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.

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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.

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All credit to the lovely Cyanide and Happiness guys, check them out http://explosm.net/comics/3557/

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!

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My Fellow Tweeps-To-Be

Last week, I was honored to be a part of the Franklin Women event, “Making social media work for your career.” I had a really great evening; it was wonderful to be surrounded by such supportive, motivated and intelligent women. Thank you to everyone who came, and to the inspirational Dr Melina Georgousakis for inviting me to be a part of it.

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Though we did address a number of platforms on the night, Twitter was more or less the headlining act. A number of attendees either signed up for an account or sent their first tweet that very night, as a result of being inspired by the discussions (Shout out to @mrsxandra @magda_ellis @Brigid_Og @bhonah025 and @kamilla_marzec to name a few!).

While I’m excited to be spreading the good word, I’m also aware that merely joining Twitter does not a tweep make (tweep (n) regular user and enjoyer of Twitter). A billion users who tried Twitter have never come back. This is due in part to (what I believe to be) some shortcomings of the platform, as well as people not really knowing HOW to make the most out of their account.

I’m a natural problem solver (see: PhD student), as well as a bit of a bossy pants, so I’m here to provide you with a solution. A short(ish) primer on how to make the most of your brand spanking new (or plain neglected) Twitter account.

Twitter Terminology

#            The hashtag is a way to label your tweet. If you are tweeting about a TV show, conference, hobby etc and include a relevant #hashtag, it means that someone searching for relevant tweets can find yours easily. It’s also how a topic can start to “Trend”: if millions of people are talking about marriage equality (Hooray!), then the relevant #hashtag, #LoveWins may well start to Trend. Oh look!

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Follow         If you follow someone, their tweets will appear in your feed (feed = flow of tweets as seen on your home page).

@          @ represents the start of someone’s Twitter handle (I’m @cfawarren), and it’s also a way to send a tweet to someone (“Hey @cfawarren, I found this picture of a guinea-pig in a sombrero, thought you might enjoy!”). They will receive a notification of your tweet. Using @handle means that only the person you are tweeting and their followers will be able to see the tweet.

.@         Using .@ instead of @ means that your tweet can be seen by anyone (but only the person you are tweeting will get a notification). Using @ or .@ is often referred to in digital and non-digital conversation as “pinging” (“Did you see @cfawarren was pinging me pictures of guinea pigs all day AGAIN today?!”).

Retweet              (square arrows) If you retweet a tweet, it means it will appear in all of your follower’s newsfeeds.

Favourite            (star) If you favourite a tweet, the tweeter will get a notification. It’s the Twitter equivalent of a Facebook “like”. It basically says, “I approve!”, but with minimal actual effort. Favourited tweets will also get put in your Favourites List (on your profile page). It can be useful for marking things to read later.

favRT

Lists       You can compile your followers into lists, then look at the feed for each list separately. One of the reasons some people don’t like Twitter is that it moves too fast. If you follow a few actual friends as well as a couple of hundred scientists, science news sources and guinea pig breeders, chances are you will never actually see any of your friends’ tweets unless they are pinging you specifically. By putting your friends IRL (in real life) into a list, you can make sure you see everything they have to say. Unfortunetely, building lists in Twitter is a pain in the balls (very fiddly, not streamlined at all) so it’s best to add people into the relevant list as you follow them. This is best practise…but I don’t do it because I’m impatient. If you already have a load of tweeps you’d like to organise into lists, I’d recommend doing it in Hootsuite (though still not perfect).

DM        Sending a DM (direct message) to someone means that only they can see it. It’s a private conversation.

