Science Communication in Practice:
Written for the BIG Newsletter, 2017, an amazing organization supporting Science Communicators in the UK. To join, visit the website
Around 15 years ago, I went to a performance by Vanishing Point, the script for which was inspired by Stephen Hawking’s book ‘A Brief History of Time’. The show took place at Glasgow’s amazing Tramway venue and could only be shown to 12 people at a time. The performance took the audience through different ‘scenes’, which related to key principles within the book. At the penultimate scene, the audience found themselves within a casino, playing a game of poker. The dealer talked to us about chance and probability, letting us know that half of us would win, and the other half would lose.
Once the outcomes were decided, the winners went one way and the losers went another for the grand finale. As one of the winners, I was blindfolded and led into a space where I was then sat on a chair. Upon removing the blindfold I could see only darkness and, soon after coming to terms with this vast space, Hawking’s voice started to speak, as he read from his book. Very slowly, a spotlight began to appear over my head and, after looking up at it, I also saw 5 other spotlights appearing around the enormous Tramway hanger space, each over the heads of the other 5 winners, like stars within the cosmos. I was overwhelmed with a sense of the universe’s enormity and our place within it.
It was profound. It was deep. It was emotional. It was informative. It was science communication.
The losers in the card game had a very different experience to the winners. They were also blindfold, but then bundled into the back of a van and driven around for 20 minutes. I think their message had something to do with uncertainty, randomness, and loss of control. The producers brought each party back together in a final scene — somehow managing also to have identified and separated out couples so that there was always a winner and a loser that could share their different stories.
The experience — and others I have seen since by such artists as Laurie Anderson in her ‘End of the Moon’ performance
or even work produced by the Mobile Academy and their ‘Black Market of Useful Knowledge and Non-Knowledge have inspired my convictions about the importance of bringing science communication much closer to the arts world
and these values have informed the creation of our new Science Communication Space at Salford University, the Master degree of which launches this year.
With so much emphasis on reaching large audiences in universities and in our cultural institutions, there has been an erosion of the hyper-local, the deep and personal encounter with science and I think we are beginning to see a push back against this from things like the maker movement, urban growing, and a whole range of things that nudge us to spend more life offline.
So, in 2016, for Manchester Science Festival, we produced an event called Amorance, which explored the science of falling in love and, more broadly, the science of intimacy.
The audience was invited to come along in couples and fall in love, or fall deeper in love, and learn about what happens to us in the process of doing so. At the amazing Ziferblat space in Manchester, we gave our audience a ‘love’ menu, with foods that stimulated their biological love cells.
We worked with Dr Sam Illingworth who provided some love/science poetry, Dr Marieke Navin, who led the production, we measured their heart rates to see how close they were, we provided some light-hearted couples therapy and talked about how relationships are changing in a digital world, and we gave them love potions with our barista Dr Gary Kerr. The couples also spent the evening going through the 36 questions that psychologists have found to be crucial to generate feelings of attachment and intimacy; the 36 questions you must ask your potential mate(s) to fall in love with them.
Without doubt, it was the loveliest event I have ever worked on and, our extremely scientific method showed that we also managed to bring the couples closer together by the end of the night.
We didn’t reach a lot of people, but I hope we gave them a memory that they will keep for at least as long as I remember my experience at the Tramway. Certainly, we do need also to keep in mind the macro problems around science communication; the problems with fake news, the drive to reach big and diverse audiences.
Yet, the best way to do this will be to recognize that people outside of science, especially in the arts, have had a lifetime of developing sophisticated ways of engaging people through such work and establishing robust evaluation structures that can be benchmarked across events