I've got some really exciting news for you!
It is my pleasure to announce the birth of a new genre - The Musical Science Storytelling Show!
Over the last month I've been busy organising Victoria University's very first science storytelling challenge and workshop series - Tell Us a Story! The purpose is to help scientists communicate as humans instead of scientists and to woo the audience with tales of inspiration, discovery, heartache and all the other things they're not allowed to talk about in academic papers. Last week we held the challenge heats and have chosen ten of the very best stories for our two grand finale shows this week (which you are most enthusiastically invited to attend).
Ever since I was 15 years old I've wanted to re-unite science and the arts.
I felt this dream coming true when I was sitting in the audience listening to the scientist's stories. By weaving their science into touching, hilarious and inspiring personal tales they managed to captivate the audience.
I shed a tear over a fish! I never imagined that could happen.
In previous posts I've talked about how the public image of science often makes it seem inaccessible, difficult and boring. I see our two storytelling shows this week as a first step in breaking down that barrier. Tonight, the ten finalists will tell their stories in a bar in town (Club Ivy). This represents the science community stepping down from the hill (Victoria University is on a hill overlooking the city), holding its hand out and introducing itself - as if to say "hello! I'm really friendly, approachable and interesting".
To explain the "musical" bit of the new genre - Elf (co-host & organiser) and myself will be making music on the loop machine between the stories. Music will mingle with stories in a magical mix that will mess with your mind in a most mellifluous manner.)
If you are intrigued and find yourself in Wellington on Monday or Thursday evening then come along and see for yourself. You can find all the information and book FREE tickets here - you don't need a ticket for the Nerd Nite event tonight, but you will for Thursday's Grand Finale.
Look forward to seeing you there!
On the left are the scientists bustling away in their labs and offices inside universities and research institutes. Up the top you’ll see two scientists who have come out to communicate with the public. In the middle is the media – an efficient mechanism that filters and processes science for public consumption. ‘The public’ on the right is a large homogenous mass that consumes media to stay informed.
The media has quite different values to scientists. Journalists are instructed by their editors to gather stories that will “Wow” their readers so they’re on the lookout for sex, scandals, breakthroughs, human-interest stories and really cute pictures of animals. When scientists read their articles in the tearooms of universities and research institutes they curse and bewail the ‘dumbing down’ and misrepresentation of science.
“Why don’t people value science more?” they cry. “Why don’t they understand?”
Social Media - A Saviour is Born!
It is wonderfully poetic that inside one of these science institutes a saviour was born! The Internet! On 6 August 1991 the World Wide Web project was first publicised by CERN, the pan-European organization for particle research and home of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Fast forward twenty years and we find that the internet has revolutionised the media.
This is what it looks like now:
Social networking tools like facebook, Twitter and blogging have robbed the mainstream media of their gatekeeper status! Suddenly there’s no such thing as ‘the public’ – just millions of individuals with unique interests and personalities woven together into complex networks. Ideas can turn into epidemics overnight as they flow through the networks.
What Does Social Media Mean for Scientists?
Social Media has given everyone the ability to be a newsmaker - including scientists. Recently I wrote a blog encouraging scientists to come out from their institutions and engage with society. I reckon this the perfect opportunity!
Instead of complaining about the media misrepresentation of science they can do it themselves! The responsibility is now on scientists to create their own public image and persuade society of the importance and relevance of science.
There's no such thing as 'the public' so scientists don't have to communicate to everyone. They can use social media to develop purposeful relationships with specific group and sectors.
Social Media and Science - A Perfect Match!
Where "old-fashioned" media valued sex, scandals and breakthroughs, social media seems to have more enlightened values:
• Real human relationships (no one wants to talk to a machine or an institution)
• Genuineness and honesty (no-one likes to be lied to or sold to)
• Humour (everyone likes to laugh)
• Entertainment (no one wants to be bored)
• Relevance (because everyone is busy)
• Process (relationships develop over a long period of time so you can communicate the process of science – not just the breakthroughs)
It's always a challenge to make science relevant and entertaining but it is possible! Used well social media could help dissolve the myth of science and help spread a social epidemic of science enthusiasm around the country!
What do you think?
“Bearded men with odd dress sense”
“No sense of humour”
“Boring and slightly bewildering to talk to”
“They work far away putting tiny drops of things into test-tubes”
“They wear anoraks”
Oh dear! If this is what people think of scientists no wonder the science community isn’t thriving with cross-sector collaboration! Scientists aren’t seen as the most attractive, approachable characters.
