Category Archives: Podcasts


Speaking to… Dallas Campbell

“Douglas Adams always talked about that. A funny thing he used to say where “The terrible thing about having a dictaphone as an aid to memory would be that when you press the on button, it has a terrible habit of turning your brain off.””

Dallas-campbell-science-communicationThis feature podcast is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Dallas Campbell

There isn’t much structure in this interview with Dallas Campell, as it was just a rambling conversation.

I can only apologise for three things:

1) the background noise (especially his agent) – we were in a cafe

2) that I hadn’t pressed record sooner as the conversation was great fun!

3) the notes below are some of our ramblings but they don’t give a full outline of the conversation


We start talking about the power of words, and the ability to remember things people tell you when you write them down.

“I’m in awe of people who can write. Can write with clarity and purpose and convey that sense of idea.”

and how there are some people who are brilliant with them (i personally think Dallas is pretty good with words…hence I let him do the talking!) And some (aka me) who question others to get them to say those lovely words. But doing interviews is more about putting people at ease than it is about forcing the answers out of them. And Dallas has much experience in this too.

We go on to talk about his adventures on TV. One of them is a documentary about the Secrets of St Pauls Cathedral, and the technology the program used to discover them. Dallas is also in awe of Wren because of his incredible talents as a polymath: someone who is intrigued by so many different things, and ends up trying them all out and being good at them too!

And this is potentially what draws him to science: Dallas has this incredible thirst for learning as much as possible about as many things as he can! But it’s not just the science, and the ability to be interested in many things. It’s really more about the cross-over between the two cultures that he revels in.

Image credit: BBC

Another of his projects was Super-sized Earth, a BBC 1 programme where Dallas explored the frontiers of human understanding. Where he was trying to make people aware of the world around them. He then quotes Dawkins: “The Anaesthetic of Familiarity.” It was this that the programme was trying to wake the world up from.

Another documentary that is coming out soon is about treasure hunting (out early 2014), and to Dallas this was the ultimate Mr Ben adventure (a favourite children’s programme of his). A few weeks ago he was diving on a wrecked Spanish Galleon, in between Florida and Cuba…Definitely in it for the adventures.

So when he talks about science, it is always in broad terms, mostly based on his curiosity and tell amazing stories. Which is why he thinks he would be a terrible scientist: he simply cannot specialise because he is so interested in a wider range of things.

“I love the polar opposites: going from Christopher Wren one day….. and then off I go doing something about treasure hunting…”

But how he got into science communi….(uhum) errr leaning towards science presenting? It wasn’t accidental (art history, english and drama background) but it was more that he loved telling stories, and there are such great stories in science about adventures, excitement and curiosity.

We then get into a bit of a discussion about science at school…. Dallas didn’t like science at school. Unless you’re lucky and you get it, science is not associated with adventure. Instead it is an accumulation of facts, naming of parts. It took Dallas a long time to realise that science wasn’t about proving things, about collecting facts, about finding the answers and the end. It was more about continuing the search for questions.

“I remember when I found in a skip…”

He found some blank tapes when cleaning out William Willards office (BBC presenter). The tapes had the title “Growing up in the universe” and were actually 1991 Richard Dawkins RI Christmas Lectures tapes! And this just kick-started an incredible Eureka! moment.

We then go on to Science Communication, which I had already discovered is a term that Dallas doesn’t connect with.

“I don’t know its one of those terms that it’s such a narrow sounding term. And if you… and I suppose think of what i do as quite broad, so I don’t know if it applies”

So we try to find out why he is uncomfortable with the label of Science Communicator. Is it the idea of labels themselves? He doesn’t think it fits comfortably with him, instead: he is a storyteller of science instead…. But cliche or not, labels are useful. Alok Jha had a similar feeling towards the label Science Communicator…

“I agree with whatever Alok says. Listen to what Alok says about science communication and I’ll agree with that…. I haven’t listened to it yet.”

Science, to most people, is a subject studied at school, not anything more. And Dallas believes this is a shame.

“There is definitely a disconnect between people who aren’t involved in science at all, how they perceive science. There is something a bit odd about it….It’s a shame that they see science as such a narrow thing.”

