One of the most rewarding experiences in preparing for the International Year of Light next year has been to see at firsthand just how many physicists are committed to science outreach. It has been extremely encouraging to learn about the many outreach initiatives throughout Europe. With global concern about public misunderstanding of science and technology, outreach is a hot topic, and ambitious programmes such as the Horizon 2020 “Science with and for Society” aim precisely at developing innovative ways of connecting science with the public.
“Outreach” is of course a very broad term, encompassing many different types of activity. Many research institutes, museums and universities have very well-organised programs of events and activities that are extremely effective in promoting science and making real contributions to public science education.
Yet even though outreach is often supported by dedicated teams in large organizations, we should never forget that the very nature of communicating science to the public was started by scientists themselves, fitted in within all their other activities. Michael Faraday’s Children’s Christmas Lectures at London’s Royal Institution which began in 1825 are considered one of the earliest examples; Einstein himself wrote that his 1920 book on Relativity was aimed to give insight to readers interested in the theory but without the mathematics of theoretical physics; and Carl Sagan’s writings and series on cosmology have inspired millions.
There are many other examples that I could give of course (add your own in the Comments below!) but the main message here is that there is no contradiction between carrying out high level research and performing active public communication of what we do. Of course there are cases where some individuals may prefer to avoid public lectures, but when physicists are enthusiastic and motivated and able to effectively communicate science to the public, they should be fully supported to be able to do so.
Naturally, outreach has to be balanced with the other demands of a modern academic career, but we should all continue to fight that outreach work is recognized. This is especially important for younger researchers, who are often both the most effective at public communication, and also the most under pressure to publish. But I do not believe that senior scientists should leave this only to younger researchers either! We are all concerned by the importance of public communication of physics, and wherever possible we all need to get involved.
The International Year of Light 2015 will provide many examples where physicists at all career stages can discover the pleasure and reward of public communication, and so let’s not miss this chance. EPS staff and members of its divisions and groups have a great deal of experience in outreach efforts, and so please do not hesitate to contact us if you wish to learn about resources and opportunities. It’s up to us!