At the same time, science has a position of great authority in society. All you need is a label saying “scientifically proven” or “recognised by the scientific community” to gain the trust of consumers. Politicians, media, new age hippies and consumer companies alike refer to science for answers, authority and guidance. In fact, you could say that science has become the Church of the modern world.
Once upon a time we looked to the Church for guidance. Now we look to science. As the guardians and high priests of this Holy Church of Science, scientists have the power to bestow blessings on products, ideas or beliefs.
Like Latin Mass in the Catholic Church – the utterings of scientists are mysterious and inexplicable.
But what happened to the rebel roots of science? Hundreds of years ago science emerged as a rebellious challenger to the dominance of Religion and the Church. Gutsy rebel scientists like Galileo were imprisoned for making 'heretical' suggestions like the earth rotates around the sun. Nowadays scientists like Richard Dawkins dismiss other belief systems with almost religious fervour. They behave like grumpy priests defending their authority.
If science is going to play its full part in society I reckon scientists need to step down from the Holy Church of Science and engage with other cultures and communities in a really open-minded and non-judgmental way. I don't mean to challenge the power and importance of science. In fact want to do the opposite. If scientists learn to communicate and tell stories about science, explain how it works and why it can be trusted, ask questions and share personal experiences they are much more likely to win people's hearts and imaginations.
The really exciting thing is that this is happening already. A couple of weeks ago we found out that the three most trusted people in New Zealand are all scientists – Ray Avery, Peter Gluckman and Paul Callaghan. They didn’t get there by hiding in the lab! All three of these inspiring men are warm, open-minded, courageous, socially engaged and brilliant at communicating. They are also inspiring a generation of young scientists to follow their example. I find this extremely encouraging! Perhaps the walls of the Church are finally crumbling…
Of course, aiming for the highest really depends what you put at the top. Sometimes I got the feeling it was money.
My year group was clearly a bright bunch. At our final prize-giving the headmistress read out the names of each 7th former along with the career path we'd decided to pursue… "Law, Law, Law, Medicine, Law, Law…"
Out of sixty or so girls there were only a couple doing science or engineering.
I've only recently thought about the significance of this - what it means for our country. Lawyers and doctors are undoubtedly useful but they won't create a new economy or make NZ "The Place Talent Wants to Live" as NZr of the year Paul Callaghan has envisioned. They could be considered ambulances at the bottom of the cliff. In fact young lawyers and doctors can do better overseas in the UK, US or Oz where the salaries and opportunities are higher. As Paul Callaghan has urged we need more people following their creative passion - developing niche enterprises in the high-tech and creative industries.
So…What would the country look like if we updated the success pyramid?
Wouldn't it be exciting if young Kiwis were encouraged to become innovators, creative entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists? That's a worthy challenge for the brightest young minds! To me, this is an inspiring thought. When I was at school I had so much passion, enthusiasm and idealism. I would have lapped up the opportunity to serve my country in a way that allowed my creativity to flourish.
I've always wanted to return to my school and give a speech on "Aiming for the Highest". This would be my new interpretation!
My friend Larry came up to me the other night.
“I liked your blog," he said, "but I have one objection."“What's that?” “It’s all very well to talk about the importance of science and communication…”“mm?”“But you didn’t mention engineers.”“Oh”“I’m an engineer you see.”“Ah… Sorry about that.”“In New Zealand we’ve had an imbalance for years. We've got lots of scientists playing around in labs,” Larry explained, “But not enough engineers and even fewer manufacturers.”
“Japan is the opposite,” he continued. “They have loads of manufacturers, plenty of engineers and fewer scientists and they’re very successful. You only need a few small science ideas to start an industry.”
Larry's comments got me thinking. What is the difference between science and engineering?
According to my chemist friend Vlatco they are skill-sets rather than separate professions.
“Scientists look for knowledge and engineers make stuff that works,” (He works at Industrial Research Limited doing both)Science is all about exploration - pulling new knowledge from the dark unknown. Engineering is problem-solving – applying the wild discoveries of science to real life problems.
