Professor Peter McOwan

Speaking to… Professor Peter McOwan

“no use uncovering fascinating new facts if you don’t tell the fascinating stories and listen to what people think about them too.”

This is part of a series of interviews with science communicators about science communication. Today we are Speaking to… Professor Peter McOwan.

Professor Peter McOwan


Peter McOwan

Who do you work for?

Queen Mary University of London (I’m a professor of Computer Science)

What type of science communication do you do?

Lots, from face to face events to print and digital projects.

Who is your main audience?

Primarily secondary schools, but also adults, depending on the project

How did you get into it?

I’d always been interested in stories and science since I was a kid. My first foray into science communication proper would be when I agreed to do a talk at an arts festival about brains and optical illusions, I was hooked from there on in. It’s now a staple part of my research, no use uncovering fascinating new facts if you don’t tell the fascinating stories and listen to what people think about them too. When working with schools I think about what I would have liked to get involved with, or read, when I was their age, and consider the new opportunities that modern technologies provide – and take it from there, sharing my excitement!

Why do you do it?

A load of reasons, first and foremost because its fun, its something I really enjoy. I also think it makes me a better researcher, talking to youngsters and adults they can really get you to think about how to explain your work but also think about its context, the all-important ‘why’ type questions that can sometimes get lost if you just talk research to academics. I work on artificial intelligence so it important to understanding the communities hopes and fears round the subject, after all I’m paid to do my work through public funds, and I’m part of society too.

What do you love about science communication?

There is a fantastic line towards the end of one of my favourite films of all time. Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige is a wonderful bit of steampunk sci–fi about battling magicians. Here I need to declare a healthy interest in sci-fi and magic is a hobby of mine, but more on these will appear later. At the end of the film one of the magicians asks the other why he did what he did, the answer was ….to see the look of wonder on the audiences faces. I’m 100% with him on this (note to fans of the film;  id stop short of being the magician in the box in case anyone developing a matter transporter is reading this). I’m never happier that when I see some of those light bulb, ‘get it’ , moments, when you know someone is feeling that warming, visceral, brainy joy of suddenly understanding something new or is just momentarily lost in wonder at what science and engineering has been able to do. The world changes for them in an instant, becoming, I hope, just that bit more interesting.

What has been your favourite project?

Mummm an impossible choice, a sort of blog interview  Kobayashi Maru, so like James T Kirk, I’ll reprogramme the rules of the scenario and go for two.

First would be a project I did with the Wellcome Trust, a punk rock band called neurotic and some gigantic dancing pogoing robots. For those not old enough to remember it, pogoing was the dance craze that came with punk music in the 70 and 80’s that involved jumping up and down in frantic time to the music. We designed a series of robots that could pogo, and scattered them in the audience at a live music gig. The robots used biologically inspired computer programmes to learn to like and dance to the growing up music collection of the lead singer of the band Neurotic, so in effect Fiddian, the singer, had to play the sort of music that would get Fiddian the teenager (encoded in the robots) to dance. The BBC covered the event. It was a real chance to talk to loads of folk about artificial intelligence and robotics, who would never have considered or cared about it before, but taking robots into their world they started to get interested….

Sadly, after a series of sell out shows the robots have now retired to a secret rehab garden shed someplace in London, citing creative differences as the reason for their breakup, but who knows they may do a comeback tour sometime.

Next science communication that starts with that classic line ‘pick a card, any card…’  its magic.

As I mentioned I’ve had a lifelong interest in magic, what appealed to me was the fact that using concealed science, engineering and maths; it was possible to make it look as if you were making the impossible possible, creating little pockets of astonishment in the audience. In those special moments they reconsider their world view, you entertaining them (arguably two of the central tenants of science communications, just done in a different way) , all that was missing was the learning bit. Using the computer science for fun project I’d developed with my friend and colleague at Queen Mary Professor Paul Curzon for cover, we started to use magic tricks as a way to teach the basic principles of computer science. I’d spotted that there were some techniques used in tricks that were identical to the maths behind a range of computer applications. The first eureka moment was when I spotted that back projection in medical imaging computer tomography use the same initial maths steps as a classic ‘bingo card’ force used by famous mentalist Max Maven. We have now written a series of magic of computer science books taking well-known magic effects that use methods related to computer algorithms, and made these links explicit. I’ve been working with some professional magicians on research around how magic can be used to better understand human perception, but also as a way to check that any tricks we reveal are ‘ethically farmed’, i.e. they are well exposed and known, and that we add something new to the show in the presentations, so we don’t break the all-important magician’s code of secrecy too much. This way to teach computing proved so popular that the books have now been translated into a whole range of different languages.

What we also stress is that a magic trick needs the secret method and the right presentation to work, similarly a computer programme needs the right mathematical core and a good user interface to do what it needs to do, so there is for me a rather lovely and unexpected synergy; both when done right can cause wonder, get a bit wrong and its fails, both are about science and also understanding human beings too.

I then developed this further with illusioneering a project looking at the wider science behind magic tricks and what we can learn from it, including some footage shot on the international space station by my friend and fellow scientist and magician Dr Richard Garriott. I’ve also been working with the Discovery channel in the USA on a series called Breaking Magic, which does what I did in illusioneering but with famous magicians and big budget tricks. I’d never expected to be doing that when my dad bought me my first simple  magic trick and I was excited enough to get a book on magic from the local library, shows you never quite know where your life story will take you.

Do you have any new science communication projects coming up?

Yes a few in the pipeline, doing more with the wonderful hooks of magic myth and mysteries, oh and something quirky and fun with kittens!

Any tips for those wanting to get into science communication?

Know your audience, listen and learn from your mistakes, think narrative, tell tales with a beginning a middle and an end,  take risks and be quirky where it’s appropriate and have fun, and leave them wanting more!