“It culminates in all these children becoming my neurons and controlling me. So when the motor cortex, these kids, vibrate, then I will have to dance!”
This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Lewis Hou
Lewis Hou is a neuroscientist from Edinburgh, but when I spoke to him he was in London for a networking event at the Wellcome Trust. I managed to grab a few minutes of his time to explore how neuroscience and music go hand-in-hand.
The future Dr Hou is currently researching the asymmetric brain (not the creational vs rational) but how asymmetry in our brains could be linked to evolutionary traits that we see in animals, including humans. For example chimpanzees have similar asymmetries to humans, so can he explore that to understand how we evolved language? He’s also looking at how some people with psychiatric diseases don’t have these asymmetries, and how this might be a sign of developmental problems. Continue reading →
“Passing along the excitement of discovery and our knowledge of the world but also creating a sense of wonderment that is the heart of science: we pursue scientific study to find out what’s unknown, not to explain what’s already obvious.”
This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Indre Viskontas
Where are you based?
Who do you work for?
I’m a freelancer with different clients, as well as a part-time Professor of Sciences and Humanities at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
What type of science communication do you do?
I teach aspiring professional musicians how to apply neuroscience to develop effective practice strategies.
I edit the journal Neurocase, and I also co-host a science podcast called Inquiring Minds in collaboration with The Climate Desk, a journalistic partnership between Mother Jones, Wired, Slate, Grist, The Centre for Investigative Reporting, The Atlantic and The Guardian.
I often give talks to the general public about memory, creativity, music, cognition and the brain.
And I’ve just finished shooting a 24-lecture course called 12 Essential Scientific Concepts for The Great Courses. It will be out in March of 2014.
Finally, I have a grant to study the link between empathy and conflict resolution and effective musical performance – the end goal of the study is to create a website for the lay public to explore how music and empathy are connected.
Who is your main audience?
Depends on the forum but largely educated lay people and musicians.
How did you get into it?
It’s a long and winding road. But mainly by following my nose – or, more specifically, my interests. If I had to choose a moment, it would be when I was hired to play the scientific foil to a believer in miracles on a 6-episode docuseries that aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network in 2011 – called Miracle Detectives. That was my first foray into science communication to a large audience (our first episode alone had over a million viewers – far more than will ever read any of my scientific papers), and it was a trial by fire, you might say. I’m much better at it now but it lit a spark in me that has only grown over the past 3 years.
What was it like working with Oprah Winfrey?
It was very exciting. She has a whole powerhouse of smart people that surround her and the energy is incredible. She’s also very sharp. I had many great conversations with her producers and other staff. But she’s also ruthless: there was a high turnaround in terms of the people she works with. I didn’t agree with all of the choices that she made in terms of what to focus on in our interview or how she treated certain topics on her talk show, but I also didn’t make the mistake of underestimating her. She is a force.
Why do you do it?
It was a challenge that I couldn’t resist. The topics of each episode were absolutely fascinating. I had the naiveté to think that my scientific training combined with my performance experience as a singer would qualify me to host the show. I learned a lot about how to communicate complex ideas to a wide audience.
Why do you think science communication is important?
Because science is the only way forward – humanity can’t progress effectively without it and too many people are being left behind because they are not sufficiently literate in science. That’s a shame. We all need to make better decisions in our lives and science can help us do that. It’s the straightest path to saving our world, if you’ll pardon the cliche.
What do you love about science communication?
Passing along the excitement of discovery and our knowledge of the world but also creating a sense of wonderment that is the heart of science: we pursue scientific study to find out what’s unknown, not to explain what’s already obvious. Bringing someone along on that journey is a lot of fun.
What has been your favourite project?
Oh boy. They are all so different. Whatever I’m working on in the moment tends to be my favorite. I love the podcast, I love the music and empathy project, I love teaching musicians about neuroscience. But I have to admit that being on camera is probably the most fun.
What is it about being on camera that you enjoy so much?
