By Ellie Buchdahl

29 July 2015 - 12:00

'Of course, there’s so much more going on "behind the scenes".' Photo (c) christopher_brown
'Of course, there’s so much more going on "behind the scenes".' Photo of Alan Turing sculpture ©

christopher_brown, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Do you have to be a celebrity to be a scientific success? Should we really take ‘popular science’ seriously? Education UK’s Ellie Buchdahl spoke to Dr Michael Londesborough of the Czech Academy of Sciences to get his view.

In his recent lecture titled The Amazing Boron Hydrides: From Rocket Fuels to Microelectronics and Laser Materials, Dr Michael Londesborough created a hydrogen/oxygen explosion quite literally in the hands of an audience volunteer, played Hollywood-style films to illustrate his discoveries, and produced multi-coloured phosphorescent lights seemingly out of nowhere.

But what do all these fireworks – apparently symptomatic of a surge in ‘popular science’ – say about the relationship between scientists and the general public? I spoke to Michael Londesborough after the lecture to find out more...

Do you need to be a celebrity to be a modern scientist?

To my mind, the best performers are the best communicators, and the best communicators have often been the best scientists because they’re the ones who inspire others. Someone like Richard Feynman, for example, who was an amazing physicist and Nobel laureate, has gone down in history because he was an incredible speaker and a charismatic person – as well as an amazing scientist.

That’s not necessarily new. In the UK, there’s a tradition of science communication. The great Michael Faraday and Humphry Davy are two British examples of truly great scientists also very much active in the popularisation and public engagement of science. Faraday, a pioneer in chemistry and electromagnetism, began the Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution, and Davy, who discovered many elements, toured Europe to talk about science at the behest of Napoleon (he also took Faraday with him).

Indeed, Faraday, to whom we are all grateful for the electromagnetic motor and electricity generator, became a scientist after being inspired by a Humphry Davy popular science lecture at the Royal Society (and that more than 200 years ago). The BBC gives a great profile to scientists who make their name in popularising science, and institutions like the British Council have done valuable projects to promote scientific communication.

Of course, there’s so much more going on ‘behind the scenes’. To me, the biggest buzz will always be when my team first creates something which nobody else has seen or heard of, where the only samples in the whole universe may be in your hands – but you get a second resurgence of that buzz when it gets published a year or so later, then another buzz as people gradually find out about it.

Nowadays, though, I do feel scientists need to prove more than ever that their work means something that is tangible to the layperson. I’m a scientist, so anything about science is innately fascinating to me – I do not necessarily need a new discovery to have an application or immediate use. But for the taxpayer who’s not a scientist, unless those discoveries are going to do something useful for them and be a good use of their money, then a new discovery can be ketchup for all they care. We need to show that their money is being used well – and use the chance to inspire them at the same time.

Is public engagement in science a particularly ‘British’ thing?

I’m from the UK and have worked outside the UK – in the USA and the Czech Republic among other places – and as far as I have seen, the UK is the world leader in public engagement with science because good communication is encouraged. There’s the example of popular scientists as well as the support that’s available to those who can communicate well.

Scientists who’ve studied in the UK do come across as more confident in their presentation – which can be a good or a bad thing. Without wanting to generalise too much, I’d say Czech and German students tend to be extremely formal, putting on their best suit to present a lecture and referring to everyone by their titles, whereas in the UK it’s ‘John’ or ‘Michael’.

UK universities have been teaching science communication for a long time. I was doing my PhD at the University of Leeds around the early 2000s and even then, younger lecturers were running workshops about what you did with your hands and public presentation. Those are standard now in the UK.

Of course, UK students do have the advantage that a lot of international science presentation is in English – but that’s not everything. And you can learn so much from working with people from other backgrounds with different presentation styles, whether you’re from the UK or elsewhere.

Isn’t native English inherently an advantage?

Not necessarily. You have to have a good command of English to read the full expert literature and write up your own results into peer-reviewed papers, but in terms of communication, you don’t have to have a perfect command of the language to be an effective communicator.

I’ve been involved in projects that bring together the best inorganic chemists from the UK and the Czech Republic, for example, and they exchange ideas, collaborate and learn from each other’s presentation styles.

I do a lot of my science communication in Czech and my Czech is definitely not perfect – but some people say that’s an advantage because it’s my ‘thing’. They find it kind of cute.

That’s definitely the same with English. Understand what’ll entertain and what’ll be appealing and ham that up. Take advantage of whatever you’ve got and just be confident.

Does the scientific community look down on ‘popular scientists’?

There’s still a strong body who feel that science should be a lot more serious. Some people do look down on my approach of using occasional humour and films and music – but that’s an idea that’s being weaned out. Effective science communication requires communication at different levels: to an expert audience at conferences, to a non-expert but scientific audience of peers and students, and to a non-scientific audience. It pays dividends to assess what approaches are most suitable for each and every audience.

In fact, now when you submit a manuscript for publication in one of the top journals such as Nature or Science, you have to give the editor 150 words on why this will be of interest to the expert audience, and then the same number of words to explain why this will be of interest to a non-scientific audience. Communicating what it’s like for the lay person is absolutely crucial to being a good scientist.

What’s your advice for anyone hoping to become a ‘popular scientist’?

When you’re a scientist, you can spend a long time concerning yourself on a highly concentrated and specialised problem. You are working literally on the cutting edge of knowledge, and it may be easy to forget that essentially everyone else on the planet will have no idea what it is that you do, or have any point of reference in your field of specific interest. You can fall into the temptation of trying to look a bit too clever and making it a bit too hard to understand.

You have to take a step back. When you present, think carefully about what bits to include and what bits to leave out, how deep to go, when to go deep, when to lighten things a bit. Think about the rhythm of the talk. And always be thinking about what’s going to be really meaningful to the people you’re talking to. It’s a performance like any other.

I’m a firm believer that success is a personal thing, something that comes when you achieve something that you’re proud of and that gives you enjoyment. But inevitably your success is measured by other people too. The trick is to match the two together, and make something that you’re proud of and that other people believe in too. That’s what makes a great scientist.

Dr Michael Londesborough is a researcher at the Institute of Inorganic Chemistry at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague. He runs science communication programmes with the British Council, which bring together students and researchers from the Czech Republic and the UK.

Michael appeared at the London International Youth Science Forum (LIYSF), a programme that brings around 450 students from more than 60 countries to the UK for a fortnight of science-related events. LIYSF runs on 22 July - 5 August 2015. The British Council's Dr Tim Slingsby will be speaking at the forum tonight.

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