Tell me a story…

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin....Much of what I do in science communication involves trying to engage non-scientists, or perhaps those who wouldn’t usually be interested in science with the intriguing and compelling nature of my favourite subject. Now this is a big ask when you consider, people are BUSY! If science isn’t something that you are interested in then why would you even be somewhere that I can talk to you about science, reading a science blog, listening to a science podcast or watching a science TV show? Most of these formats require the audience to come to you (to some extent at least). If you depend only on the regular folks that attend such events or watch such shows – and it’s usually because they have children and see it as some kind of required ‘educational’ experience – then you are missing out on a huge group of people that could find a passion for the subject, or just realise that it’s not as boring or intimidating as they thought. Science communication has been getting better at this recently with the expansion of the work of scientists such as Ben Goldacre, Brian Cox, Iain Stewart and Alice Roberts into the ‘popular’ realm. But to some extent you still depend on your audience to come to you.

BBC production of Earth would probably have mostly been watched by people who were science enthusiasts or at least curious - what about everyone else?

BBC production of Earth would probably have mostly been watched by people who were science enthusiasts or at least curious – what about everyone else?

So how do we overcome this problem? Well, firstly, perhaps we need to consider that even now we are too narrow in our approaches to science communication. If we want to reach the general public, we need to think outside the room that the box is sitting in. At this stage you might say ‘and how are we to do this?’! When someone tries to write something for an audience group that they are unfamiliar it can often be an amazing disaster – just look at some of the things that are designed for children (or think back to some of the things that you were subjected to as a child) and I’m not going after educators, they do an amazing job in difficult circumstances, but you have to admit some of the results are hilarious. I remember one of my secondary school English teachers deciding that all our novels one term would be based on sex – now even in an all girl school, reading suggestive text aloud in class is hideously embarrassing and I haven’t been able to look at a Dylan Thomas book straight since (none of our other classes did this, but our teacher thought it would ‘connect’ with us – shudder). It wasn’t meant to be bad, it was actually a well reasoned idea, but our teacher had one big problem in connecting with us in that way – she wasn’t a sixteen year old girl. This is not a problem for science communicators – as we usually have some kind of life outside the science discipline that we are advocating. We are all members of the public outside our discipline. So if you want to reach people outside the traditional science fanbases, look to the rest of your life. One brilliant example of this was written about by Jane Robb in her blog post on The Geology of Skyrim. An avid gamer herself (and geologist) she was inspired to start interpreting the geology of the gamescape she was interacting with and this has grown into a wider interpretation which has drawn in gamers from a range of backgrounds and she is now involved in creating a modification for users of the game to allow them to access the geology interpretation themselves.

I personally am a keen crafter – knitting, crochet, quilting – you name it, I’ll stitch it. now you may be thinking – geology and crafting aren’t natural bedfellows, how do you use this as an analogy? Well I have made many geology based crafty things, but my crowning achievement in terms of sharing a geological idea, was a mug hug I made for my friend Sally. Now if you haven’t heard of a mug hug, they are bits of quilted or knitted fabric that you wrap around your mug of tea to keep it warm. They are usually bright and cute and come in a variety of patterns but this wasn’t enough for me – no, I wanted mine to be geological. So I looked into some patterns and then thought – heck. I’ll do her a cross section. So I downloaded some borehole logs from the British Geological Survey and created a geological cross section mug hug for Penge, where my friend Sally lives…..

Sorry the photo was taken with a phone, but you get the idea!

Sorry the photo was taken with a phone, but you get the idea!

It might seem strange, but it looks good and I gave her a key to allow here to interpret the types of rock and understand the scale I used. Nerdy, yes. But she liked it and it’s a good way to get geology and craft to get together and make beautiful magic – I have since experimented with other cross sections and have almost finished a geo-quilt (hopefully more on that later)! But crafting isn’t for all of us and to be fair is also quite a niche area. However it was reading another post that set me off thinking about this subject in the first place, and that was the post of Deborah Blum  all about Science Writing. In her post she discussed the different methods of science writing and how she likened science writing to telling a story and at one point she mentioned that her book, The Poisoners Handbook, was nominated for a murder mystery award. That led me to think – the one thing that pretty much all people have in common is that they like a good story, whether it’s crime, horror or romance; biographical or dramatic; a celebrity scandal or the neighbours’ gossip, stories are loved by all humanity and we trade them constantly, with all kinds of people. So my question to you is this, can you tell me a story? And not just a story of science, but a story WITH science?

You think it’s not possible? I have three letters that prove you wrong. C. S. I. Who would have thought a mainstream TV show with a viewership of millions would be regularly breaking out the mass spectrometer or examining the reproductive cycle of the common fly? The central character of the original C.S.I. series is an entomologist who has specimen jars scattered liberally around his office. AN ENTOMOLOGIST! OK the science is occasionally dodgy, and they seem to have no notion of contaminating a crime scene, but in this show, as in many other spin offs, science sits comfortably within the narrative. It isn’t intimidating, it isn’t boring and it progresses the story in a way that often makes it that star of the show. So I ask you if C.S.I. can do it, why can’t we?

Now all I need to do is come up with a gripping storyline involving geology and robots……….