Science and the rest of life

2015-10-15 20.11.50Last week was the annual ArchWay With Words literary festival in North London. Just in its third year, it’s quite popular already, and booklovers from all over the city have attended author talks. The programming is varied, and there are talks about all kinds of books and on all kinds of topics. Like last year, the festival featured several science-related talks. That’s great, because the audience of a literary festival won’t be exactly the same as the audience of all the usual science talks in London. New people are coming to science talks, and some science fans might attend their first literary festival. It’s an opportunity for science and scientists to mingle directly with a new audience, and it’s an accessible way for many other people to talk and think about science.

One of this year’s science-themed events at the festival was Simon Singh, who earlier that very same week spoke out against various art and science collaborations, which would have all had the same effect as his own talk at the literary festival in getting new people to get in touch with science.

I have to say that I haven’t been able to hear Singh’s talk first-hand: Although his talk at the 2:AM Altmetrics conference in Amsterdam was recorded, the recording is not available online. I had to get the message second-hand, from the Times Higher Education piece and from other attendees, but from all accounts it sounds like he wants science outreach to mainly be cheap and direct educational content, like YouTube videos.

I love YouTube, and I agree that it’s a great way to provide science content, but the audience is “people who watch science videos on YouTube”. These people already have a basic interest in science, and are curious for more. They’re awesome, but they’re not the only audience out there.

Not everyone is interested enough in science to look up science videos. Some people don’t ever think about science at all. Should they learn about science? They probably won’t enroll in a science degree, but should they not at least be aware that there are scientists out there who are more than the mystical and nameless “scientists” who newspapers report on daily as “being one step closer to a cure” or having “discovered interesting new evidence”?

If people who don’t engage with science daily don’t know any scientists and have never seen any, science turns into this weird distant thing that isn’t important to their lives. But it is! That is why scientists and science communicators need to show their face at literary events, and why they should collaborate with fashion designers, choreographersphotographers and other artists. It doesn’t reach everyone, and people who attend literature and arts events are by no means a cross-section of the whole population, but they are AN audience (just like “science video watchers on YouTube” are an audience). Other audiences have other channels to connect with science, and not all audiences are future scientists. Science affects everyone in some way or another.

Art projects might not always be neatly packaged and easily measurable science communication, and yes, it might be expensive, but a ballet about Einstein would not cost more than any other ballet and a portrait series about mathematicians is no different from a portrait series about any other group of people. Despite a recent rough patch in the global economy, art continues to be made and funded.

We can’t control what art artists make on their own accord. Sometimes it’s science-themed, sometimes it’s not. What we CAN do is try to make sure that the people who enjoy the art have access to information about the science or scientists that inspired it, or commission a specific science-themed work from an artist. Those things can cost money. It might be a lot, or it might be little, but all of it goes towards humanizing science and making it a valid part of our broader culture.


(Image: I got to hold a fossil at one of the book talks at ArchWay With Words this week. Here it is in my hand, before I passed it on to others in the audience: humanities students, retired people, avid readers and various others just checking out this local book event.)