never get comfortable enough to forget you’re human.

When I returned from the UK early last year I couldn’t believe what a beautiful place I came from. I had gone to London to do a Masters in “Science Communication” after finishing my Physics degree in New Zealand. I ended up staying there for three years. The London vibe got me hooked. I spent my time riding my bike through London’s long grass commons and along the Thames; I worked for a podcasting company producing tourist trail podcasts of London; I wrote songs and sang in bars; I taught science and maths to naughty London kids and directed a play for the Edinburgh festival. London was exciting and stimulating but there was always a part of me that longed for the quiet.

When I came home to Wellington the quiet almost knocked me over. My parents picked me up from the airport and we drove back home along the South Coast. I went and sat in the sun at the bottom of their garden, opened my eyes and ears and just let the thoughts drain out. My senses feasted on the juicy green smells, the lucid details of flowers and insects, the bright colours and the neighbour’s kiwi voice directing some building work. All of these details seemed to be hovering lightly over the top of this vast reservoir of silence. For the first time in years I felt something deep inside come to rest. I could see my thoughts clearly forming against a clear page of quiet.

I actually only intended to stay for a two week holiday but that was January 2009 and I’m still here. I’m here to stay now. From that time I have felt my sense of purpose unraveling. I’ve been discovering how I can use my skills and experience to help contribute to a positive future for New Zealand and I’ve been lucky enough to find more than enough work to keep me busy.

There have been a few things that have inspired me. The first is a vision for New Zealand that my mentor and old physics lecturer Paul Callaghan has described in his recent book Wool to Weta. Paul is a world-class physicist with a flare for communication and a passionate belief in the importance of science to New Zealand. His vision is for New Zealand to become a centre for high-tech and creative industries. He wants to reverse the brain drain and make New Zealand the place young people choose to build their careers and raise their families. I’m inspired by Paul’s rebelliously optimistic spirit, his determination and practicality. I’m inspired by the idea of making money while preserving our natural environment and enriching our community and culture. It’s not very well known but high-technology is already New Zealand’s third largest export industry. A couple of companies, like Weta Workshops, have made it into the public eye but most have gone un-noticed. I’m inspired to change this. I want to go and meet the entrepreneurs and creative people behind these companies and tell their stories to the country at large. I want to help spread this vision and give people the courage and self-belief to go for it.

There are many other things inspiring me – the down-to-earth lifestyle of my friends here, the view of Wellington’s South Coast from my bedroom window, the idea of multi-disciplinary collaboration…

I’ve started this blog to track this unravelling inspiration and to share some of the inspiring stories of the people I meet. The Ripple Effect seems like a perfect title. I looked it up on Wikipedia and it said…

People often speak about the tyranny of distance. There is also a beauty in distance and space. You know what an effect it has to clear your workspace before starting a new project? New Zealand has that clear workspace.

In Europe or America people are sending their signals out on every side. We have a perfect quiet haven to develop a new identity free from the conventions and rules of the rest of the world. We have an ideal oceanic amphitheatre from which to send our ideas out to the world.

I feel an inspired energy rising up in this country and I’d like to give voice to it – start throwing things in the water so to speak.

Introducing me and my mission

Hello World! My name’s Elizabeth Connor. I'm a 'science communicator' by profession. I spend my time translating the incomprehensible murmerings of scientists into language and concepts we can all understand.

My background is in physics – I studied at Victoria University in Wellington before going to London to do a Masters in ‘Science Communication’ at Imperial College.

When I was fourteen I came to the conclusion that science and the arts had been unnecessarily wrenched apart. I loved both subjects and made it my mission to bring them back together again. I didn’t have a clue how to do it but have been trying my best ever since.

On leaving school I was faced with an agonizing choice between fine art, creative writing and science. I had always imagined myself as an artist but chose physics in the end. I wanted to discover the underlying laws and patterns beneath the beauty I saw in nature and physics seemed like a nice gritty thing to study! It was. I found it challenging and illuminating but frustrating too. I knew something wasn’t right when I burst out of an electronics lab shouting “No more numbers!” I was felt suffocated by the sterile language and lack of human context. I wanted to describe the things we were studying with metaphors and gesticulations.

My chance came when I was given a summer job writing web-articles for the MacDiarmid Institute of Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials, a collaborative science research institute. I spent the summer travelling around the country, visiting labs, interviewing researchers and writing articles. My job was to describe their research for a general audience. I felt liberated. I found I had a knack for discovering scientists’ inspiration and expressing their work in terms of images and metaphors.

It was my quantum physics lecturer and former director of the MacDiarmid Institute, Prof Sir Paul Callaghan that gave me the job and encouraged me to pursue science communication. I had no idea it existed as a career choice before that. Paul’s example as a passionate communicator and visionary has been an inspiration to me ever since.

I now work as a freelance science communicator in my beloved hometown, Wellington. My clients include the MacDiarmid Institute, Canterbury University and 'Viclink', a branch of Victoria University that helps staff and students commercialise their research.

This year a very exciting thing happened. I was awarded the ‘Prime Minister’s Science Media Communication Prize’, a new award devised by the government to help raise the profile of science in NZ. As my career has unfolded it seems to be wending its way from science towards the arts. The prize has given me the incredible opportunity to complete that journey and to fulfill my mission of uniting the two. I believe that science holds secrets which could transform the culture and economy of our country and the world. But, it needs the human touch of the arts to make the connection with real people and real needs. I hope to use the Prime Minister’s prize to help develop a culture of cross-sector collaboration in New Zealand.