Neither the Bang nor the Butt

Before I get started, I would like to define, “science” for the purposes of this post. Please note that science does not equal academia. Academia has its own problems and I am not going anywhere near those (right now)…

science noun
  1. the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment

Like a lot of the things I come out with, this is a preemptive explanation.

This week I filmed a three minute segment for the NBN children’s show, “So There!” One of the producers contacted me after seeing a piece about my outreach work in the Newcastle Herald aaaand I got quite excited.


It’s a pretty straightforward segment. I perform three “experiments” (which can be easily repeated at home) whilst narrating the science behind what’s happening. This is the basic premise of my kids’ parties, with the obvious difference being those are interactive!

Now, because I am me, and because I am not the most optimistic of individuals, I’d like to think I am aware of most of the pitfalls and judgements attached to science communication – especially with children. Hence this pre-emptive explanation, which should hopefully roughly translate as: Trust me, I know what I’m doing.

Most of the attempts to get children interested in science is based on the (other) Big Bang Theory. This is the theory wherein, if something makes a big enough Bang, then kids will be impressed – and the job is done. Now, I’m all for making kids happy, but as you can imagine, there’s a lot more to science than Bangs. The Big Bang Theory is one of the reasons why IFLS has been so popular – but it’s also one of the reasons why many scientists feel the site can really let the side down when it comes to science communication.


All credit to the lovely Cyanide and Happiness guys, check them out

It’s one of the reasons scientists can shy away from communication and outreach. I was actually talking to one of my colleagues who is very pro-active about spreading the word about his work, but yet he is disappointed by this mentality. He was telling me about a trip to a science museum where he witnessed a kids’ science show which consisted entirely of things which go Bang. Now, because I am me, I took this as a slight towards my TV work (hehehe “my TV work”). I asked him how he proposed we SHOULD get kids interested in science – and of course he didn’t know.

Good scientists need to be a number of things. We need to be inquisitive, organised and creative. We need critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills. If we can encourage kids to develop even a few of these skills, we’re getting there. And remember, we’re not trying to cultivate a generation comprised entirely of scientists. We do not need a world full of researchers – we cannot support a world full of researchers! What we’re really trying to cultivate is a culture. A culture wherein everyone would be aware of science, everyone would respect science and everyone would appreciate science. In this ideal world, logic would prevail – and also there would be more funding for scientific research (!). No one would have to waste their time explaining why Paleo is nonsense, why vaccinating your children is the kindest thing you can do (unless they are immuno -compromised or otherwise unable to receive the injection! Can’t catch me, anti-vaxxers!), why coffee enemas are never going to cure cancer or why climate change is real (just ask John Oliver). People would make decisions based on evidence. People would ask intelligent questions. People would face the world with an open mind.

The truth is, the science is not the Bang – the science is in the asking WHY? In showing kids something so surprising or loud or colourful, we’re encouraging them to ask, “Why?” – this “Why?” is the first step to encouraging a scientific mind. Yes – the kids are looking at Science’s butt as it walks by. And THAT’S when the hard work comes in. Anyone can drop a Mentos into a bottle of Diet Coke, but it’s making the explanation accessible and interesting that’s the tricky part. Also encouraging further questioning – leaving some things unsaid and waiting for the dots to join so you can make way for hypothesis building and fill in the blanks when the time comes (this can be tough on TV…).

My point is, that just because I am taking advantage of the Other Big Bang Theory, it doesn’t mean that I am “selling out”. I still consider myself a scientist, and I still hold the values of science very close. I’m using the Theory as leverage. It’s my “in” for building the foundation for inquisitive minds.

Trust me, I know what I’m doing.

As far as developing this mind even further – beyond the Bang, beyond the butt– what do you think? How can we encourage appreciation for the scientific method – hypothesis forming, how to scrutinise sources, critical thinking – as children get older and we have a bit more faith in their attention span?

I’ve had a few lesson plan/ outreach activity/ museum ideas around this theme and I’d love to share them with any interested teachers or communicators!

Learn How To Do a PhD, In Just One Easy Step!

Earlier on in my PhD, I developed a bad habit, though I didn’t know it at the time. As well as habitually googling, ‘reasons not to do a PhD’ (although I knew that was a bad idea from the outset), I also tried ‘advice for a PhD student’. Though seemingly harmless, asking the internet this question actually had pretty terrible consequences for a worrier like me.

Every blog post or web page I stumbled upon described, in minute detail, all of the trappings and pitfalls a supervisor, department head, administrative team, piece of lab equipment, software component or even partner could conceivably lay out for you to stumble upon throughout the duration of your studies. Reading these posts was, understandably, a terrifying experience. How on Earth could I insure myself against ALL of these perfectly feasible ordeals? Maybe I should try and delay my enrolment and take time out to ‘prepare’… maybe, if these things intimidated me so much, doing a PhD was not the right choice for me…

It wasn’t long (thank goodness), before I found a blog which wasn’t quite so intimidating, but was still realistic about all the challenges which lay ahead of me. The blog offered up this sobering “advice”:

The only way to learn how to do a PhD is to do one. All advice is therefore useless.

Back then, I took some comfort in these words, and have since stopped trolling the internet for vague PhD “wisdom”.

I hadn’t thought about the quote for a while, but after last week with its repeated mysterious experiment failures, I retreated back into the depths of my brain for some explanation as to why I couldn’t shake this feeling of PERSONAL failure every time an experiment failed.

The past few weeks have felt pretty slow and pointless because I am just not getting any results. I have been trouble-shooting and reading a lot, and trying to figure this all out on my own. Every time I cave and ask someone for advice, it makes me feel stupid. Why can’t I just be as smart as these people, and have as much insight and expertise?

Then I remembered that sodding “advice”. I can have the smarts, and I can have the insight, and I can have the expertise. I just have to learn how to do a PhD: and we all know there is only one way to do that.

In other words:

  1. Asking for advice is OK (the good, specific kind, not the vague, horror inducing, tell-me-all –the-ways-I-could-fail kind)
  2. Sometimes things don’t work, and that’s the only way you’re ever going to figure out how they do work.

In other, other words:

  1. Shut up and get on with it.