We talk about science being the key to lifting our economy and tackling problems like climate change but without engineering (and manufacturing) how useful is it?I was wondering about this when I went to Paul Callaghan’s incredibly inspiring lecture last Thursday - “New Zealand: The Place Talent Wants to Live.” You might not think of NZ as an ideal place for manufacturing but Paul has pretty much convinced me it is. The high-tech industry is already NZ’s third biggest export earner. That’s proof we can do it. Compared to our land-based industries its effect on the environment is miniscule – we’re making tiny niche products for overseas markets not cars or TVs. We get to export our creativity and brainpower rather than nutrients from the soil, coal and minerals. High-tech science-based companies would create lots of interesting jobs for graduates. They'd pay taxes which we could use for all kinds of goodies – healthcare, housing, light-rail…
It’s something to think about anyway!
You can watch this youtube video to hear Paul's argument in full.
And here (to explain the plan) is my project statement:
Firstly...What’s the point in the PM’s Science Communication Prize?
My take is that the PM introduced the Science Prizes to address a few problems in New Zealand. Although we work hard and have some of the best education and science systems in the world:
• We’re not very good at turning scientific discoveries into businesses that make an impact on the world and the economy;
• There aren’t enough young people going into science and engineering;
• There’s a strong anti-science attitude in our culture (many prefer to believe Ken Ring rather than scientists);
But we need science! Faced with challenges like climate change, earthquakes, peak oil and a struggling economy we won’t survive without it. For democracy to work properly we need more people to understand science. We need:
• more young people studying science
• an authentic dialogue between the science community, government, industry and society
• new industries drawing on our science, innovation and creativity
• collaboration between the science community and other key sectors
• greater public understanding and trust in the scientific method
The purpose of the science media communication prize (as given on the website) is:
“to further the recipient’s knowledge, capability and understanding of science media communication.”
When the Royal Society (who administer the prizes) handed me a blank canvas to design my own program of activities, I faced the question:
What knowledge, capability and understanding will I need to contribute to this vision for New Zealand?
There were countless paths I could take. I needed a plan that responded to the country's needs while drawing on my particular strengths and passions. I spent ages analysing the media, seeking advice, researching and reflecting.
I was particularly inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s book “ The Tipping Point” that describes how social phenomena (like smoking, crime and hush puppy shoes) spread like epidemics through populations. He pointed to the influencial role key individuals play.
I liked the idea of creating a social epidemic of science enthusiasm!
To do this I’d need to expand my understanding and circle of influence beyond the science community. In March 2010 this is what my sphere of work looked like:
And this is what I wanted it to look like at the end of the PM project adventure:
After much consideration I decided to start by focusing on social networking.
Why social networking?
• It’s immediate, responsive, seems to be the way of the future and I knew very little about it.
• With the internet taking over from mainstream media outlets like newspapers and TV there’s a huge increase in the quantity (not necessarily the quality) of media. This creates a problem of how to choose and who to trust. People turn to personal recommendations more and more.
• Social Networking has become a powerful way of making personal connections, building networks and spreading ideas.
My impulse was to connect with key individuals around New Zealand– the “rebellious optimists”, to hear about their visions and start to build the relationships that will allow collaborations to form. Hence was born "The Ripple Effect":
The purpose of this research phase is to:
• Expand my network into the spheres of the arts, community groups, environmental groups, business and education.
• Develop my understanding of the values, visions, motivations and culture of different groups
• Research opportunities for science communication and collaboration
• Identify key skills to develop in the learning activity phase
• Hone my social networking skills
I am now at the stage of gathering and synthesising my research – watch my blog for updates.
The learning activity phase, which began early this year, is all about developing skills, experience and confidence to contribute to a social epidemic of science enthusiasm.
Some of the skills I’ve chosen to focus on are:
• Public Speaking
• Presenting and Performance
• Podcast and Radio Production
• Artistic expression of science
• Social networking
I’m using the learning activity phase to reconnect with long buried artistic and performance skills and to integrate them into my science communication practice. By the end of the learning activity phase I aim to have developed a unique science communication brand and to be confident in expressing science through a range of media.
Learning activities include:
• Voice and presenting training
• Curating and presenting a Pecha Kucha Science Sessions night
• Producing and presenting a series of podcasts/ radio shows – “The Nano-Adventures of Elf and Loo”
• As much public speaking as possible!
In January 2012 I will start preparing for the inevitable transition back to normal life. I’ll be looking for opportunities to use the knowledge, capability and understanding I’ve gained to contribute to a social epidemic of science enthusiasm.
