“Make sure it’s enjoyable to you. If it’s not, it probably won’t be to anyone else.”
This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Paul Stevenson
Where are you based?
Who do you work for?
University of Surrey
What type of science communication do you do?
Mostly giving talks and writing a blog.
Who is your main audience?
To be honest, I don’t really know who reads the blog. From some of the comments or re-postings, I know it at least includes some combination of other lecturers, also PhD students, undergrad students, and people with a general interest in science who come via internet searches.
For the talks, that varies depending on who invites me. It ranges from schoolkids either via schools or science centres, up to retired people, who seem to run a lot of events.
How did you get into it?
I suppose it was always something I thought was a good idea, but it was only when I started working at the University of Surrey, in 2000, and I got talking to Jim Al-Khalili. At the time, he was not as famous as he is now, but had already done a lot of outreach activity which had led to his first book. He encouraged me, and has provided plenty of help and guidance along the way
Why do you do it?
Lots of reasons: it’s fun to get out of the University and go and talk to people. Science is often misunderstood, but there’s a lot of appetite to understand it better, and to the extent that I can help, I’d like to try. I think it’s good to tell people what taxpayers’ money is spent on. Also, I think you have to be a bit of a show-off and like to get up in front of people. I always did amateur dramatics and things like that as a kid.
Why do you think science communication is important?
Though I do think it is the right thing to do to make sure taxpayers know what their money is used for, I think the most important thing is to try to get people to understand science, and scientific theories of the world and universe, better. Appreciating that there are ways of thinking about problems that means you can arrive at solutions that are likely to work and likely to be true and general is a powerful and amazing thing that has not always been part of human endevour. It doesn’t have to be part of all of it, but I think it’s important to share that it’s there.
What do you love about science communication?
Partly the showing-off in front of people, also the immediate interaction, the conversation and the feedback, which is much slower in my research job which works more on the timescales of writing research articles, sending them off, having them reviewed, all of which takes weeks or months. Except research conferences, which work a bit the same way as much science communication.
What has been your favourite project?
That’s quite difficult, as each one is quite different. I have enjoyed some of the things I’ve done where it’s not been me talking, but arranging events, but I suppose the taking part is a bit more fun for me. It was awesome to speak at the Royal Institution (thanks to Jim Al-Khalili for inviting me). That was years ago, now, but something I’ve enjoyed doing recently was Bright Club, which was a kind of stand-up comedy club for academics. If you search for Guildford Bright Club on the web you can find my sets.
Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?
My main research areas is nuclear physics, and I’m planning to write a smart phone/tablet app that lets you explore lots of cool things to do with nuclear physics in what I hope is a sufficiently fun way to get people to engage with it. I spent most of my childhood in my darkened bedroom programming computers, so though I don’t do it so much now, I think I could write a nice app successfully.
Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?
It depends a bit what stage you are at in your academic career. If you are like me, and didn’t really start doing it until you were a lecturer, then it’s quite easy – more so these days since university departments actively encourage it and usually have someone to help, so talk to them and volunteer to talk to school kids. Don’t fret when your first one comes up and give it your best shot.
If you’re a PhD or undergrad student, look out for opportunities at your uni, and also get involved with the appropriate professional society (e.g. Institute of Physics for me or other physicists). You can get in touch too with the British Science Associations, who do lots of great outreach activities and are happy to enlist the help of volunteer students. Starting to write a blog is an easy way in. Try to give it a personal flavour, so talk about yourself and your non-science interests a bit, without being to angsty, and talk about science issues that interest you. Don’t stray too much from your comfort zone – at least at first – blog about life as a student, and the pitfalls of textbooks or lecturers – things like that. Talk about the eureka moments when you understand some concept. Don’t make it too much of an exercise. Above all, make sure it is enjoyable to you. If it’s not, it probably won’t be to anyone else.
You can follow Paul on Twitter at @gleet_tweet.