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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