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Building Your Twitter Experience

Twitter is a way to personalise the internet. Millions of articles are posted online every day: with Twitter, you can increase the chances that you’ll see the ones which are relevant to you. And it will facilitate discussions with others about topics YOU care about. From experience, you are way less likely to get trolled on Twitter than you are on a message board (but the risk is definitely still there!). Twitter is a way to connect with people with similar interests to you, and to access information about your interests. But you have to establish your follows and followers first. Here’s some tips on getting started and speeding up the process:

-Use lists             You can build your own lists (as mentioned previously) in order to organise your tweeps. You can also subscribe to other people’s lists. Once you subscribe to someone’s list, all of the tweets from tweeps on that list will appear in your feed. You can still unfollow an individual from a list you are subscribed to, don’t worry, it’s not an all or nothing system. This is a quick way to make your news feed interesting. I have several science-y lists you are welcome to subscribe to.

-Write a bio       You can’t expect people to follow you if they don’t know who you are. Use the bio feature to write a few words about yourself. Think about the kind of people you want to connect with and why: if they read your bio, do you think they’d find YOU of interest? I generally don’t follow back people without a bio because I don’t know who they are: I generally assume it’s a spammer.

-Have a display pic         Fair enough if you don’t want your face attached to your profile. Pick a picture of your pet guinea pig, a plant, a test tube, whatever. Just make sure it’s not the sodding egg. That egg screams, “I never use this account so don’t bother following me” and also “SPAM SPAM SPAM”.

No.

No.

-Have a personality        Try not to be too sterile when it comes to tweeting. I like to obide by “The Grandma Rule” (if you wouldn’t say it in front of your Grandma, don’t say it on the internet), and also “The Cocktail Party Rule” (if you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face in front of a room full of people, don’t say it on the internet – thanks @StartupShelley). But that doesn’t mean you have to be a robot. Express your opinions, your loves, your hates, yourself! The connections you make will be way more valuable, you’ll enjoy it more and you’ll help make scientists look like actual humans.

All set? Got the lingo down and a couple of interesting followers? Great! Let’s go! Tweet away! Oh wait…

What to Tweet

A few suggestions…

-Be inspired by some trending hashtags               You might notice that your newsfeed will become inundated with recurring hashtags or themes from time to time. Remember #GirlsWithToys and #distractinglysexy ? These were great hashtags because they were accessible, fun and they were promoting an important message about women in science. Keep your eyes peeled for another opportunity like this, I’m sure it won’t be long before another one comes along.

Elevator pitching          Here’s one I’d like to think most academics are capable of. Tweet about your research! Try and make it as accessible as possible without being patronising. Get your “science sound bites” (another thanks to @StartupShelley !) out there. It’s a rhetoric I’ve heard several times at sci-comm events, but it’s true: the internet is a vacuum. If you don’t get in there and put actual science into the arena, there’s an endless supply of pseudoscientists waiting to make their contribution instead. Tweeting about your research also builds your personal “brand”. Wanky, I know. But if you put yourself out there as the expert that you are, people will recognise it. Importantly, journalists will recognise it. Future employers will notice it. Potential collaborators will recognise it.

-Share what you’re reading                      What interesting news or topical pieces have you read recently? What was your take on it? Did it remind you of anyone who might appreciate it? Ping, hashtag and retweet away! A lot of articles will have a “Twitter share” button already on the page.

-What are you doing this weekend?       Easy as.

-Join in with a conversation        Talk to your friends. Talk to strangers. Talk to (potential) mentors. If you can see people are having a conversation about something that interests you, jump in!

-Conferences     Find out the official hashtag for a conference or event, and use it to tweet your ideas and interpretations of presentations. Use it to find new tweep friends IRL! Use it to engage with people who aren’t at the conference but who want to know more. Use it to ask presenters questions if you’re feeling shy.

Twitter has helped me to build my confidence and my networks. It’s helped with my research and training. It’s helped me to connect with mentors. It’s helped me build my reputation. It’s helped me secure a number of invaluable opportunities (some of which I actually got paid for!).

Last but not least: it’s fun! Give it a go and let me know how you get on.

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Mission: Birthday Party

My mission was clear, though far from simple.

It was my responsibility to recruit and train the next generation of scientists, such that they may find a way out of this terrible mess we had gotten ourselves into. Global warming, food shortage, antibiotic resistance: it was clear that we stupid adults were fairly inept at taking care of ourselves and our environment. My recruitment officer, Mollie, had taken it upon herself to use her birthday celebrations a way to bring together the best minds of her generation (*ahem* classroom) such that I could hope to prepare them for what lay ahead.

