So I recently worked at the Cambridge Science Festival. More specifically, I worked in the ‘social media’ part of the Cambridge Science Festival. Even more specifically, I ran around Cambridge Science Festival with a swanky piece of kit to record audio from various lectures, to feed a constant stream of podcasting. The disadvantage of this role was that I missed out on all the interactive – and somewhat messy – experiments; but from background noise which can only be described as ‘small child excitement’ it seems they were doing their job. My own experience was a much quieter affair, mostly featuring talks and technical incompetence (the kit, it transpired, was that bit too swanky for me). But interestingly, my abiding memory of the festival is actually the bits in between the talks.
No offence, talk people, you were (mostly) very good indeed. But, although concentrating mostly on slaloming round small children while clutching my body weight in memory cards, I still found time to be struck by the atmosphere. An entire city centre had been taken over in the service of science outreach.1 Events were crammed into every nook and cranny of Cambridge, and Cambridge is a city of a thousand nooks and crannies. People meandered inquisitively into events, and ended up learning about stuff they never even knew existed. I can only recall one comparable experience: as I tweeted at the time, it felt like “Science’s answer to the Edinburgh Fringe.”2 Yes, I’m quoting myself. But it’s not entirely for my ego (only about 76%). I mention it because that comparison made me look at the talks in a new light.
The ‘Fringe’, as it’s affectionately3 known, is an annual drama festival in which thousands of shows compete for audiences. Unless you’re a ‘big name’, the only way to get any audience is to be a bit niche, a bit different, a bit novel. We’ve come to expect kooky concepts and off-the-wall ideas from arty types. Not as much from public science lectures. But that’s certainly what many of these talks were providing. Offerings included a lecture on mathematically modelling a zombie apocalypse, a demonstration of photographs developed in coffee, and titles ranging from “why is the violin so hard to play?” to “why snot?”. It just felt rather different to the public science fare I’m used to. I got the sense that if a floppy-haired particle physicist had approached the organizers and, in lilting Mancunian, announced that he wanted to do a talk on, say, ‘Wonders of the Universe’… well, it might have struggled a bit.
Obviously the circumstances of TV Science and Science-Festival Science are somewhat different. But the relationship between them is quite interesting. TV Science does a good broad-brush-strokes job – I’d guess that audiences are now aware that science is a nice big collective enterprise, comprised of Massive Ongoing Group Projects. But as I’ve whined about previously sometimes this can risk making science seem too formal, as if scientists form massive hive-minds closing slowly in on their prey. Instead, these talks showed the fringey edges and the edgy fringes of research, eclectic projects and sprawling inventiveness – a more human side of science.
As an example, take the zombie lecture. That’s not a phrase I ever anticipated using in my life, but let’s go with it. This lecture, by the exuberant Thomas Woolley, modelled a zombie apocalypse using differential equations. (Yes, he showed differential equations to the general public. Give that man a coconut). There were a few take-home lessons here. I feel a lot more informed about what to do in a zombie attack, which is nice. Especially since survival turns out to be math-based: for zombies, braaaaiins are an enemy not just a staple diet. But, zombie specifics aside, there were some other interesting messages: just how flexible a tool mathematics is, how real-world models emerge from imaginative steps, and that even the most, erm, unexpected of research topics can achieve publication. We saw the vital role of imagination, playfulness, trying things out. The Massive Projects beloved by the mass media may show us some long-term goals. But these niche talks gave a little window on how they go about their day-to-day task of producing ideas.
That’s not to say that niche is ‘better’ than general. These talks are a useful counterpart to (for example) TV science, not an improvement. From those more general offerings, audiences pick up useful lingo, imbibe some basic natural laws, get a sense of what different fields do. That then means they know what further knowledge they might want to look out for, the person doing the niche talk can assume a higher level of basic knowledge, and so on. It’s quite a nice arrangement. It’s one that other subjects might be able to learn from – for instance history/sociology/philosophy of science has an ever-expanding number of awesome blogs, with really interesting specialist slants. But perhaps, somehow, we should be trying to push more general overarching principles of our field onto our audience. To explicitly state our Massive Projects – understanding how science reflects society, trying to establish the role of ethical and political values in science, or whatever –alongside our individual lines of enquiry. But that bulging can of worms can be left for another time.
But just to finish on another speculative note: imagine that the clamour of the Science Festival, all those diverse niche offerings, became the norm across all media. For a researcher of public science, there’s quite an exciting possibility to this – I spend quite a lot of time reading about how science-in-the-media has to compete with everything-else-in-the-media, so the thought that different science-offerings might be in competition with one another is intriguing. It’d certainly throw up a lot of (probably very useful) debates about what makes ‘effective’ popularisation for different subjects, experiments in novel ways to attract particular audiences, etc. etc. Those debates might be happening now, but as the Edinburgh Fringe shows us a little extra competition can produce a lot of creativity. Trust me, ideas come thick and fast when you’re attracting an average audience of two…
Fringes are heady, exciting places to be. Fringes need the mainstream to exist, true, but they also give something back to the mainstream. They offer that added element of flexibility, of give-it-a-go, of experimentation. And as any scientist can tell you, experimentation is rather a good thing.
1 = I should note – while it was jolly good, the Cambridge Science Festival is not a groundbreaking approach to science outreach. There are other science festivals – a major example being http://www.thebigbangfair.co.uk/home.cfm – but, erm, I’ve not been to any of them. And yes, I’m very ashamed to admit it, though I feel better for having seen the error of my ways. In fact, I feel like this is a kind of virtual confession – which, with this new social-media-savvy Pope, I’m fully expecting to become normal practice soon.
2 = Any recurring followers of this blog (bless you, especially those of you who don’t share much of my DNA) will know I’ve donated a bit of my time and quite a lot of my hair to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
3 = It’s got a lot of unaffectionate names too, but they’re best pronounced in a broad Edinburgh accent.