“But science is so much more than a tool to be bent to the will of men – it is a looking glass that allows us to peer into the machinery that drives life the Universe and everything”
This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Ben Gilliland.
Where are you based?
In a spare bedroom at my home in West Sussex (like a forgotten teddy bear)
Who do you work for?
I’m a freelance writer/illustrator. Most of the work I do is for the Metro newspaper (with my MetroCosm science column) and my website cosmonline.co.uk. Occasionally I dip my toes in other websites and write books.
What type of science communication do you do?
99.99 per cent of it is written and illustrated but I can occasionally be tempted out to teach young people (I did a few stints at the splendid Queen Mary University of London teaching in their Media Space Summer School) and speak to scientists about communicating with the public and media outlets.
Who is your main audience?
Anyone who is interested in science and anyone who doesn’t yet know they are interested in science. I am extraordinarily lucky to have a national forum like the Metro newspaper (with some 3.5 million readers a day) to tell people about the wonders of science.
I use my MetroCosm pages to ambush unwary commuters who may not actively seek out science stories and (attempt) to dazzle and amaze them with some pretty complex science (cunningly disguised as something bright, colourful and fun).
In other words, I get to talk science with a terrific cross-section of the British public – everyone from young children (who take MetroCosm into school) and students to business people and the elderly.
How did you get into it?
Via a slightly unorthodox route.
I started off as a graphic artist and joined the Metro as graphics editor in 1999. When you are creating information graphics you have to be able to reduce a subject down to its component parts and use a combination of imagery and words to explain how something works – it turns out that this is great way to communicate science.
I have always been excited by science and could never understand why everyone else didn’t feel the same way – drinking sessions with my mates invariably ended with me passionately explaining some kind of scientific theory or phenomenon (I once took over a pub pool table to explain nuclear fusion).
Figuring I needed an outlet for my pent-up science frustrations, in 2005, I approached the Metro’s editor, Kenny Campbell, and asked if he’d give me a page every week to talk about science. Incredibly he agreed and my unexpected career as a science writer was born.
Why do you think science communication is important?
Oh it’s not just important, it is crucial. For a civilisation powered by science and technology, it is shameful (and dangerous) that so many of us are ignorant of even the basic foundations on which our world is built.
We are entering an age in which humanity’s future will depend upon science finding solutions to the likes of global warming, food and energy crises and other population-driven problems. If the public and decision-makers are ignorant of (or resistant to) the science that is warning us there is a problem, humanity will never embrace the solutions that science can offer.
Without these solutions, we will find our new global civilisation will be doomed to repeat the ruinous mistakes made by countless other civilisations thought history – the difference this time will be that the collapse of this ‘civilisation’ could mean the collapse of mankind.
Unfortunately, many people are turned off by science because much of the coverage it gets is based around things like climate change and energy etc – which can give the impression that science always has an agenda.
But science is so much more than a tool to be bent to the will of men – it is a looking glass that allows us to peer into the machinery that drives life the Universe and everything. Science can be awe-inspiring, beautiful and humbling – it makes me profoundly sad that so many people lack to tools to appreciate this.
What do you love about science communication?
An understanding of science opens up a marvellous new world that can turn even the seemingly mundane into a source of wonder.
When I talk to kids, I often tell them that even something as dull as a school desk can be fascinating if you look at it from a scientific point of view. I ask them to consider that the desk is made up of atoms that are mostly composed of empty space and the only thing that stops their hand passing through it is the magnetic repulsion that comes from the electrical charge of those atoms.
If we do it right, as science communicators, we can break though people’s resistance to science and unveil the curiosity that is inherently present within us all.
The best part of communicating science is the reaction you get from your audience – and the best reaction of all is one tiny, three-letter palindrome: “wow”.
What has been your favourite project?
It sounds corny but my favourite project is my entire job. I am extraordinarily privileged to be able to do something I love, about a subject a love.
Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?
I am just about to start writing my first ‘proper’ book, which will be published in the UK, US and Europe (in fact, I really should have started already). That’ll keep me busy for most of 2013, but I hope to squeeze in a few other projects in between.
Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?
Know your audience. Don’t talk down to your audience. Entertain your audience. Take a few risks and accept that you will make mistakes. When you make mistakes, feel mortified and then learn from them. If possible, never turn anything down – it might lead you to an unexpected place.