Many people told me I was foolish to expect so much from 8 year olds. Did they really have it in them to understand the fundamental states of matter AND their transition states? The complexities of pH, density and chemical reactions?

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The recruits enjoying some vital R&R in preparation for their rigorous training

It is true, I cannot lie: at times I did fear I had taken too much on. But I held onto my hopes that my students, though short and easily distracted, would have a number of other key qualities which would render them perfect scientists.

Indeed, when I finally coaxed them away from their chocolate, footballs, trampolines and playhouses, I quickly realised that 8 year olds are not lacking in these qualities. In particular, I am of course talking about creativity, playfulness and inquisitiveness. Vital skills for any scientist worth their salt! I was also made to feel much more confident when I saw the quality of the resources at our disposal. The laboratory was beyond satisfactory.

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Our first task (I brought along my trusty aide, confidante and housemate to assist on the day in question) was to introduce the students to the three major states of matter. This lesson was very straightforward, and it was streamlined with the provision of:

  1. A simple diagram,
particle model

Solids, liquids and gases

2. Hands on examples (ice cubes melt when you transfer them some heat energy from your hands, water turns into stem when you transfer heat energy using a kettle)

3. Thought provoking questions relating to a familiar context i.e. the human body. (who can name a GAS inside the human body?! 😉 )

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FART JOKES

We were ready to enter the laboratory. Inside, I had prepared learning materials such that the recruits would become familiar with several new concepts.

Unfortunately, the laboratory had taken on the smell of wet cabbage; it was integral that we had buckets of red cabbage water on hand for the duration of our experiments. Reb cabbage water has the interesting quality of being a colour change “INDICATOR” – which just means it can tell us things when it changes colour. In particular, it can tell us whether a chemical is an ACID, BASE or NEUTRAL.  “What do these strange new words mean?”, my curious little students asked. I assured them, “Scientists are really keen on grouping things together. How many ways do you think I could separate you into groups? That’s right: eye colour, are you wearing a dress or pants, hair colour, girl or boy… CHEMIALS can also be grouped together into ACID, BASE or NEUTRALS.”

“Acids tend to taste SOUR and be CORROSIVE – like how eating lots of sugar CORRODES your teeth: it makes holes in them.”

“Bases tend to taste BITTER like coffee or dark chocolate, and feel SLIPPERY.”

“…Now who wants to test out some of our mystery CHEMICALS with the INDICATOR?”

IMG_3574Soft drink, sherbet, vinegar and lemon juice are all ACIDS: they are sugary and/or sour– that’s why it’s so important to brush your teeth after eating!

Mylanta, toothpaste and soap are all BASES. Mylanta helps to make your stomach LESS ACIDIC when you have eaten too much of the wrong food. Toothpaste helps protect your teeth from ACIDIC food. And soap feels SLIPPERY – remember?!

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Meanwhile, my assistant was taking on a more creative project: making lava lamps (as well teaching humans born in 2005 WHAT a lava lamp IS).

“Remember those molecules that are packed REALLY TIGHT in solids, LESS TIGHT in liquids and are LOOSELY packed in gases? Well, that tightness is referred to as DENSITY.”

The students then partook in an experiment and creative exercise involving six major components: an empty plastic bottle, water, vegetable oil, dissolvable aspirin, food colouring and air.

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Their first task (with the help of adults and an abundance of funnels) was to pour some oil and water together in their plastic bottle, then MIX it together. Of course, this was a clever trick. Why, you ask? Well of course the oil and water will not mix! It is because the oil is MORE DENSE than the water that it will sink to the bottom.

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Now for the creative part: the children could pick their favourite colours such that the water would change colour.

“What happens when you blow bubbles through a straw into your soft drink, other than your Mum and Dad getting annoyed?