It’s not like music or art. You wouldn’t say “Oh I hate music, I was rubbish at music at school.” This simply isn’t the case. Everyone enjoys music of one form or another. So why can’t this translate to science?

“Science is not a subject, its a method, a way of seeing the world.”

So how do we change science education at school? Let’s not go there… But mostly it’s down to the teachers. And maybe to provide students the opportunity to step back out of the classroom and books, and show them a little more of the Big Picture Stuff (referring back to the Dawkins quote above).

So even though he doesn;t like the label, he does believe this Big Picture Thinking (aka Science Communicaiton) is in a Golden Era at the moment. Prof Brian Cox, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins etc are all out there talking Big Picture.

Image credit: BBC
Image credit: BBC

One of Dallas’ favourite programmes has been Bang Goes The Theory (a programme on the BBC that he did with Jem Stansfield) which explores science of our every day lives.

Dr Who is also something he was involved with: a live show with Prof Brian Cox called The Science of Dr Who.

My favourite fact was that Albemarle Street [that the RI is on] was the first one way street in Britain because it was SO crowded with people desperate to come in and see these great lectures. So they had to invent the idea of a one way street.”

For someone who thinks science is not just for scientists, but is for everyone, he is also a fan of citizen science projects: the wisdom of the crowd.

“What a terrific way for people who aren’t scientists to actually get involved and actually understand a little bit about what scientists actually do all day.”

And we finished on that note…. I hope you enjoyed the ramblings….

“We’re very lucky in Britain to have such fantastic minds historically.”

You can follow all of Dallas’ adventures on Twitter at @dallascampbell

Speaking to… Graham Walker

“Like any bit of PhD research, there is no simple answer!”

graham-walker-science-communicationThis feature podcast is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Graham Walker

At the Abu Dhabi Science FEstival 2013, Dr Graham Walker is rushing around Abu Dhabi presenting two different shows.

One of these shows is called “Green Power”, and it explores some of the science behind renewable energies.

Graham has been doing science shows for years, and he’s been doing them so long that he even decided to do some research into their effectiveness. He was curious as to whether or not science shows really do inspire those that watch them.

His research explored different kinds of motivation, from getting kids to keep studying science to the more specific like actually changing the way people think about climate change or HIV Aids.

And then what is it about a show that motivates or inspires your audience? Is it the presenter? The emotions? The humour? All these factors are important when looking at how effective a science show is.

Using a HIV Aids case study in SA, Graham looked at how motivations and beliefs changed from immediately before to immediately after the show, as well as whether or not they had changed again one month after the shows.

Graham has had the priveledge of doing science shows around the world, and for him, one of the most important factors to consider is your audience. Not just the age or gender, but the culture as well. Working in Abu Dhabi, you have to consider their cultural beliefs. These will be different again somewhere else. Every time you take a show somewhere, it has to be changed accordingly. This helps to build relationships with your audience, and allows them to relate to the science that is being communicated.

This was especially true for his HIV Aids show. It would have been difficult for the kids there to relate to the material in the show if Graham had presented it as a white man from Australia. So, Graham worked closely with local people and trained them to deliver the show.


It is working with local people and different audiences that keeps the job challenging and interesting for Graham.

“My belief is that a good science show presenter is a kind of tinkerer, an experimenter. Someone who hasn’t forgotten how to play.”

Informal and formal ways – talks about how he got into it.

Speaking to… Mike Bruton

“What we encourage them to do is to take this knowledge and their enthusiasm home….do a dissection at home on the lounge carpet!”

Mike-Bruton-science-communicationThis feature podcast is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Professor Mike Bruton

At the Abu Dhabi Science Festival 2013, I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Mike Bruton, the founding director of the Cape Town Science Centre.

In this interview with Speaking of Science, Mike talks about the work shop he is running at the festival called What’s Inside: exploring the insides of marine animals.

This fairly unknown world has been at the heart of Mike’s research for the last 40 years, and he hopes that it will fascinate the children at the workshop, especially some of the surprises they find inside!

We also talk about the Bahrain Science Centre that Mike has helped develop over the last two years. Having been fortunate enough to work with MTE Studios, working in science centres in the middle east for many years, Mike has the know-how to set one up in this culture. But moving there full-time was a bit of a shock.

