Psyched for SciComm
Until a few years ago, I had no idea that the field of Science Communication even existed.
But looking back, I realise that I’ve consuming SciComm since I was a kid, and producing my own since I was a student.
I’m not a scientist. I studied journalism and nowadays I produce a variety of online content. At school, Science was a subject that I was okay at, but it was never as engaging as English or History was. I’m sure this had a lot to do with the curriculum, and the way it was taught.
Then my Geography teacher, Mr Brown, told us about space, and galaxies, and light years, and black holes. I was hooked.
It’s now, only much later in life, when I’ve discovered how many fundamental things I didn’t learn in school, that I’ve developed a newfound appreciation for science — and in particular, astronomy and paleoanthropology.
I wanted to trace how I got here, what I’ve consumed and what I’ve contributed to this field, as I look at getting further involved in scicomm.
Bill Nye the Science Guy
I’m fairly sure many others of my generation will attest to this show being their first introduction to the world of science.
Not only did it have a great intro, it was also fun, inclusive, and informative. Rewatching it as an adult is a trippy experience — the editing is frenetic, the style is flashy and chaotic, but it remains entertaining and educational.
SciFest Africa Profiles
In dusty ol’ Grahamstown in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, SciFest Africa is held annually to “promote the public awareness, understanding and appreciation of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and innovation.” In my third year of studying television journalism in 2008, my first project was to profile a scientist, talk about their work, and produce a short film to be displayed during the festival. Luckily, I was able to work with a larger-than-life character in Eliecer Diaz:
Sir David and I
As a radio producer for Cape Town’s biggest news and talk station, one of the highlights of my career was securing a 30-minute, in-studio interview between the host, John Maytham, and one of the greatest natural science popularisers of all time, Sir David Attenborough. The shows he has worked on and others coming out of the BBC’s Natural History unit continue to be an inspiration.
Discovering the stars: Neil, Brian and Carl
As a child, I was definitely exposed to science fiction in popular culture way more than science non-fiction. Sure, I had a copy of Stephen Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell on my shelf, but I’d mostly looked at the pictures inside rather than grasping the words written.
Then a few years ago, I was given a boxset of Professor Brian Cox’s shows, The Wonders of the Solar System and The Wonders of the Universe. Around this same time, the rebooted Cosmos was released with Professor Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Between these two shows, I was mesmerised.
Professor Brian Cox has a warm and childlike wonder on his face whenever he is describing some subtle beauty in the way the universe works. It’s infectious. I love the experiments he devises on the show — they are always simple and reproducible, and go a long way in illustrating some fundamental property of the world.
Cosmos is not only beautifully shot, with stunning visuals, but it is also spiritually moving. It conveys the sense of wonder and discovery that informs science. I learned that being scientifically literate is not about academics, or taking away the mysteries of the world, so humans can stick labels on things and feel that we have conquered them. Scientific literacy gives you the lens in which to see how beautiful, chaotic, vast and surprising the real world can be, and to appreciate it — even if we don’t fully understand it.
Arriving at Cosmos led me, inevitably, to Carl Sagan, in some ways the pioneer of popularising science for a broader audience. I read The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark and realised that I also wanted to be a science communicator.
I now follow a lot of scientists on Twitter — favourites include Katie Mack and Emily Lakdawalla — (and a few spacecraft!) and have noted that there is some debate around the role of non-scientists in promoting science.
For me, if I can grasp the basics of a topic, and explain it to another layperson in a compelling way without messing up any vital details, there is a role for me in scicomm. Not all scientists are great communicators, with the same sense of storytelling, and ability to capture the public’s imagination, that a journalist or popular entertainer might have. So, there is room for others to play a role in creating an appreciation for science.
It’s got to be done responsibly — without sensationalising stories.
Through my work with various clients of Flow Communications, I’ve been able to contribute to the field of science communication in a few small ways.
Two Oceans Aquarium
This aquarium is run by passionate people who deeply care about marine conservation. They are one of the few places in the world that release the sharks that they care for back into the ocean every two years. The data these tagged and released sharks gather is invaluable to marine science.
- I covered one of these important events on social media, conducting (to my knowledge) the first-ever live-tweeted shark release.
- I got to meet and conduct a Twitter Q&A with marine conservation biologist and Twitter’s resident shark expert, Dr. David Shiffman about, well, “Why Sharks Matter”. And I was there during a visit from the esteemed oceanographer and another excellent science communicator, Dr Sylvia Earle.
- I invented a game to teach visitors about marine conservation, and it became a real-life thing! Kelp Forest Quest is a virtual exhibit where players learn about biodiversity and the importance of releasing animals back into the wild.
- And I’ve written extensively about sharks on the blog.
Table Mountain Aerial Cableway
- When you live in a city with a mountain looming over you every day, you start to wonder what it is made of.
Maropeng, and The Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site
I loved contributing blogposts for the website of Maropeng, the visitor centre near the Sterkfontein Caves outside Johannesburg, in the area known as The Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site.
I got to indulge in two of my favourite subjects as a kid: dinosaurs and space! And also paleoanthropology, a topic I’ve come to learn more about thanks to the important discoveries being made in South Africa.
Here are just a few of my blogposts for Maropeng, for which in 2014 I was awarded a special commendation by judges of the Profile Awards, which honours science and technology journalism.
- Astronomers announce discovery of closest-ever exoplanet
- Old dog reveals new tricks
- What an ancient wildebeest teaches us about fossils and evolution
In 2016, I produced this short documentary about The Cradle, and the important scientific discoveries that have been made in that area. This included an interview with Professor Lee Berger, who later that year was named as one of the most influential people in the world by TIME:
The Southern Africa Large Telescope
A real highlight from 2016 was creating some conference materials for SALT, the Southern African Large Telescope. I had to distill some of the technical jargon describing the telescope’s specifications, and highlight their important discoveries. The exhibit was a hit!
Outside of work, I participated in Cinespace, a short film competition that had to incorporate NASA imagery.
For all I’d learned about astronomy, and science in general, I realised that the dominant narrative tends to be Eurocentric. After everything I’d learned about local cosmology, from working with SALT and covering SKA (the Square Kilometer Array), I purposely drew from indigenous mythology about the stars and planets.
In the end, I had a lot of fun combining cutting-edge, hi-res pictures with these traditional, local fables:
This is just the start, I hope, of a lot more work in the field of Science Communication.
In the age of climate change denialists and “alternative facts”, SciComm seems to me to be more important than ever.