The bubbles FLOAT: because they are full of AIR. What is AIR? It’s a GAS. What do we know about the density of GAS? Is it higher or lower than that of LIQUIDS? Of course it is LOW – which is why the bubbles rush to the top! So what do you think would happen if we put some GAS in the bottom of your bottle?

OK, but how are we going to get the GAS IN the bottle AND at the bottom?

Let me tell you about CHEMICAL REACTIONS. They are happening all the time! They happen in your tummy after you eat, they happen in the car’s engine, they happen when you cook food…and a lot of the time, these reactions will cause the production of GAS.

So we just need a chemical reaction to happen in the bottom of the bottle! And how do we do that? We use these special fizzy tablets (dissolvable aspirin) . They CHEMICALLY REACT with LIQUID…and give us a lovely lava lamp in the process!”

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Fantastic. It was time to move the scientists outside for the final installment of their training.

“What happens when you get in the bath? You have a wash? You get bubbles all over the floor? You splash your brother and sister? Great. Guess what else happens? The water moves up the edge of the bath – your body DISPLACES the water – so the water level rises.”

“What do you think would happen if we could DISPLACE the liquid from this soft drink bottle?”

“Do you think it might explode…?”

“OK how can we get GAS in the bottom of the bottle? I seem to recall having this problem before…? A CHEMICAL REACTION? Great, I have just the thing! These sweeties react with the soft drink and produce LOTS of GAS! Stand back…”

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I was so proud to have my recruits graduate with flying colours. We celebrated with cake and hand-ball, and I am more than confident the students will go on to have a promising future in science.. saving the world, curing diseases, rescuing near extinct species. Nothing too lofty.IMG_3632 IMG_3671

Love, Trust, Science and Ducks

Several weeks ago, a well-respected and widely popular Australian cartoonist, Michael Leunig published what appeared to be an anti-vaccination cartoon in The Age.

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I, among others, was disappointed. Others were angry AND disappointed. Predictably, plenty of people took to twitter to criticize the artist’s work and opinions.

This is pretty typical of non-anti-vaxxers’ response to anti-vaxxers. On the one hand, it’s nice to know that the majority of us regard the anti-vaxx message as one of ignorance as opposed to one to be taken seriously. On the other hand, treating these people with such disrespect and aggression isn’t really getting us anywhere.

While respecting the individual’s right to opinion is a valuable moral to hold, respect in this instance can be a pretty hard thing to find. Parents who elect not to vaccinate are putting other babies and immuno-compromised individuals at risk, whilst putting an unnecessary strain on health care systems.  Many of us are lucky enough to never have witnessed the devastating effects of these preventable diseases thanks to the technological advances in modern medicine. Some of us are unenlightened enough to regard this luck with such complacency that they will consciously make the decision to leave their children unprotected.

However, the reality of the matter is that these people are standing up against vaccination because they are scared. They are standing up to defend their children and their community for what they perceive to be a very real danger. This is all despite the fact that government, scientists, health care workers and journalists (or at least those worth their salt) have struggled for so long to reassure those of us who may be worried about the adverse consequences of vaccination.

There is, to date, no scientific evidence which suggests that not vaccinating a child is a healthier choice than vaccinating a child. Searching the term “anti-vaccination” in a science publication database brings up nothing but communication guidelines for health care workers and sociological studies. I could copy and paste infinite links to scientific publications here (Oh go on, have a few [ref] [ref]), but it would do nothing to sway the opinion of an anti-vaxxer.

So we can review. Aggressive techniques for reasoning are, unsurprisingly, ineffective. Educational techniques for reasoning are ineffective (see, “The Backfire Effect” and a wonderful This American Life episode which explores this theme). Even bribery techniques are /would be ineffective (and immoral…).

Why is this? Why does the anti-vaxx movement persist?

At the root of these educational techniques for reasoning i.e. the scientific argument, lays a major factor which often gets forgotten about.

Trust.

Doctors and scientists are asking the public to trust them. More than that: they are asking the public to trust science.

