STEM communicator, physics music graduate, passionate about performance and people. lecturer Cardiff uni & founder of science made simple
Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.
Making hot chocolate and noticing that as you stir the powder into the hot milk the pitch of the sound of your spoon against the mug keeps rising – seemingly forever – till you stir it up again. Each time I notice this I feel amazed that you can make something vaguely musical by changing nothing but the bubbles in a hot drink. I feel intrigued and always wonder if other people notice things like this, or if it’s just me!
How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?
Wonder is appreciating the beauty of something – but not just aesthetic beauty. Awe is feeling slightly inferior to someone or to an effect that is so beyond what you can imagine it is.on the verge of unreal. Curiosity is like a little itch in your head that keeps bothering you until you scratch it (with new knowledge).
Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?
It is inherent in all children from birth I think – the rate of things you see that cause wonder decreases fast as you grow up though. You have to stay in touch with your inner child to keep a sense of wonder. And keep learning new things as I am almost always blown away when I find out what I don’t know IF someone explains it in a way I can grasp.
What does the word “simple” mean to you?
Crisp, clean, with lots of white space (or silence?). Not too densely packed with new information. Taking it one step at a time? I get pushback from research scientists who say; You can’t make science simple. It is beautiful and complex and hard“. I agree it is beautiful, but the entry points can be made simple. It isn’t easy to do and you do reach limits where you need some mathematical ability to get to the next level – but I honestly think with hard work you can give people access to almost any bit of science if you understand how to use words well. Quite often the science itself might be invisible so you have to work harder with visualisations and analogies but it is always possible. I think the more you know about a subject the harder it is to explain it simply. You just forget what it was like not to know all that stuff!
Can you tell me more about your career and some of the highlights along the way? How did Science Made Simple come about?
Mostly thanks to an opportunity from the IOP! I was offered the post of National Schools Lecturer in 2000 and developed a presentation called ‘Music to your Ears’ I was working as an Education Manager at Techniquest in Cardiff but after the tour finished I kept getting requests from schools for the presentation so I thought perhaps there was a market for a travelling physics shows company! Since then the company has grown from just one person to over 8 staff and we now have a range of over 15 shows on offer. Originally my mission was to focus on physics shows for secondary schools but now we have a much wider range of shows and talk to audiences of all aged from 2 to 92!
You have a particular interest in the science of music. Can you tell me more? Does your love of music impact your science and v.v.?
I am definitely fascinated by how sounds are made, and how we interpret a pressure wave as things of great emotion and substance. Just like with magic and awe, I’ve always been more impressed with music when I understand a bit about what ‘tricks’ you can use to create it. When I discovered the rules of harmony and that you can basically create music by formula I was blown away as it seemed to open up music to anyone who could just follow some simple rules – and this made it seem less elitist. I guess my science communication passion is similar – I think if you can give people the ‘secrets’ they can go on and feel empowered to ask more questions and find out stuff for themselves.
Your company has developed a show called Visualise, how can you teach physics in a show with no words?
Well, the point isn’t really to teach physics. We want the show to inspire curiosity so that people to go away and find out more for themselves. We actually want the audience to have unanswered questions so they feel motivated to go away and do some research themselves. But if people do want more specific information we offer audience notes that explain the phenomena featured in the show. The other aim for the show was to appeal to new audiences who prefer learning in a visual way and those who would not normally go to a science event. We have toured the show to 11 countries and have appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival three times to rave reviews from the press and were shortlisted for a Theatre award, which I am very proud of considering we were up against many professional theatre companies.
What do you love about magic?
Am I allowed to say I hate magic? I hate magic. For me it is intensely frustrating knowing that magic doesn’t exist (sorry) so I know there is a technique but can’t always work out (or be bothered to work out) how a trick is done.
Magic is built on the premise that the person on the stage knows something that the audience doesn’t and that makes them look clever. I am only ever impressed by magicians when I understand the trick and then I admire the dexterity or psychology of how the person is able to deceive you. I find more magic in seeing something counter-intuitive which is then explained to me. The explanation is the magic, so I’m not great with traditional magicians.
My love of showing the magic within science is creating a level playing field and sharing the wonder of a real thing. That can’t happen with magic as the whole premise only works if the audience don’t know something. At its worst it can also be a smug thing but I do admire the talent magicians have, however I am mainly most impressed when I know what it is they have succeeded in doing – and I appreciate that kind of takes away the magic as far as some audiences go. Perhaps it is an example of me being just too science-y. To me the wonder in the world comes from that moment of understanding of how something works, and the wonder of magic only works if you don’t know how it works. So perhaps they are always just meant to be polar opposites?
Do you think as science communicators we often explain things too quickly and to our audience’s detriment?
In terms of actual presentation style, yes, almost everyone speaks too fast to give time for people to follow all the information, especially if new concepts are coming thick and fast. Some research suggests that 100 words per minute is the optimum delivery speed for both retention of new information and for the importance someone gives that information. This is much slower than most presenters deliver, and would also sound dire and boring if always at that pace. But it is worth thinking about when you try and write content to be delivered. As science types I think we sometimes feel we have to cover every single detail so we cram too much in. It is usually much better to get people to go with you on the journey by asking lots of questions. Researchers often worry about patronising an audience but I think there is no harm in starting too simple as people like to feel like they know something, so reinforcement is no bad thing. As long as your tone of voice doesn’t sound like you are speaking down to them. Silence is so powerful that I am trying hard to build in more silence to my presenting to give people time to absorb what they see or hear.
Recently you’ve started lecturing in science communication. What are some of the challenges new students face and what have you learnt from them?
As with most of the population, new students are quite nervous about presenting to an audience, especially when it is their peers. This is universal to almost everyone I have trained over the last 20+ yrs so I suppose not that surprising. I think because they are students who have opted to study physics at University, they also find it hard to put themselves into the shoes of those people who just don’t see why they should care about physics. I’ve learnt that these are now students of a generation who have never known a world with no Google in it. I worry that this instant access to any fact, experiment or YouTube version of something means that hunger to find out for yourself doesn’t have long enough to manifest into something else. Although they are voracious consumers of media, I am not sure they find it easy to critically review what they see and differentiate credible vs non credible stories.
What do you think are the issues for Science Communicators in general?
I think there needs to be a better way of us all helping improve the quality of what we do. There is so little invested in professionalising this field, and much of the funding is directed at scientists who want to take their first steps on the road to communicating with the public. Although I appreciate that more scientists should get involved, at the end of the day they have an important job to do – doing science and don’t have loads of time to spare. Those who have decided to dedicate their career to science communication deserve proper career development too, but the limited funds in the field mean this can be quite difficult. It would be great to see some kind of official accreditation so we could maintain a level of quality in the communication activities we all do and help each other to improve every time we deliver a presentation.
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