EGU Day 1 – Spaceships and science communication


So the first day of EGU has come to a close and boy was it a cracker! I had a great mix of talks that were pertinent to my research and talks that I indulged myself by attending, particularly two that I had highlighted at the beginning of the week – PS4.1 Comets, Asteroids and Dust and PS4.2 Rosetta: first results from the prime mission. All in all I had a great day, and felt really glad to be back at EGU again!


The first session I attended today was NH9.2 Forensic Disaster Analyses – Learning from Disasters. The session was mostly about flooding, but approached the challenge of learning through and from crisis situations in a a series of novel ways. There was crowdsourcing flood data, post event adaption analysis using relocation and collecting and storing complete event data, with an eye to the needs of the end user. One surprising thing I learnt from this session was that the majority of flood damage occurs to infrastructure when water comes into contact with electrical equipment, and that this is rarely taken into account when planning mitigation. Interestingly the presentations felt to me that they addressed the societal element as one more data point, rather than engaging more fully with the issues and concerns of people affected by flooding, and I would have been interested to see how the subject was approached differently if a more holistic approach was taken.

An interesting question that relates to this issue was the design of the crowdsourcing app to collect first hand data. One of the strengths of the app was presented that it gave residents control and engagement with the scientific process, and there was a lot of discussion about how you would get people to complete the data in the face of a crisis, but no-one addressed the question of whether people would voluntarily submit flooding data that may increase the cost of insurance in their area? Still at least the subject was being discussed, which is a positive move forward.


After a short coffee break I was on to my second session: PS4.1 Comets, Asteroids and Dust. This session was brilliant, often over my head, but filled with several interesting stories. My favourite was the presentation concerning the Student Dust Counter (not a new typ of student housing vacuum cleaner) – a spaceship designed, launched and maintained (including data analysis) by students. The spacecraft has been on it’s mission for 9 and a half years so far and is slowly approaching Pluto (right now it’s at Jupiter), it’s first target, before moving on to the Kuiper Belt. Most of the spaceship is dormant, but a few instruments are recording and transmitting data, riding along like barnacles on a whale!

The best thing about this, and a question someone raised, is that this mission began over 9 years ago, which is well beyond the scope of a (European) student position – so how can it still be a student mission? Well the simple answer is that the mission, the data and the link to spacecraft are handed down, student to student, each old one training the new and so on, which I think is a brilliant science story – a whole generation of planetary scientists training each other to pass this little spaceship out beyond the furthest reaches of our solar system.


The third session of the day was NH9.4/EOS19 Natural Hazard Education, Communications and Science-Policy-Practice Interface. This was a brilliant session of both new ideas and lessons learned in science communication, from using board games to teach volcanic awareness, to encouraging students to design their own web app that would increase their understanding of geo-hydrological terms and how to use narratives to build the resilience of small businesses to flood events. There was also a presentation by a group os researchers from the CNR-IIA in Monterotonto and the University of Turin who were talking about the information deluge that you experience during a crisis and how people make sense of that deluge. They had designed a wiki to help with the provision of accurate and reliable data, but there were a couple of questions around the data. Clearly the idea was a great one, but the initial data had not been collected during a time of crisis, so all the conclusions were not related to the main crisis event, there was no knowledge of whether a crisis event changed the nature of people’s searches online. Also the wiki was called nhwikisaurus – which was a play on the thesaurus connectionn, but the icon was of a dinosaur, so this may be confusing for people who go there expecting it to be a dinosaur wiki. It was really good to see people trying to positively engage with risk communication in a new way.


I then ducked quickly into the session on the initial results from the prime Rosetta mission and spent most of my time being absorbed by the gorgeous photos of the comet! I did find out though that Rosetta has a mass spectrometer on board and that they have a twin of the instrument in the lab in case of any issues!


My last observational session of the day was SSS11.5/EMPR4.1/ERE2.5/NH4.4 Communication of uncertain information in earth sciences: data, models and visualisation. Now the informatics talks have somewhat put me off in the past as they seemed to revolve around finding statistical ways to represent uncertainty but the session today actually focussed on communicating that uncertainty. My favourite talk (that I was able to see -bit of an overlap) examined intuitive responses to IPCC diagrams and found that the colour schemes can often give false representations and that often the caption isn’t actually helpful in interpreting the image.


The last thing I did today was to take part in a panel discussion: SC22 Open Science, Public Engagement and Outreach: why bother? I was joined on the panel by Ivo Grigorov from the Technical University of Denmark, and Ulrich Poschl from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, and chaired by Sam Illingworth, lecturer in science communication from Manchester Metropolitan University.


To say I was intimidated would be an understatement, especially when Sam introduced Uli as ‘if not the father, then the kind uncle’ of the open science movement! But the discussion was lively and informal and by the end I had relaxed into it. The talk ranged across topics like what is open science, how to we make open access more avaliable, how do we deal with the issue of cost for open access (turns out that if all universities stopped paying subscriptions they could afford to get all papers published open access), why do we engage with the public, how to avoid or manage the ‘dinosaurs’ in your department who don’t approve of open science or public engagement, how to balance the ethos of open access with the realities of life as a young scientist and ‘Science 2.0’. It was a great evening and I thoroughly enjoyed myself and was left with lots of meaty issues to ponder – can we come up with our own metric of impact and how do you ensure that open science and engagement are not the last things on the list and the first to go in academic life?