Many of us view science as a collection of facts. It’s unsurprising therefore that the public can distrust science. One day scientists are telling them that red wine is good for you because is decreases risk for cardiovascular disease, while the next day they’re reminding them that alcohol is a carcinogen, so don’t go crazy now. Who are these idiot scientists if they can’t even get their facts i.e. science right?

Where the idea of science being a collection of facts came from, I have no idea. But it’s a poisonous idea and it’s getting everyone into a lot of unnecessary trouble.

Science is a discipline. It’s an ever-evolving collection of ideas and evidence, constantly being constructed and deconstructed by people who dedicate their entire lives to this discipline. A career in scientific research is a blood bath. You are continually having your work ripped to shreds by your colleagues. And rightly so: researchers are building the legacy of their generation. There are strict systems in place to ensure that sub-par science will not make it into publication (and thus into the legacy). This system itself, the academic system, is forever evolving to improve the quality of the science it produces.

It makes sense therefore that science will contradict itself. It’s the very nature of the beast. Maybe this is why the public has so many trust issues with doctors and scientists. Who’s to say we won’t find anti-vaccination evidence tomorrow?

The thing is, we can’t promise that. By the same token though, I can’t promise you that I won’t wake up a million dollars richer tomorrow. But I’m pretty bloody sure about it. No one has ever randomly deposited cash in my bank account before, I haven’t entered any competitions and I haven’t been promoted. I’m using evidence to inform my conclusion that I am “pretty bloody sure” I won’t wake up a million dollars richer tomorrow.

In a recent interview with Michael Leunig on ABC News, he states,

“I think the science is incomplete, I honestly do.”

Well, I should hope so. Science is never complete. But what’s important to remember is that the evidence we have so far demonstrates that i) vaccinations aren’t dangerous (aside from some minor and temporary side effects) and ii) the diseases they protect against are. NOT vaccinating is like me assuming that I WILL wake up a million dollars richer AND going out and making a tonne of business deals with shady characters who have a habit of shooting off knee caps.

So how do we go about addressing our trust issues? I know this is often suggested as a “cure for all” in science communication circles, but improved education is certainly one way to go about it. If we were to teach how academic culture is designed to optimise the production of “good” science, children should begin to spot the variation in quality between different sources of information.

But then again, is an appreciation of science something we can physically teach?

Perhaps distrust is just an embedded human instinct, and we are forever destined to argue with each other. Alternatively, is our marketing-obsessed culture priming people for distrust? Is this age of distrust a consequence of the increased availability of (mis)information over the internet? A skeptical mind is a valuable thing, but a skeptical mind with access to misinformation could actually be considered dangerous.

Leunig made an interesting point during his interview,

“Is science the final say on everything?”

Well, no. Science will never have “a final say”. But it has a say. In fact, it has the only say. It’s the only real tool we have to maneuver ourselves and our families safely through this wonderful and mysterious thing we call life.

Not A Psychic

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to get involved in the Science and Engineering Challenge, a University of Newcastle initiative to get high school students thinking about careers in (you guessed it) science and engineering.

My task for the two day competition was to supervise and score the students participating in the “Future Power” challenge. This was one of 7 activities we ran throughout the day, which also included catapult, hovercraft and bridge building. The aim of my activity involved supplying power to a city and making the most money. ALL of the kids (as far as I can tell) enjoyed the challenge and there was a lot of excitement buzzing through the room as teams raced to complete their task.

Due to a bit of an administrative hiccup, some of the students had been told they would be attending a building activity when they were in fact scheduled to spend their afternoon with me and 8 power boards, which looked like this:

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future1IMG_20150505_074905

Pretty daunting at first, right (except for the fluffy headband I guess)? Hence I made a point during my task brief to the students that I’d give them plenty of time to learn how to use the equipment, and that I’d come and talk to each team individually before we got started.

A certain cluster of girls took an instant dislike to me and my power boards. We were not what they were expecting and they weren’t having any of it. As I worked my way closer to their table, I could hear them complaining loudly. I approached them tentatively…

“So, how are you going? Do you have any questions?”

