Monday, 24 June 2013

Taking physics to new audiences: a realisation

A few months ago an amazing thing happened. I talked to my identical twin sister about my research.

We've lived on opposite sides of the world for the last six years and she didn't really know much about what I was doing, other than working on something to do with particle physics. Perhaps this situation with my sister seems odd to you, so let me explain how we ended up with this state of affairs.

Yep, that's really us. Cute, huh?
My sister and I got almost identical marks throughout high school (in Australia) except she'd do slightly better in the humanities and I'd do slightly better in the sciences. We were both pretty academic so the distinction was pretty trivial, but over time she leaned more towards history and I leaned more towards maths and physics. She's now a professional historian and part-time rock star, but that's another story.

The last time we discussed science was when I was in my fourth year of my undergraduate physics course at Melbourne University. We ended up in a heated argument about nuclear power in which she refused to acknowledge or even discuss the possibility that it might not be evil incarnate destined to mutate our children into three-eyed monsters in the way that she supposed had happened in Chernobyl. I believe our conversation ended with her announcing she had no interest in science and that I knew nothing. Well, that was that. 

We simply spoke about other topics while she pursued her career in history and I pursued mine in physics. Don't worry, it didn't ruin our relationship, it's just that after this event I didn't tell her much about my work. She remained my greatest science communication challenge.

This went on for about five years.

Then a few weeks ago I explained to her (via Facebook, the shame!) that I work on developing particle accelerators. I want to figure out how to make them smaller, cheaper and more efficient. I want to understand how they work and come up with new ones to solve problems in the world. At the moment the problem I'm focusing on is energy and nuclear waste.

To sum up my current research I said:

I'm currently working on designing a high power proton accelerator to drive something called an Accelerator Driven Subcritical Reactor. It's nuclear fission but without the nasty a) waste, b) proliferation risk, c) meltdowns and d) public perception issues. It uses Thorium instead of Uranium in the core & doesn't produce plutonium. As a bonus, it could transmute the long lived nuclear waste of existing power plants.

To my utter surprise she was interested and actually shared my explanation of what I do with her mostly non-academic music-loving rockstar friends.

The response?

"Fricking yes!"

"Nerdgasm. Science is awesome."


"Glad to hear it!" 

"Super fricking sweet!" 

"Thorium \m/ metal!" 

"That's hot!" 

Some of them even went on to ask more questions, look things up or just generally praise the fact that there are people out there working on new ideas like this. 

That was when it hit me. My sister and her friends aren't disaffected or disinterested. They are concerned, as concerned as anyone else out there about the issues facing us as a society. They simply don't feel that what they learned many years ago in high school will help them to be any more informed or knowledgable about what is happening, right now, in our society. 

I mean how is calculating the velocity of a falling ball in a vacuum going to help them to know whether they are justified in driving a gas-guzzling vintage car because it has prevented a new one from having to be built? How will rolling a ball down an inclined plane help them understand the effects of climate change and the risk and uncertainty involved?

They might not have degrees in science, but this unspeakably cool switched-on crowd still crave scientific knowledge and understanding.

However, their information comes in dribs and drabs. They aren't the kind to go to a "science" talk or to even read an article in a newspaper (have you SEEN how jargon-filled some articles on the LHC are nowadays? The journalists might as well be doing the physics!). It's fair to say our standard avenues of science communication simply don't reach this crowd**.

They are the kind of audience who might read one thing and be convinced one way, then have another conversation and be convinced another way. That's healthy. Letting new insight and evidence overthrow previous ideas; that's science. But it's hard for them to wade through the absolute rubbish out there on the internet and find the good stuff. That's why we communicate science, as best we can.

It got me thinking though. For audiences like this one perhaps scientists are only part of the picture? The experience of briefly getting involved in the scientific process and understanding the challenge from our perspective is great, but let's face it, it's not enough. These people are constantly faced with issues like climate change and GM food but they don't necessarily want to focus on the problems, they want to focus on solutions. They want answers. Society wants answers.

But for some of the biggest problems we face there is one big issue with that: science simply doesn't have all the answers. 

Instead of just looking at the science itself we need to understand society, how it works and how the historical picture fits, in order to actually make things happen. Even the best technological solutions won't win without the right approach, just like betamax vs VHS.

I hope I can use this experience to inform my science communication in the future. I feel I've probably spent too much time insisting that the science is the most important part, while neglecting avenues for engagement and missing the point of 'what people want'. I think a more integrated approach is in order.

I have learned something about connecting with disengaged audiences and perhaps I'm getting better at understanding how to make science fit in with the bigger picture of history, politics, society and culture.

Thanks, sis.

**I'm glad to see new initiatives taking science to music festivals, something I'll be doing myself for the first time this summer!

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Monday, 3 June 2013

Guest post: How Many Atoms Does It Take To Make A Pair Of High Heels?

Today's post is brought to you by Jamie Flook - a reader who contacted me to offer a guest post for my blog. An interesting email conversation ensued and this is the result. Enjoy! 
- Suzie.

