nanila: (old-skool: science!)
[personal profile] nanila
I have it comparatively easy when engaging with the public about my work, since I get to talk about space, and pretty much everyone loves space and dinosaurs. However, I’ve still learned a few useful tricks along the way, so I’ve put them together into my contribution to the FONSFAQ as:

Tips for communicating science effectively to lay audiences

  1. Ease them into the talk with real-world examples. For instance, I like to break down the cost of a space mission into units of desirable gadget technologies. The cost of the Cassini mission from conception to Saturn orbit insertion, for instance, is approximately 10 million iPads.

  2. Ask questions frequently. Get the audience engaged. Praise them when they respond. If they persist in being shy, tell them it’s okay to be wrong because this is not a test and you’re not judging them. Interrupting yourself to ask questions also has the bonus side effect of encouraging them to interrupt you with questions.

    I often ask an audience to tell me what Cassini is mission that you normally see on satellites. Often the reply is “wings”. I then ask what the wings do and almost invariably someone will shout out, “Solar panels!”

  3. Keep visual aids simple. If you’re using slides, put as little text on them as possible. If you must write more than just the title slide, use two or three bullet points at most. Do not use full sentences. Try and extract as much information as possible from the audience themselves by asking questions. Use images and diagrams rather than words, but again, try to put at most two on each slide. You may find you need a lot more slides for an outreach talk than you do for a normal science talk, but you will get through them quickly.

    Here are two slides from my talk on Cassini’s investigation of Saturn’s moons.

  4. Keep notes on your slides. You will probably reuse the same talk many times, but weeks or even months will elapse between outreach events. You will forget quirky facts and the points at which you want to ask questions of the audience if you don’t write them down. Use that note space in PowerPoint for something other than “Click to add notes”!

  5. Be prepared for off-topic questions. You may or may not be able to answer these. I give talks about planetary exploration by robotic (unmanned) spacecraft. However, I almost invariably get loads of questions about manned spaceflight. Once I was asked if astronauts ate junk food in space. I had to look this question up afterward and e-mail the events organiser. It turns out that the answer is yes, they’re allowed to bring a selection of the favourite snacks in the nutritional payload!

    If you get a question like this and you don’t know the answer offhand, you have a few options for dealing with it. If it’s an opinion-based (and inoffensive) question, you can deflect it back, e.g. “What do you think?” If it’s factual or technical, you can encourage the questioner to look up the answer him- or herself. Suggest a useful resource - a book or a website other than Google - where they might find it. If you suspect the answer might be beyond the technical grasp of a layperson, you can offer to look it up yourself and e-mail the events organiser (if the questioner is a student) or the questioner directly, if s/he’s an adult.

  6. Thank your audience. Make a point of doing this right after you finish speaking and before the official Q&A period. Some of your audience will probably be intimidated by you. Those who haven’t been relaxed by your approachable manner during your talk may be encouraged to speak up.

  7. Bonus: Give away a freebie. This isn’t necessary, but it does help to give out tangible reminders of your talk to the audience. I have two types of freebie. One is an A4 lithograph of Saturn taken by the Cassini spacecraft and printed by NASA. The other is a pen with a compass built into it, to remind people of the instrument I talked about (the magnetometer, which measures the magnetic field around Saturn). Others have reported success with handouts that have puzzles or worksheets on them, or “build your own X with household materials”, where X = spacecraft model, bug trap, baking soda volcano, etc.
nanila: fulla starz (lolcat: science)
[personal profile] nanila
[personal profile] holyschist asked: "If you could get the public to understand one key thing about your field or science in general, what would it be?"

Space-based planetary exploration isn't just blue-skies curiosity-driven research. It has a very pertinent message for us: the Earth is special. Really special. At this point, for us, irreplaceably special, because there are no planetary bodies within reach of our feeble spaceflight technology that could possibly support its diverse ecosystem. So we'd better start caring for it much more wisely than we have been.
nanila: (old-skool: science!)
[personal profile] nanila
Sarah Mukherjee, former BBC environment correspondent, gave a lecture at the Judge Business School in Cambridge, UK last year. (A summary and embedded video of the lecture can be viewed here.) It’s about why government action to mitigate climate change has been so slow.

