Friday 31 January 2014

#SciComm: at a tangent?

I no longer feel the need to justify using Twitter, despite continuing ‘ribbing’ from some colleagues and others: I’ve benefitted from it professionally and have some fun along the way.  I can also cite many other scientists – including leaders in their field – who have already written cogently on the topic.  Prof. Athene Donald, who gave an Open Lecture at my university last year, offers a good example (spread-the-word); also worth reading are blog posts by Emily Darling (science-seeks-to-make-a-social-impact) and by a group from the University of New South Wales (science-in-140-characters).  What has surprised me a little is the way in which my use of Twitter has so clearly mirrored the relatively rapid evolution in my perspectives on Public Engagement. 

Q&A at University of Kent's Public
Engagement Strategy launch event, June 2013.
In my department we exhibit what I consider to be a leading example of outreach into regional schools; my colleague Vicky Mason – a former research student of mine I’m delighted to be able to say – and her team reaches thousands upon thousands of school students each year, and this is augmented at University level by Gaby Roch (another physicist I note).  However, Public Engagement (PE) is a far broader term: indeed, to my mind, it goes wider even than the description orovided within my university’s new, and entirely laudable, PE Strategy (which I helped to launch last year). The image shown here comes from the launch event's web pages: Sarah Dance, me and Tracy Kivell, each of us part of the panel for a discussion and subsequent Q&A session.  It was covered through Twitter, naturally.

Workshop in a drama studio as part of the
'experiment': not the natural habitat of or
usual haunt for a physicist. 
During the last couple of years I have found myself moving from a near-exclusive focus on schools work and talks to fellow scientists towards talking to adult lay audiences.  This was not by design, but via the serendipidy of ‘random’ invitations (e.g. from the local Café Scientifique, the National Womens Register, the Beaney Museum, …).  The big change came when, with colleague Jorge Quintanilla, I took part in an ‘experiment’ (their term, not mine) under the umbrella of the excellent Canterbury Festival and led by Margate’s awesome Turner Contemporary gallery.  Again, Twitter played a significant role in the broader sweep of publicity.

Panel discussion and Q&A at Turner
Contemporary, Spring 2013.
The image to the right was taken at the launch of the 5-minute animated cartoon derived from an extended discussion between scientists and artists focusing the statement by sculptor Carl André: “The periodic table of elements is for me what the colour spectrum is for a painter. . . Copper is more profoundly different from aluminium than green is from red.”  Since then I’ve been involved with another project with Turner Contemporary (and have been contacted about yet another) and a wonderful local film company, and I’m also providing science input into the libretto for a new opera by Frank Burnet, ‘Butterfly’, which is inspired by Chaos Theory.  In all cases, and others I'll not regale you with here, Twitter has been invaluable in the context of publicising events, building a network of contacts and enhancing relationships.

So, back to Twitter.  The account was set up in the context of a particular PE project, which never really took off, but with the fairly benign longer-term objective of providing a channel through which I might attempt to communicate my research and my professional life as a scientist.  What it’s developed into is a tool for my learning and one I can use in building bridges across science, the arts and life in general.  I think it’s important that scientists try to communicate effectively; for me, Twitter offers a fun way to do just that. 


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