Ernst Rutherford once said that a good scientist should be able to explain his work to a barmaid. Rutherford’s point was well-taken. He did not mean to say that every layman could or should be brought to understand the details of every scientist’s experiments. But he did believe that scientists have an obligation to communicate their findings and to keep in touch with the community around them.
Which inspires a reminiscence on the same subject. Back in 1972, I was a graduate student taking a course in Indo-European linguistics, feeling overwhelmed with the details of sound changes as they moved through evolving languages and fascinated with their derivations in the modern world. One day in our campus cafe, I overheard two fellow students from the class discussing their work. Christmas break approached, and one of them observed, “My parents will want to know what I’m studying. How can I possibly explain Indo-European to them?”
And my thought was, if you can’t explain what you’re doing at this stage of your career, why on Earth do you think you can teach this subject later on? Let me add Erwin Schrödinger’s thought on the same subject to Rutherford’s: “If, in the end, you cannot explain your doings to the average person, your doing has been for naught.”
Of course, researchers aren’t necessarily teachers — at least, not happily so — and not everyone finds the time to bring complicated findings into the public arena, leaving that job to public relations departments and science writers. But physicists and astronomers who would like to tune up their communications skills have a wonderful tool at hand. The complete proceedings from the 2005 conference called “Communicating Astronomy with the Public” is available for free download online. Or if the size of this daunting PDF file puts you off, individual papers can be downloaded at this Web repository.
The conference, held at the European Southern Observatory’s headquarters, was a four-day affair attended by over one hundred astronomers, public information officers, science writers and other professionals with a stake in getting science across to the public. Topics ranged from broad issues like “Closing the Culture Gap between Scientists and Science Communicators” to highly specific case studies, such as “Communicating Chandra’s X-ray Astronomy to the Press and Public.” Tucked within these presentations are good ideas for any scientists hoping to explain someone else’s work or refine the public face of their own.
Centauri Dreams‘ note: Conference organizers should note how readily this ESO/ESA/IAU conference has been made available over the Internet. We need to consider how more scientific conferences can open up access in a similar way, not only through Web repositories of the relevant papers, but podcasts of their presentation. The tools for doing these things are becoming trivially simple to use.