The ringleader folded her arms and huffed at me: “Miss, we don’t get it. It’s too hard. We want to build stuff.”

The other girls nodded enthusiastically in agreement.

And in a moment of sheer eloquence and confidence that I will likely never re-live, I replied:

“Well, it’s just as well you don’t get it already because you only just got here and you haven’t even tried. If you already got it, then it would mean you had psychic powers and I’d probably have to hand you over to the government so they could do crazy experiments on you.”

Unfortunately I didn’t get a laugh (unless you count my laugh), but I did win enough favour to be able to sit down with them without getting evil eyed into the next dimension. By this point, some of the other teams were getting pretty into it, yelling (nicely, mostly) over the top of their boards at each other. Surely enough, once they took the time and energy to try and understand what was going on, the girls grasped the concept and were keen to get started with the competition.

I was reminded of this incident today when I sat down to plan a series of experiments. I felt anxious, frustrated and annoyed with myself for taking so long to plot it all out. I wanted to give up, go home…

But wait a minute. Of course it was taking me a long time. I had never done it before. It was always going to take time and energy to think it out properly. I was never going to be able to jump into this without committing myself to understanding it first.

I’m not a psychic. And just as well,really.

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A Date with The Doctor

About a month ago, I spotted Dr Karl at a book signing in my local shopping centre.

Part of me was desperate to talk to him and tell him how awesome he was. But part of me knew that he must get so sick of people fan splurging all over him. The second part of me won out, and I left the shopping centre feeling somewhat proud that I had made a very grownup decision.

Later that evening, I was harbouring a toddler-esque resentment of my grownup decision. I sat sulking on Twitter, scrolling through Dr Karl’s feed, inwardly scolding myself for missing out on the opportunity to fan splurge on THE Dr Karl. As a reflection of this inner turmoil, I somewhat-joke tweeted:

Dear @DoctorKarl, I want your job.

Later that evening, my game of Scrabble (no, really) was interrupted by my phone.

karl tweet

Several weeks later, I rolled up at the ABC in Sydney and presented myself to the receptionist.

“I…I’m here to see…Dr Karl?”

“OK, sure just sign in here”

There was a space for “Host Staff Member” on the slip he had handed me.

“Erm…I…I don’t know how to spell his last name.”

He laughed. “That’s OK. Just take a seat over there and I’ll track him down for you.”

He handed me an ABC Visitor Pass and I wondered over to the sofas he had indicated.  I immediately set about trying to take a stealthy selfie of me and my pass, figuring it would take the receptionist a while to find my host. Caught up in awkward angles and unflattering close-ups, my selfie taking was interrupted almost immediately.

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“He’s in the coffee shop; you can go and meet him there.”

I find my way to the coffee shop without embarrassing incident, and am beckoned over to Dr Karl’s table by The Man Himself. (He’s wearing an Americana print shirt with a Route 66 belt buckle, for those of you who are interested. NB You should ALL be interested).

Karl shakes my hand and introduces me to the two other people at the table, his wife and his “body guard” (a slight, short-haired lady, who I assume is in fact his publicist…but she could just have a mean right hook, what do I know?). They are discussing titles for this year’s book. Karl will be writing his 38th book this year, and they settled on:

You’re Kidding Right, I Definitely Do Not Have The Authority Or Permission To Talk About That

After coffee, Karl gives me a Brief History of the ABC Ultimo Building. He moves with purpose and a near constant commentary of our surroundings. At this point in the day, this commentary regards the age and orientation of the building. However, at other stages of the day, it will instead focus on the pattern of the traffic lights, the speed of the elevator we’re standing in or who is currently walking past the recording booth. It’s actually very comforting in an odd sort of way. He takes me up to the third floor balcony space, where he can point out the ABC satellite dish.

“How long does it take for a typical communications satellite to orbit the Earth?”

“Errrrm I don’t know? Sorry.”

“That’s OK, it’s only one of the greatest achievements of mankind, why should you know? There are other things to think about, like the Kardashians.”

