I’ve written previously about the unnecessary scepticism with which I used to view science festivals and how that was blown away by my experience of the British Science Association’s festival in Aberdeen last summer. For the past 2 weeks my new found love of these festivals has continued to grow thanks to me thoroughly enjoying the festival being held in my current city. All the more so as instead of just being an observer this year I was invited to give a lecture to open the talks in the Arts Lecture Theatre on ‘Science on Saturday,’ the festival’s busiest day when over 100 free events took place across Cambridge. Later on in the same room Helen Arney took up her ukulele and my good friends Matt Wilkinson and Phil Cox took people through the evolution of locomotion and how to understand an animal’s behaviour by eyeballing the anatomy of its skull.
My talk focused on mammals: why they’ve become so successful, the diversity of forms that existed during the Mesozoic period and the synapsids that skulked around the world before dinosaurs evolved (an idea that itself evolved out of the activity book I’d been working on with Flying Eye Books).
There was a lot to cover, and I was nervous. It probably hadn’t helped that Cambridge 105 had decided to interview me about the talk and Cambridge University’s press team massively bigged-up the lecture up on their research website.
Although I like signing myself up for things like this and saying ‘yes’ to too many invitations, I still suffer enormously from nerves before speaking. At the Symposium of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy in Lyme Regis a couple of years ago I was so brimming over with nervous tension I tried to expel some of it by jogging on the spot and lunging at the back of the hall. Unfortunately I picked a spot where a pool of late afternoon light was falling through an open door, meaning poor Phil who was speaking before me had to complete his talk with the specter of a skinny legged silhouette prancing around in his periphery. He soldiered on admirably. Similarly, if you had spotted me before I gave “Dinobores: why mammals are way cool” on the new museums site on Saturday, you would have seen me jumping up and down with Passion Pit mushing up my ears (don’t judge me… it’s a great album).
In the end, I needn’t have been so scared. This was a family friendly talk introducing concepts such as mass extinctions, tooth occlusion and endothermy, not a precise description of my work on the vestibule of eulipotyphlans in front of experts. But that isn’t to say I didn’t have to be accurate. Talking about anything even vaguely related to dinosaurs to an audience half made up of children won’t be easy… they know a lot (which is why I talked about pseudosuchians more than theropods).
Two things come to mind to write about in the wake of Dinobores: One: educating is fun and people liked to be educated. This is something that’s been obvious to me at previous events I’ve held in the University’s Zoology Museum. Maybe this was due to me talking about palaeobiology. Zoology is, let’s face it, inherently interesting, and when talking about the history of life on Earth I was able to draw on animals that people just didn’t know about. Multitubuculates and Repenomamus drew blank faces from everyone in the audience but after my talk the parents and kids who came up to say thank you made me hope that maybe Obdurodon and Morganucodon might just end up being words as familiar to them as Triceratops and Parasaurolophus.
This feedback leads onto my second point about science festivals: my friends who work as scientists told me in the pub later that day that after watching me they now really wanted to get involved and do more outreach.
Now scientists can fall into two camps: either they’re constrained by protocols and lab work and find outreach a difficult activity to squeeze into their meticulously planned days, or they’re more like me, in that their science is flexible & outreach can be easily slipped into a day: reading, writing and analyses can be done at any time, and anywhere. Although this is a slippery slope that can lead to the break down of the work/life partition (trust me… when I call myself a zoologist, that’s what I am… maybe I used to be more interesting), as a PhD student this is perhaps less of an issue and so it’s the perfect time to put yourself forward and talk to the public about the work you’re doing that, in all likelihood, is being funded by them.
So rather than celebrate the use of science festivals in enabling the public to interact with scientists away from their often impenetrable, jargon-rich papers, I’d like to call on scientists to take some time when a science festival rolls into their town and wander around. If not just to take the opportunities to see some exciting famous people (Cambridge was awash… one half of wittertainment was speaking at the same time as me) then to see how exciting it is to talk about your work to members of the public.
That old adage that if you can’t explain something to your grandma then you probably don’t understand it yourself (attributed to Einstein, but I haven’t double checked) might be a little harsh on those scientists that deal with the minute details of, say, quantum entanglement, but talking about your work to non-specialists helps solidify what it is exactly that you do. Maybe, just maybe, an audience of kids and interested adults could help you think outside the box just a little and help you reach that conclusion that you might not otherwise have been able to grasp.
Kids are the champions of leftfield questions and they don’t need to be told to be sceptical or to ask those horribly prickly questions. They never stop asking ‘why,’ and neither should we.