About Jamie:
As a young man from the West Country who went to a school that specialized in killing aspirations, I am perhaps an unusual specimen of Hominidae.  Naturally curious of life's most mysterious offerings, thinking is probably my greatest pleasure, vice and affliction all at the same time.  I am a developing writer with a fascination for many subjects including that of particle physics, largely because so much of it remains a mystery to me.  Equally I also love books, travel, films, history, chocolate and tuna salad baguettes.  Writing is a great way for me to communicate my thoughts without getting spat in the face if I get it spectacularly wrong I feel.  Oh and I'd just like to clarify about the baguettes, I did mean chocolate as a separate entity and not mixed with the tuna.  I'm not like that, I promise you.  

Having given much consideration as to what would make an appropriate topic for my first guest post for Suzie’s blog, I ran through all sorts of weird and wonderful ideas in my head.  Maybe I could write about my theory of atoms being conscious or maybe I could write about the true nature of reality and what we would really see in front of our eyes if our minds were completely free from the restrictions of human instincts and conditioning?  You know what I mean, really deep thought-provoking stuff.

So it was with much pride that I came up with a topic I’m entitling ‘how many atoms does it take to make a pair of high heels?’  I’m not a physicist like Suzie so I have an easier time reading about particle physics than I do writing about it.  However the reason I wanted to give it a try is the same reason that I am fascinated by the subject in the first place – curiosity about what really is the extent of human potential.

Bill Bryson once told me in ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ that atoms are seemingly able to communicate with each other at vast distances instantaneously.  Since that book was written there has been much media coverage about ‘atomic communication’ (Suzie have I just invented a new respectable scientific phrase?  Please say yes!)  This led me in turn to think about the possibility of being able to send information faster than the speed of light.

I once emailed the famous physicist Professor Lisa Randall to put my suggestion to her.  I thought probably she would report me as spam and that I would then get a rollicking from Yahoo.  Instead she replied by saying something along the lines of ‘not unless Lorentz symmetry is broken.’  This was a new term to me and I had to consult one of my trusted advisors on its meaning.  Sadly though I didn’t understand what Wikipedia was talking about when I looked it up and so I decided we needed some time apart before I would visit the site again.

However what I thought was pretty awesome was that at some point, Professor Randall must have thought as a young undergraduate, how far can I really go?  In a field that was centuries old, most of the most famous names – Einstein, Newton, Tesla, Dirac, Planck, Hawking etc, were male.  There must have been times when she thought is it worth trying?  Can I really achieve my dreams in such a male-dominated field?

I think that Professor Randall and Suzie are living proof that the limits of what one think is achievable can always be pushed higher.  Reading through Suzie’s blog, I kind of became a bit more aware of something that in truth I already knew and that is the reality that there is a startling dearth of women in science.  And I wondered why?

I think as someone who comes from another socio-economic group that is under-represented in top-level science, that I maybe have a grasp of the reason why.  I keep an open-mind on everything so I emphasize my use of the word ‘maybe’.

I entitled this blog post ‘How many atoms does it take to make a pair of high heels?’  There is a reason for that.  

When I looked up high heels on Wikipedia, it quickly became clear I was out of my depth.  The entry was very in-depth and talked about such varieties as cone heels, kitten heels and even one type called crocodile heels which unsettled me a little bit so I closed the page.  I can’t even imagine the damage that a physicist who wears crocodile heels might do.  However I’m guessing that the aforementioned feet attire is instantly familiar to my feline friends and foes.  

My point is that I wanted to postulate on the possibility that maybe in order to attract a particular audience to a subject, it could be beneficial to do so using themes and people that they can identify with.  I wondered would the addition of make up and high heels and emotions in science make any difference in shifting the status quo?  I put this question to Suzie and she felt that feminizing science in this way would not be the way forward.  “There is some evidence that overly-feminine scientist role models actually put off aspiring female scientists.  The assumption is that girls aspire to being either smart or pretty/feminine & to present a role model who is both of those things make them it seems, even less attainable than one or the other.  My view is that at the very least we should make sure that the way science and careers in science are presented don't actively dissuade a particular gender or minority from pursuing it. Perhaps if science were seen as more feminine it would put men off? We can't afford that though - we need the best minds regardless of gender or background.  I would argue that simply changing how science is presented (and taught - in fact a lot of thought goes into gender neutral teaching) is not enough... this issue is not that simple.  The lack of women and other under-represented groups is a complex issue and there are a lot of subtleties such as subconscious bias, societal conditioning etc.”

I personally think that society does not help the attraction of science as a career for women.  The media holds up the finest examples of female success as being the likes of Jordan and whoever the latest pop star is to have something called a ‘wardrobe malfunction’.  They have the most money, they have the most adulation and the reality is that young women see these people as also having the most opportunities.  We need to celebrate the scientists and intellectuals more.  Both male and female.

What I have learned from discussing the issue of why women are not attracted to careers in science with Suzie is that the issue does seem to be a complex one.  However if I was to allow myself to fantasize a little, the unique beauty of particle physics is that it always dangles in front of us distant possibilities of being able so solve all of life’s problems.  I would like to hope that in future, more young women are playing a part at the very edge of scientific exploration, helping to find answers to some of our most fascinating questions.  

Oh and how many atoms does it take to make a pair of high heels?  I promise I tried to find the answer, I really did, but first I had to find out the average size heels and then I had to try work out what they are usually made of material-wise.  In the end I gave in because the heels combined with particle physics was beginning to give me a hadron.