Communicating Science

By . Published on 19 June 2017 in:
Events, June 2017, ,

Communicating science is a notoriously thorny subject.   On the one hand, there has never been a greater acknowledgement of our collective need for scientific understanding.   In our technologically sophisticated age, it is often maintained, it is paramount to develop a scientifically literate society to allow us to best grapple with a litany of pressing, often science-related, issues.

But while the pace of technological progress is undebatable, it is rather less clear that it has been accompanied by a corresponding societal-wide increase in public awareness of scientific principles or the scientific process.  Moreover, there are now serious concerns that the very act of modern “communication”, with its superficial soundbites and unreflective posturing, is actually antithetical to the sort of measured, objective reflection that rigorous scientific inquiry demands.

But looks might be deceiving.   In my experience there is often far more interest in science among the general population than is often given credit for.  The problem is that, all too often, there is no real opportunity for non-specialists to meaningfully engage.

Years ago, when running Canada’s Perimeter Institute, I decided to develop a comprehensive public outreach program of lectures, seminars, concerts and festivals.   And, much to my delight, the public responded promptly and enthusiastically, with our flagship monthly lecture series regularly attracting more than 500 people.    

One of the most popular activities was the informal one-on-one discussion I began to regularly conduct on-stage after a lecture, allowing people a rare, inside glimpse of the motivations, frustrations, and day-to-day lifestyle of a top-level scientist – exploring the human element within its proper scientific context.

Years later, when developing Ideas Roadshow, I realized that modern filming and editing technology would allow this idea to be scaled globally, by producing a spectrum of candid, carefully-edited conversations with leading researchers that anyone would be able to watch on her phone or tablet while traveling or commuting.

And so it is that we have now managed to capture uniquely revealing thoughts of the likes of Roger Penrose, Paul Steinhardt, Tony Leggett, Joanna Haigh, Nima Arkani-Hamed, and many more, together with specially-crafted documentary-style compilation videos that present clips of a spectrum of different ideas around a central theme.

The response, happily, has once again been very strong – and not just among non-specialists.  For it turns out, unsurprisingly, that many practicing physicists are also keen to get the straight goods on what the likes of Freeman Dyson are thinking.   And now they can.

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Editorial – It is thanks to you

The annual Council Meeting of the European Physical Society was held on 31 March – 1 April 2017 at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light in Erlangen, Germany. The EPS Council is composed of representatives of the 42 EPS Member Societies and the chairpersons of the 12 Divisions, 6 Groups, and 6 Committees. Individual Members and Associate Members are each represented by 5 elected delegates. A more extensive summary of the Council meeting can be read in the report by G. Gunaratnam.