She attributed it to three factors:

1) Constant wavering of public opinion, which has much more influence over political rhetoric and action than actual scientific fact

2) The close ties between producers of traditional print media - read only by a relatively small audience - and politicians

3) Too many cooks spoiling the broth of mitigation advocacy, in the form of excessive numbers of disorganised participants at climate summits like the one in Copenhagen in 2009.

She suggests a few solutions in her lecture. She argues that scientists haven’t made enough of an effort to find long-term trends demonstrating that change is happening that are meaningful to laypersons. An example might be showing that the timing of a harvest festival has been getting steadily earlier over the course of 30-40 years. She makes a case for investment in schemes that implement renewable energy sources. She also argues that radical change to the education system is needed. She goes so far as to suggest that grammar schools be brought back in the original form so that bright poor children have more chances to participate in policy-making, rather than having the same wealthy elite embedded in politics, media and think tanks.

Ms Mukherjee doesn’t seem particularly hopeful that any of this would actually happen before the lights go out or before coastal Britain starts sinking into the sea. Given the relatively short-term focus of most people’s concerns - keeping themselves and their children healthy, fixing the house, paying the bills - it’s unlikely that sufficient measures will be taken in time to prevent such dramatic events.

So, how can we prevent them? Sarah Mukherjee didn’t discuss this in her lecture, but one potential way to mitigate the drastic effects of climate change - assuming they come to pass - is with a drastic solution: geoengineering. My partner is involved with a project to study one such Plan D. Under this scheme, the warming of the planet would be halted by the injection of a layer of aerosol particles into the stratosphere. If this sounds desperately risky to you, good. It should. It would be an enormous gamble with potentially unforeseen side effects. If the wrong aerosol were chosen or if the injection site were poorly chosen, it could destroy the ozone layer or trigger violent changes in weather patterns. If, however, the worst-case scenarios in climate change predictions come to pass, such as massive flooding destroying the land we live on, then we have to at least consider how to stop them. The more we’ve thought about and tested them to see if they work, the better.

Geoengineering is still in its infancy, with most of the proposed schemes being in the purely hypothetical stage. But as the idea that we already have the tools to control the Earth’s climate takes hold, I think it’s inevitable that we’ll explore it. As Motoko Kusanagi said in Ghost in the Shell, “If man realises technology is within his reach, he achieves it, like it’s damn near instinctive.” We will learn to do this, as we did with nuclear fission. We have to hope that we need never use them, though. If we must infuse the global stratosphere with aerosol to cool the planet and find that it has an unforeseen side effect, we cannot undo it quickly. This new avenue of research merits exploration, but it also merits a large degree of caution before it is seriously considered a viable global solution to climate change.
yvi: DNA double helix (Science - DNA)
[personal profile] yvi
[personal profile] dingsi started it with the Germany FONSFAQ /Masterlist here), and here it is:

Frequently (Or Not So Frequently) Asked Questions About Science

What do people want to know about all kinds of science fields? Feel free to ask questions on basic or not-so basic Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy, Medicine, Geology, and so on! Whether you want to know how DNA mutates, how nuclear fission works or what we know about the pleacebo effect, just post a comment.

And if you know enough about one of the prompts, claim it and write an entry on it during the next few weeks. I know we have many scientists and interested laypeople on Dreamwidth, so let's get tose together!


1. If asking a question, make the subject "PROMPT: [short summary of prompt]", so I can index them in this entry
2. If claiming to answer a question, make the subject "CLAIM"
3. When you have written your entry and posted it to your journal or this community or whereever you like on Dreamwidth, post a comment with a link to the entry in the comment thread. I will post a masterlist of answers sometime next week and update it regularly.

If you are not sure whether you will get around to answering something, don't worry - there is no direct need to claim anything.

Also, if you have a subject you'd really like to write about yourself, don't be shy and just post a comment with "CLAIM: [short summary of prompt]" yourself. The more entries, the better.

Any more questions, just ask!


[personal profile] cesy: Next big thing in biology

Computer Science
[personal profile] snowynight: Cutting-edge computer science

[personal profile] vacillating: Scientific theory

[personal profile] yvi: IVF
[personal profile] snowynight: Recent develoments in gentic therapy

[personal profile] yvi: What got you into science
[personal profile] holyschist: What do you want the public to learn about science


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