I didn’t have much time to think about how I felt about being spoken to like this, as Karl was already moving on with more detail about the technicalities of the ABC broadcasting systems…most of which goes over my head, as I am busy nodding and smiling*. He even leads me into the high security main control room, warning me not to touch any of the buttons or cables.

As Karl sets up for his ABC 612 Brisbane segment, I am left with the guys in the transmission control room , as they tell me about their jobs keeping the entire country in touch with the ABC. They are quick to remind me that this task is a bit tricker in Australia than the UK, a country which can fit inside Victoria. Later in the day, Karl tells me that he enjoys having his “Tardis” (isolated soundproofed room) in such close proximity to these guys as he has a lot of respect for their profession and expertise. No kidding.

I am directed into Karl’s Tardis, where he is sat with his laptop open and Skype running. He is about to go on air and one of the producers is typing messages to Karl on Skype, writing out some of the questions they have been texted, tweeted, emailed or called in. This is the first time I realise that Karl has literally no time to research the answers to the questions he is asked. Within a minute of Karl and the producer typing their “Good Mornings”, Karl is live with Steve Austin and answering questions about solar panel efficiency, towel drying and weight loss. Initially I thought the producer would continually type out questions on Skype for Karl to select, but often he was given no choice of which question to answer. Dr Karl is a sodding enigma.

After the ABC 612 segment, we dash upstairs to the Triple J studios to join Zan Rowe for a one-hour Q&A session with callers to the radio show. Karl is quick to tell Zan off for partying too hard over the weekend at Beat the Drum, and they are left with about 45 seconds to talk about some of the callers they’ve had so far. With Zan’s show, the guys do get a break every few minutes while she puts a record on, and while they do use that time to discuss the upcoming calls, there isn’t much picking and choosing. Karl’s happy to tackle just about everything (however I did get the feeling that younger kids often got a preference…so feel free to recruit some younger siblings/ nieces/ nephews/ cousins/ passing school children if you are really desperate to get on the show). Although Karl was happy to answer any question, it’s pretty important to note that, like any half decent scientist, he knows when to say those magical words, “I don’t know!”.

A lot of the questions have obviously been brought on by the Australian summer, as sweat and sunburn make a few appearances. During an explanation about UV, Karl tells us:

“UV-A causes Ageing, UV-B causes sun-Burn and UV-C causes Cancer.”

A couple of seconds later, my phone buzzes as my supervisor has sent me an angry text message:

nikola text

I show Karl during one of the music breaks, and he looks a bit concerned. He asks that Nikola send him some references and he’ll have to do some reading. When Nikola sends the papers through a few minutes later, he thanks me enthusiastically. This guy loves his scientific literature. He tells me he’ll read it through and correct himself next week.

As the show comes to a close, Karl and Zan move outside of the studio to take their weekly picture. A few awkward moments pass as I’m unsure whether I’m supposed to be IN the picture or taking it. I’m more than flattered when Zan and Karl usher me between them and one of the producers emerges to take our photo. Which is now my phone, Twitter and Facebook background picture. Obviously.

zan karl

Karl and I have lunch together, and he asks me about my PhD project. We talk about why melanoma incidence in Australia is so high, and why it has such chemoresistance tendencies. This is the one and only time I feel as though it’s ME educating HIM, although he could just have been humouring me. The UV thing has obviously piqued his interest, and he presses me to tell him everything I know about the differences in wavelengths. He seems almost as disappointed as me that I can’t really help him out. I begin to feel as though every other thing I say to Doctor Karl is, “I don’t know,” and I apologise for my stupidity. He tells me,

“You’re not stupid, you’re just ignorant in some areas. There’s a big difference between stupidity and ignorance.”

Again, I’m not given too much time to dwell on how this makes me feel, as he moves on to tell me about ACTUAL stupid people, like climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers, as well as conspiracy theorists.