As with any projects that are being set up from square one, there are always issues and kinks that need to be explored and ironed out. So Mike tells me about some of the challenges of setting up the Bahrein Science Centre, as well as the joys.

It’s interesting listening to Mike talk about what it takes to make a successful science centre. It’s all about making sure that the centre offers things that the audience want, especially as they are coming to you out of choice.

One of the other exciting things that Mike has been involved with is the Science Centre World Conferences (held every 3 years), and that he chaired the 6th one in Cape Town in 2011. Over 400 people from 70 countries converged onto Cape Town, focussing on Science Across Cultures: adjusting the way science is taught depending on the culture of where you are teaching, and the importance of indigenous knowledge.

this links directly to some of Mike’s research, as he has been to some more isolated areas on the planet, where he has been learning about the inventions of indigenous people the world over. What he finds fascinating about them is how they make use of certain properties of the world around us, and then how that is transferred into the western world.


Speaking to… Nicola Shepherd

“In a mall there’s shops and what-not, and then there’s these weird bikes and these crazy people in brightly coloured lab coats, but they are still equally excited.”

Nicola-Shepherd-science-communicationThis feature podcast is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Nicola Shepherd

The Abu Dhabi Science Festival 2013 is based at two main locations: one half in a big blue cross-shaped tent on Yas Island, and the other on the Corniche – a large stretch of beach in the main city centre.

Nicola Shepherd is one member of the Busking Bikes team that takes the Science Festival beyond these locations, to people in other areas of Abu Dhabi.

In this podcast, Nicola Shepherd and I talk about the busking bikes, the reactions that people have to the busks, she shows me a demo and she tells me how she got into this international busking life.

The ideas behind science busking is to try and get people to see everyday things in a different way. To get them to explore everyday life from a science point-of-view.

Children are children – everywhere and anywhere they will react the same to a demonstration, according to Nicola. The interesting reactions come from parents.

Parents are often taking their children to events to entertain them, but it is probably surprising to them when they realise they are being entertained too.

Their reactions also vary depending on where they are being entertained: when they bring their children to a science festival, they are ready and prepared for it. In a shopping mall or waterworld, these weird buskers in crazy lab coats are encroaching their space. But even so, the ability for parents to become children again is what Nicola finds fascinating.

There are also differences between busking here and at home: at home, people are used seeing people being silly on the street. Over here, it isnt part of the culture to do things on the streets, but yet they still seem to take to it.

We also discuss Nicola’s trip to Bangalore in India. This was a unique experience; a community experience where the buskers were really well received.

And how did she get to Bangalore and Abu Dhabi as a science busker? Her background is actually in performing arts.

Finally, Nicola shows me how you can put a kebab stick through a balloon, without it bursting!

Speaking to… Jem Stansfield

“When I was a little kid…like four or five years old, I would tell people “One day, I’m going to be a professor of inventions” ….and then for the next kind of 15 years after that I wanted to be a professional footballer.”

Jem-stansfield-science-communicationThis feature podcast is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Jem Stansfield from BBC Bang Goes The Theory

In this podcast, recorded at the Abu Dhabi Science Festival 2013, Jem Stansfield and I talk about his show here, and how there is an incredible amount of story telling when it comes to designing a demonstration.

Ever designed a demonstration? Or even just tinkered in your shed to make something? Jem Stansfield, currently one of the presenters on BBC Bang Goes The Theory, does this for a living.

Making things is what Jem does. Starting out working backstage on Scrapheap Challenge, he has built a plethora of things: cars fueled by coffee, a jet-pack to propel him all the way around a swing, a giant super-sonic vortex canon, and many more wonderful things!

Just like science, there is a method that Jem uses to build his demos: think first, talk about it, build rough prototypes to test your thinking and then scale up. And this is what he tries to bring to the audience in his shows.

Jem is unusual however, in that he tries to use the internet as little as possible when it comes to researching his ideas. He uses people instead. After coming up with an idea, and sometimes having thought about it for a year, he will trial the idea on his friends, and see what it is about the idea that catches their imagination.

Sometimes, it is even a misheard concept that ends up becoming the final model.

