James is a communications and engagement officer at a bioscience research institute and a freelance science communicator and trainer. He’s been writing and presenting science shows since 1995.
Radio 4 programme: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05w3xpk
Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.
Maybe I’m getting a bit old but there isn’t much that ‘amazes’ me but I do have experiences which get me thinking and which I am keen to share with others. I heard a short talk on Jurisprudence recently for example which really got me thinking, and in the past week I have built a rocket launcher and extracted DNA from strawberries. Both simple but not things I have done before and are both cool.
How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?
Wonder is a feeling of awe and surprise. Something which challenges and changes your way of thinking. It might be something which is unexpectedly beautiful or delightful. Wonder is a positive response generating happiness and a desire to share what you have found. Curiosity is a drive a need to find out more, something which comes from you whereas wonder is something which happens to you. We can use wonder to stimulate curiosity in others and that’s something I try to do in my work.
What inspires you to be creative?
I’m not sure that I’m inspired to be creative but I like to share things I discover. I’m particularly interested in finding ways to share stories which connect with people directly.
Do you have any ‘rituals’ or an environment that aids your creativity?
My best ideas come when trying to get to sleep, or in the bath. In a relaxed space with an inner dialogue running ideas around my head.
What do you love about magic?
I like the suspension of disbelief. I like being fooled in the same way some people like being terrified on roller coasters
What do you think hinders an audience from experiencing wonder when watching a magician?
Questioning what they see, or trying to find the way a trick works
Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?
We are driven to find patterns in the world around us. I think our sense of wonder comes from our need to find connections between things. Anything that doesn’t fit a pattern can be scary, disturbing, delightful or wonderful.
One of your skills is taking the mundane and making it fascinating. It’s compelling to listen to you talk about your discoveries. How do you find the fascinating?
Honestly I don’t know. I can only think that things seem fascinating because audiences mirror my own response. For example I am fascinated and amazed by the coconut crab. Ask me about it and though I have described it many times over the years, my eyes will light up,I will get excited about the discovery as though it were new.
If I were to describe you I’d say you’re a modern-day Peter Pan. What’s the secret of not growing up? Of being childlike without being childish?
One of the most rewarding things about my job is when other professionals recognise something I do. So thanks for that comment. What we do doesn’t happen by accident, or if it does the skill is to remember and repeat it. I deliberately keep a child-like fascination in things and hope to share it with others. The flip side is the shock of realising that I’m older than most of the ‘grown-ups’ that I meet. The biggest challenge and something I stress in training is the importance of remembering that whilst you may have said those words or seen a demonstration a hundred times it is the first time the audience have seen it. Try to remember how you felt on your first time.
A few years ago, you experienced a traumatic brain injury, one of the things that marked your recovery was your curiosity into the injury, symptoms and clinical procedures you underwent. What you learnt from that has been turned both into a presentation and into various ongoing campaigns. Can you tell me more?
I gave my first talk to describe to friends and colleagues what had happened and to say thanks to people that helped. The other thing that happened as I wrote the show, was that it became a way of proving to myself that I could still do my job. It was a huge part of my recovery to be able stand up and talk, and for people to laugh and cry – not from sympathy but because I was actually good!
I secured funding to develop the talk and toured it round the country, in turn this led to an award-winning radio programme. Listen here.
I am currently writing a sort of spin-off show about neuropsychology. Based on my own experience and rooted in real-life context but exploring wider understanding of the brain and human behaviour.
I have also become involved in research as a lay member giving a personal input to brain injury and helping medics make information accessible to wide audiences. It is very rewarding and a way of giving something back to the teams that saved my life.
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