We have another hour before his next show, but Karl has scheduled reading for this time: he reads over $10,000 worth of scientific literature a year. I tell him how impressed I am by his memory, and he tells me he actually has a “terrible memory”, and he has several mechanisms to help it along. Firstly, he has an extensive filing system on his laptop. When he reads something interesting, the coupling of reading with the action of filing helps him to remember. Secondly, he tries to write science stories as often as he can, always with the intention to publish. I ask him how much sleep he gets and I’m kind of pissed off when he tells me, “8 hours.”

Karl lends me some magazines to read (National Geographic and Scientific American Mind), and I trot off to entertain myself for the next hour. Inspired by Karl’s dedication to science, I put down my smartphone, get out my notebook and attempt to really try to learn SOMETHING in the next hour. Note to self: it’s hard to focus when you are buzzing from exhaustive fan-splurge.

We dash out for coffee. Without asking, Karl orders me an espresso and is somewhat distraught when I ask for a flat white instead. He insists that I at least TRY his, and justifies that his coffee must be nicer than mine because I’m not making “MMMMMM” noises anywhere near as loud as him, nor gesticulating anywhere near as wildly. As if to make a point, he draws me the chemical structure of caffeine, alongside that of theo-bromine (the “active ingredient” in cacao). They look remarkably similar, and, literally translated, theo-bromine means, “food of the Gods”. I ask Karl to sign his structures and he obliges (see, even HE doesn’t know how to spell his last name).

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We dash back into the ABC with about 30 seconds to spare before he’s live with Rhod Sharp on BBC Radio Five Live (fun fact: Rhod is actually broadcasting from Massachusetts, USA live to his listeners in the UK). The show goes for an hour, plenty of time for Karl to educate us on global warming, methods of investigating the Earth’s core, human cartilage, satellite highways and cheese dreams (NB Not actually A Thing). It’s during this show that I realise that Karl’s earlier Kardashian comment (and several others which could have caused offence) is really just part of his humour. He’s just so fast that you don’t often have time to realise that he’s being funny. At one point, Karl suggests that we stop women from waring out their cartilage by carrying them around everywhere. But in the next breath he’s telling us about dietary supplements which can actually aid cartilage health. Neither the host of the radio show nor the listener had time to laugh, because he’s tells these “jokes” with such confidence in exactly the same tone and manner as he when he talks science.

There are two more shows in the day, half an hour with ABC 105.7 Darwin, as well as half an hour with ABC 720 Perth. In the brief periods in between shows, Karl is replying to tweets (he endeavors to reply to every question) and emails as well as reading/ filing science articles. It’s during one of these shows (forgive my memory) that someone calls in to ask about something (?), only for Karl to respond,

“I’m sorry, that’s one of my areas of ignorance. We all have areas of ignorance, and that’s mine.”

…and I’m comforted once more. He really didn’t mean anything offensive when he had called me ignorant at lunch time, he was being purely logical. This is not the only occasion throughout the day when Karl is humble; one radio host introduces him as a, “genius”, and is quickly corrected. The average IQ is 100, and Karl’s IQ is just 110. And when I complimented him on his memory earlier in the day, again he was quick to “correct” me (I’m still extremely impressed).

As we pack away for the day, I am regaled with instructions of how to recognise a “herpetologist” (a person who studies reptiles and amphibians will usually have a missing tip from one of their finger), as well as a brief description of Karl’s two daughters (one in high school, and another has just got a job in her chosen field, fashion and textiles).

We bid our farewells, and Karl thanks me again for bringing some more facts about UV to his attention. I give him one last fan-splurge (THANKS SO MUCH FOR THE OPPORTUNITEEEEE!). He shakes my hand, I hand in my precious visitor pass and wonder back out onto the Sydney streets, day-dreaming about satellites, cheese dreams and ejaculatory sneezes.

*I’m truly sorry that I didn’t understand what was going on. It was so clear that this was one of Karls’ favourite topics but Physics has always been my weak point. I know that’s no excuse. And I have been reading up on telecommunications since! But I’m definitely not confident enough to write about it yet.