For me, the evening was confirmation that science and the arts (and even spirituality) really can go together and confirmed that my approach to science communication and the work I've been doing is working. It was the first time I'd brought the scientific and spiritual aspects of my life together in public and the response from the audience was so positive and affirming, it’s given me a boost of confidence to keep going.
My presentation took ages to prepare. There were so many cobwebs around my memories. At first I couldn't for the life of me remember why I studied physics when my best subject was art; why I felt so desperate in physics labs; what I was so inspired about when I was 15, why I became a science communicator… but slowly it came back - reading old diaries and trying to remember what I felt like at age 4, 10, 15, 20... The process unearthed all these buried creative urges. I started drawing to try explain my thoughts (something I haven’t done since high-school). Slowly, as the story unravelled I became aware of this thread of inspiration running through my life - the best word I could find to describe it was "Atman".
So, here it is, my Pecha Kucha Presentation:
“Atman – A life-time Inspiration”
Atman is an ancient Sanskrit word that means "your true self", "the universal spirit" or “everybody’s secret”.
I came across the word when I was 4 in my first class at the School of Philosophy. Sitting with “Uncle Norman”, a lovely old carpenter with white hair, who explained how the whole universe is contained in our hearts and how the same Atman that is our true self is also the true self of everything else – people, animals, plants. So, we should always do good things for others and stay in the present moment where the light of the Atman is shining.
I really liked the sound of this and I decided to dedicate my life to looking for Atman. I was 4 at the time, playing by the back door and it was a very rational decision – it seemed the best way to find out if it was all true.
When I was 10 I learnt to meditate. I was very strict and made sure my whole family meditated every morning and evening. As a teenager, my friends and I were inspired by the Italian Renaissance. We wanted to start one of our own. It would unite art, culture, science and spirituality and spread all over the world reconciling conflicts.
At night I spent hours on the roof of my house – fascinated by the space between the stars. I spoke with the moon, my deep soul friend. At these times I felt intoxicated by the magnificence of the universe and the whole valley seemed to pulse with hidden significance, with spirit – Atman.
This is my art teacher ripping my painting in two. I never understood why she did it and when it happened I felt like my heart got sat on. It seemed to be a common experience. I was really inspired by art, poetry and history but my grades were so dependent on my teacher’s opinions.
Science was something I could hold on to. Science and maths were reliable, honest and consistent. The laws of nature could be the judge and they wouldn’t let me down like my art and history teachers had.
I was also captivated by the way physics seemed to uncover the hidden significance in Nature. The fact that one law, like gravity, connected so many things– birds threading through the sky, planets orbiting, leaves falling. This was magic. Science provided the structure, Atman sparkled through and the whole thing was an artistic expression.
When I went to university I made it my mission to reunite science and the arts – the long lost friends. I planned to start with physics, to give me a solid grounding, then move towards art bringing them together as I go.
I fell in love with physics but studying it at uni felt like chasing a carrot that was always a centimetre away from my grasp. There was never time to focus on one topic long enough for it to soak in, to make connections and really understand it.
I remember once running out of a lab screaming. I wasn’t very technical so while my lab partner whipped around with wires and twiddled knobs and I often sat by feeling frustrated. We were always in a hurry to get to the result (which was already in the text book) so there wasn’t much sense of discovery.
I also felt stifled by the language we had to use. We had to strip all the personal pronouns out. So it wasn’t “I put the mass on the scales”. It had to be “the mass was placed on the scales”. There was no room for people, descriptions or humour.
By the end of my degree I felt defeated. I’d glimpsed something really magical then had it whipped away. I was also bursting with creative urges. Fortunately, I met Paul Callaghan, the Director of the new MacDiarmid Institute. He gave me a job travelling around the country interviewing scientists and writing about their research.
Finally I found a way into the magic. I didn’t have to do it myself. I could find it in others. It was like a treasure hunt. At first the research often sounded boring. But then I’d discover what the scientist was really passionate about. I’d follow that sense of spirit like a lead to the essence of the story. It was so satisfying to see their delight at having their story reflected back with them – the person – put back in.
I felt so encouraged I went to the UK to do a Masters in Science Communication. We studied the habits and customs of scientists as if they were an indigenous tribe from an unknown land. We looked at history, philosophy, sociology and ethics and I realised that many science customs are just quirks of history and culture.
Up till this point the scientist and spiritual parts of me had been minding their own business. During my Masters they began to talk and sometimes argue. This was disturbing. I wanted to reconcile this conflict. I also wondered whether it might reflect a wider conflict in society. So, in my dissertation I explored these questions.