So all in all day 1 – I would say you’ve been fabulous. But what were your first impressions? And any tips for good sessions to drop in on the rest of the week?

EGU 2014 Day 4 – Global catastrophes, uncertainty and can you ever know your audience?

Day four in the big geology house…. Today started well, I took a little time in the morning to work on my presentation for tomorrow, but because I forgot to reset the clock on my computer I missed the workshop on applying for funding that I was aiming to attend. Nevertheless I made it to my first session of the day ‘Volcanism, Impacts, Mass Extinctions and Global Environmental Change‘ (SSP1.2/GMPV41) which is a session that has to win the prize for BEST NAME OF A SESSION EVER. I bumped into a lecturer from my University there, who seemed a little surprised to see me – he asked why I was there and I said ‘Global catastrophes? Of course I’m coming to this one!’ and he replied that he was there for the isotopes. Strangely the organisers seemed to underestimate the interest factor of such an epic session title, and had put the session in a really small room. People were crammed in all over the place, sat on the floor, standing by the walls, and every seat was full. You just can’t deny the pulling power of massive disasters.


The talks themselves were great, a series of presentations on Tunguska and the Siberian trap flood basalts and their associated infrastructure. There were questions of whether magamatism could trigger a mass extinction, and if the dates of massive flood basalt eruptions did actually precede the extinctions? Seth Burgess did actually present data that suggested the main body of the eruptions did actually commence AFTER the extinction, but also recognised the problem of sampling bias – a common problem in the geological sciences – that you can’t always get the data you want because, oh, a mountain is on top of it. So you have to predict as best you can based on incomplete data. From the data that Seth Burgess had, he suggested that there was more than one phase of the eruption and that the lavas that couldn’t be sampled may actually contain sills that predate the extinction.


Later on the session, the extinction moved from the end-Permian to the Cretaceous. Now if you are unfamiliar with that name – think dinosaurs. It’s the one where the famous film should really have been called Cretaceous Park instead (and why it wasn’t I really don’t know!). The thing with the end-Cretaceous extinction was that it happened not only at the same time as a massive flood basalt, but at the same time as a massive (and famous) meteorite impact called Chixulub. Mark Richards from the University of California, Berkeley, told us that there was a 1 in 5 chance of all of these events being a coincidence, which isn’t really that bad. But when you include the size of the Deccan eruptions, the chance becomes 1 in 50, so it is hard to dismiss this as a coincidence. He suggested that another reason for the correlation, was that the impact could have triggered massive worldwide magmatic activity – in the same way that seismic triggers have been shown to induce magmatic activity on a much smaller scale. A question was asked however, if there was any evidenced for this systemic increased activity and although at the moment there is not, Professor Richards thinks that geochemical data could be available to support this hypothesis.

So from volcanoes and massive meteorite impacts I thought I would move on to uncertainty and the ‘Communication of Uncertainty about Information in Earth Sciences‘ (SSS11.1/ESSI3.6), convened by R Murray Lark from the BGS. This session was all about how we, as geoscientists, represent unceratinty. This is a really big deal, especially when you relate it to what I was saying above about sampling bias – a large amount of geological information is interpreted on, what the researchers would see as, less than perfect data sets. Now a lot of uncertainty work is based on how to represent a statistical analysis of the uncertainty to other geologists, but there is a growing interest in how we represent uncertainty to the public. Robert Kirby talked about how using ensemble data (think hurricane tracks) can help people to understand different types of data simultaneously, but by using means and standard deviation statistical analysis you can extract more meaningful data (which may be harder to understand). What was interesting to me, was the suggestion that non-experts would have a better understanding of the value of ensemble data that statistically analysed data, but this hadn’t been tested yet. In fact a lot of the work on public understanding of uncertainty seemed to be based upon assumptions – so perhaps these were initial results of studies that were ongoing.


The day ended with the Townhall meeting ‘You don’t know your audience! A ClimateSnack debate‘ (TM8). This meeting drew together a number of science communications experts from a variety of backgrounds to discuss ‘knowing your audience’ a central concept in sci comm and one that is often under debate. The panel consisted of:

Dr Sam Illingworth, a lecturer in Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University (read more about him here)
Christina Reed, an independant science journalist
Liz Kalaugher, from environmentalresearchweb
Prof David Shultz, a lecturer in Synoptic Meteorology at Manchester University and the author of Eloquent Science
Mathew Reeve, co-founder of ClimateSnack (the moderator)

The discussion covered a wide range of subjects relating to audience – can you ever know your audience, how do you know what your audience wants, where is ‘the room’ in a digital age? We even discussed the seemingly opposing views of should we even be attempting to communicate all forms of science (as some parts are genuinely too difficult to understand without four years of university education) and do we seek to maintain the ‘aura of mystery’ to preserve our academic importance? What was interesting here was the idea that as science communicators we all WANT to communicate every aspect of our science, but that is just unrealistic – and most people genuinely wouldnt care. What we have to do is make our science AVAILABLE instead.


Finally I asked about training our undergraduates in science communication and Prof Schultz raised an interesting point – that our undergraduates often have a hard enough time writing scientifically first and that writing for a general audience from a scientific perspective – especially as a scientists – often means you need to understand scientific writing before you can communicate it back to the public. Also, he said, in his experience students already think they can communicate with non-scientists without training!

This session finished at 8, so I trundled myself back to the hostel to prepare for my oral presentation tomorrow at 9.15am (eek!).