With a background in aeronautical engineering, Jem has an incredible trust in maths. So once the ideas have been trialled on people, he starts doing calculations. Sometimes, he then takes his ideas to researchers around the world: It is these opportunities to visit some of the greatest minds for TV shows that keeps him in the business.

But unfortunately, he is not always able to. When working in TV, there are very tight deadlines. Sometimes, Jem only has one day to design, test and build something in 1 day. He build an iceboat for a TV show, and spend 3 100hour weeks working full time on it.

But even he knows that there is only so much maths you can do to design the demo, but it’s also about plucking up the courage to test it too!

We also talk about how Jem first got into this industry, and his first introduction to presenting TV shows by looking at the development of TV shows.

One of my favourite parts of this interview (starts at 14:45) is Jem’s perspective on maths. He was good at maths, but he also found it rather hollow. He said that you could

“circumvent understanding just through the use of algebra.” 

During his final year, Jem was looking at how satellites would be able to withstand small meteor impacts. He ended up working with the technicians that helped build his models. And he found that they knew more about engineering and building than the lecturers who were teaching him.

“It was that physical intuition, that understanding of what those numbers really mean in reality. That is what humans are about.” 

It is having that hands-on experience, and the trust that these people have in their senses of how things work that Jem fell in love with.

And the rest is history.

I really enjoyed meeting Jem Stansfield – I hope you enjoy this chat.

“Never see things for what they are. See things for what they could be, if you gave it a different life.”

Image credit: Peter Wright

Speaking to… James Piercy

“I got a standing ovation from a group of people who I hugely respect. And afterwards I thought, I should do more of this because it’s really helped me. And I thought, maybe it could help other people, help understand.”

James-piercy-science-communicationThis feature podcast is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… James Piercy.

James Piercy, from science made simple, has been doing science shows for more than an decade, and I was lucky enough to bump into him at the Abu Dhabi Science Festival.

James likes to explore everyday things that we come across all the time, but he tries to get his audiences to look at them. To see what they really are and why they are like that. His first ever science show did exactly this with bubbles – how do they form, why do they have pretty colours? His show at the Abu Dhabi Science Festival 2013 takes this to the next level.

A few years ago, James was involved in a  car accident, and unfortunately suffered serious damage to his brain. After being off work for 6months, James plucked up the courage to face his colleauges at the BIG Conference of 2011, and told them all what happened to him.

This talk was emotional, tough, and yet somehow helped him in his recovery. By talking to people he respected, he found that he was able to deal with things better. Now, James talks about his accident to all sorts of audiences – from clinicians, to children, to other patients who have suffered similar things.

Finally, James and I talk about the science communication training he does with scientists and industry specialists. His favourite students are those that come with a sceptical view of science communication, and somehow, during his workshop, they realise that what he is teaching them is a valuable and important thing.

You can follow James Piercy on Twitter at @thepiercy


Speaking to… Laura Wheeler

“Rather ironically, if the tools and software that are available now, if they had been available to me when i was making those decisions, then perhaps I would have, actually gone down a different path”

Laura-Wheeler-Science-CommunicationThis feature podcast is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Laura Wheeler

Laura Wheeler is the new community manager at Digital Science, and is currently getting ready for the SpotOn Conference, which she co-organises with Lou Woodly and Martin Fenner.

In this episode, Laura and I discuss what a community manager really is, how she got into this role, and the dilemma she faced when deciding to leave the world of academia for one of science communication.

“If communicating about your science was what got you into science communication, why not stay as a scientist and communicate your own science?”

This dilemma seems to be a frequent one, and for Laura, it wasn’t easy. She looks back at her younger self and feels that if there had been more digital, software based support for scientists, she may have made a different decision…could this be why she has gone to work with Digital Science? To help those in her position make this decision easier?

For those interested in SpotOn, it starts on the evening of Thursday 7th with a Fringe Event – The Story Collider, hosted by Brian Wecht. The Conference is happening all weekend, and if you couldn’t get tickets no worries, you can watch all of the sessions live and the video archives will remain on the SpotOn site afterwards. You can also follow the Twitter hashtag #solo13 to join in the online conversation.

You can follow Laura on Twitter at @laurawheelers