Have you heard this story: a bunch of blind people go to visit an elephant. The one who touches the tail thinks: "mmm, an elephant is like a rope"; the one who touches the ear thinks "Hmm an elephant's like a fan"; the one by the leg thinks it’s like pillar and so on. Later they get into such an argument about what an elephant's like they end up bashing each other. This seemed to explain the conflict between scinece and spirituality well.
I wanted to see the whole elephant. So I started exploring. I toured the UK with a maths circus, directed a play for the Edinburgh Fringe, sang in bars, made podcasts of London tourist trails, hung out with Hari Krishnas and taught really naughty London kids science and Maths using creative dance.
When I got home to NZ everything started coming together. The barriers between people seemed lower. Things seemed small enough and flexible enough to change. I felt a strong connection with the science community. Then was awarded the PM’s science communication prize – a huge opportunity to work towards my dream.
When I look back I recognise that every stage of my journey there's been a search for Atman- that common spirit connecting people, ideas and cultures. I hope that all the experience I have gained will help me be that bridge between cultures. Who knows, there may be a Renaissance yet – there certainly seems to be something brewing.
Fortunately my long silence has been due to intense activity and adventure in the real world. And a transformation that, for a while, I wasn’t sure how to describe…
With 1 month to go the research phase for my PM prize is drawing to a close. Hooray!! It’s been inspiring, enlightening, overwhelming and transformational. It hasn’t gone at all to plan (does anything?) but has taught me a huge amount about NZ, about project management and myself.
When I set off on October the 10th last year I had imagined myself travelling care-free around the country – like the Topp twins when they toured NZ on a tractor; or the band Sigur Ros when they returned to Iceland and gave free concerts in villages.
But, to find people to go and visit I had to look on the internet.
In poured a multitude of possibilities - conferences, online networks, discussion forums, blogs… All fiercely interesting. New worlds in the arts, environmental sector, business, innovation, technology... I went to several conferences. I swapped hats and shoes.
Pretty soon I began to feel overwhelmed by the scope of my mission and all the information coming at me.
I saw so many possibilities for my future. Everyone I met made suggestions.
I made sure I didn’t commit to anything (this being my research phase) but I began to feel anxious that people would be expecting to see results from the Prime Minister’s Prize.
With all these underground expectations and decisions, when it came to Christmas I exploded.
Fortunately my brother Justin, who happens to be a professional project coach, was there to help. He pointed out that I’d been trying to do too many things at once. I needed more focus. So, over the next few weeks Justin and I put together a “Project Adventure Plan” (his words) with clear objectives and criteria for making decisions. We re-framed the Project Adventure in terms of my personal development and suddenly the question of what to do seemed simple.
I love performing - making people laugh, evoking a sense of the wonder, beauty and possibility. I love finding metaphors to describe science. I love editing radio programmes, interviewing scientists, seeing people from different backgrounds come together.
The Project Adventure Plan (which I’ll share with you in a separate post) focuses on using the things I love to enrich my skills in science communication.
To help me stay on track I’ve hired a coach – David Savage (or Sav for short). He’s brilliant and with his help and support the year has got off to an exciting start.
You’ve probably noticed that I’ve started drawing. This happened when I was preparing my presentation for the recent Pecha Kucha “Science Sessions” night that I co-curated at Downstage theatre on Feb 28th. My presentation was about my journey in science and spirituality. I’ll tell you more in another post!
In other news, I’ve acquired an office at Victoria University. I now work surrounded by the quiet bustlings of scientists. I can open any of the doors around me and find an electron microscope probing the depths of matter. When I get bored I turn my head slightly to the left and ask my neighbour about the nanoparticles she is making for super-efficient solar panels. It’s an exciting vibrating environment.
Over the next two months I’ll be gathering together the threads of my research while moving into the next phase of my PM Project Adventure - the “Learning Activity Phase” Amongst other activities I'll be producing a series of podcasts - "The Nano-Adventures of Elf and Loo" with a young physicist called Elf. It's very exciting and I'll tell you more in a future post...
For now I would just like to say
To John Key for the PM’s Prize;
To my brother Justin for directing my explosion into a “Project Adventure Plan”;
To Sav for helping me translate ideas into To Do lists; To Shaun Hendy for sorting me out an office at Uni; To Paul Callaghan for being a constant source of inspiration;
And to everyone else around me for being so massively encouraging.