TV and other media work is very competitive – and so the people both in front of and behind the camera are highly capable, smart and passionate about what they do. Everyone works very hard and everyone is highly skilled. I love that atmosphere – that we’re coming together to give everything we have to a project that is limited in time. It’s completely immersive and I find it exhilarating. There’s a pressure to perform when that little red light is winking at you, and I find my brain goes into overdrive. I suppose you could say that I often find myself in what psychologists call the state of flow, when I’m performing either in front of the camera or as an opera singer. But the pay is much better in TV.
Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?
Yes, there are several in the works but apart from the release of my Great Courses lectures in March, it’s too early to talk about them in public.
Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?
Just do it. Find a medium and work hard to perfect your voice and your material. The cream rises to the top and if you put in the effort, it will be well worth your while.
Rob Wix has composed music for a diverse range of projects, starting with a touring musical theatre production when he was 16, around twenty planetarium shows, Edinburgh Festival plays and most recently for ITV2 and Channel 4. In this blog he discusses the positive affect of music in science communication
My parents tell me I was playing the piano at the age of 3.
I wandered home with a violin when I was 7.
My 12th birthday present was a synthesiser…come to think of it so was my 18th, 25th and 32nd.
Music has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember, and one of the best things about my job in science communication is using music to enhance what I do. One of the areas I’ve used music a great deal is in the planetarium. In a planetarium the audience is taken into a new world where what they see and hear is finely tuned to provide a truly awe-inspiring atmosphere as the scale and wonders of the Universe unfold. A good planetarium presentation helps to contextualise information; it lets an audience know how to react when information is presented…and boy does it have some information to be presented.
However, the topic of Space can sometimes be overwhelming:
“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space…” (Adams D, 1979)
The numbers concerning the distances and sizes are almost beyond comprehension; consider our Sun at 93,000,000 miles from Earth. That’s ninety three MILLION miles. A distance of one million miles cannot even be measured on Earth’s surface, so how do you effectively convey the vastness of space to a lay audience? How can the threat of Near Earth Objects or the advanced stellar discoveries of ancient human civilisations be adequately described and communicated in 25 minutes, appreciated and understood by an audience of school pupils, or members of the public who have called in for some science communication between grocery shopping and trying on shoes?
Thankfully, the science communication toolbox contains a medium that can reach deep inside humans and connect with them in a way that is truly profound – music.
Play someone a piece of music and they can describe pretty accurately what it is they should be feeling. People also instinctively know when the music is “wrong”. Picture the tear-jerking finale to ET The Extra Terrestrial with a Bavarian ‘Oom-Paa’ Band pumping away, or a funeral with some frantic Belgian techno, and you’ll know what I mean.
In the same way that a film score can influence how you feel during scenes in a film, a good planetarium score can aid effective communication within the presentation.
Want to convey a sense of awe and wonder? Try high, simple chords using breathy voices such as choirs or slow, warm strings. How about the violent storms raging within Jupiter’s great Red Spot? Try some strong, deep brass, insistent pulsating strings and swelling basslines. The instruments used must also be carefully selected so that the frequencies they produce do not conflict with any narration.
Music that is rousing and swelling and using full orchestral sounds can imply a concept of enormity and grandeur, whilst lighter music can draw attention to how delicate and finely balanced the Universe can appear. Melodies and leitmotifs can accompany key moments in the narration or visuals, or be associated with stars, planets or galaxies. A change of instrument and volume can bring light and shade to the presentation and key facts can be highlighted by a subtle change of instruments or melody.
Have a listen to the short clip that accompanies this blog, it’s of one of the very first planetarium presentations that I scored, back in the days when everything had to be played in by hand and decent microphones were only a dream. The dulcet, lilting tones (to which I could listen to for hours) are those of Elin Roberts, who wrote and narrated Lights In The Sky. I think it was around 1997.
Music doesn’t have to stop at the planetarium – the next time you have to show a video or some slides in a presentation, or if you need to record some science communication for a podcast, add some music. Tell the audience how they should feel when they connect with your presentation, try out a few different pieces, try to create a mood for your endeavours…