Standing on a soapbox may seem an odd thing for a scientist to do, but every year a bunch of women do just that in an attempt to capture the attention of passers-by on the South Bank in London. It’s a bit of street theatre, but with the clear intention of attracting a few youngsters to consider science as an exciting option to pursue and to engage with the public more generally. Street theatre isn’t necessarily something in a scientist’s armoury, but it’s always good to try out new things….
Now in its 3rd year, Soapbox Science seems to have matured into a well-regarded day, coupled with its accompanying blogs in the Independent (mine can be found here) and other media articles e.g in Nature here). It’s been organised by Seirian Sumner and Nathalie Pettorelli from the Zoological Society of London, with the keen assistance and sponsorship of L’Oreal through the person of Head of External Affairs, Katy Gandon. They do a grand job on publicity, support and general organisation, although this year’s event proved challenging for reasons beyond their control, namely the wonderful British summer we are currently enduring.
This year it was my turn to get onto that soapbox. Just getting to London with my props was a challenge due to the day’s ‘inclement weather’, as railway announcers are so fond of calling it. One of my props was a poster inside a large cardboard tube, stuffed into the external pocket of my rucksack – that designed for water bottles. Although it wasn’t raining when I unlocked my bike at home, it certainly was by the time I arrived at the bottom of the road. Hence, I had one soggy tube by the time I got to the railway station, and consequently a slightly less than pristine poster – aimed at showcasing different sorts of soft materials – to unfurl from my soapbox. Add in the fact that the path across Jesus Green, part of my cycle route to the station, has been flooded the past couple of days, following one of those little showers this summer has been so full of, and you can see why it was a less than painless journey. On top of that I had what appears to be an insect bite on my lip, unusually severe hayfever and a recalcitrant button in a rather vital position on my shirt so you will see just how well set up I was to contribute to this event. I was also distinctly apprehensive; talking to a random audience of unknown – and mixed – expertise and education and you have a challenge on your hands of some magnitude.
Nevertheless, daunting experience that it was (the photograph shows the nature of the pitch) it was also really satisfying. It wasn’t raining – much – when I started. I had a delightfully upbeat assistant – Alienor Chauvenet, also from ZSL – to hold my bag of props, as well as a branded umbrella. I even had a white lab coat supplied, which also served to provide some protection from the elements. I quickly gathered a crowd of 15 or so people, some of them schoolchildren who’d been invited along. To my surprise – and rather contrary to what I had been led to believe would happen – this bunch of people mainly stayed the course. I’d been expecting a rotating audience, which would have allowed me to go back to the beginning intermittently with my story of ‘Goo and the physics of the everyday stuff that surrounds us’, my chosen way to lead into my research field of Soft Matter Physics.
What I love about my field of work and what I have always sought in my research ever since I was a young PhD student, is that it is relevant to the everyday world we live in. This means that it lends itself well to discussing its physics to an audience with just a few handy props (as opposed to standard powerpoint slides). I used wool – long strands to contrast with short ones – to explain the concept of entanglement of the long chain molecules that are polymers, to explain quite why they are so effective at making liquids ‘gooey’, and the way they have to move following their heads (or tails), a process known as reputation because it’s like the movement of snakes. I used the unravelling of balls of wool to explain what happens when globular proteins denature and lose their overall shape to resemble a much more shapeless chain, which can then interact with its neighbours to confer some solidity on beaten egg whites or milk proteins acidified as in yogurt. I had shampoo to pour and dilute to illustrate gooeyness and how it depends on concentration as I diluted it down with water from my water bottle. And I had the endlessly satisfying slime/silly putty which can be stretched, bounced and fractured to illustrate rate effects and how different they are for polymeric systems compared with, say, metals.
What was brilliant was that, despite the rain, I managed to keep my audience entertained for about 40 minutes; they were busily nodding their heads and interjecting occasional questions without embarrassment. It was very satisfying to watch a couple of the schoolgirls in particular stay so attentive, and feel able to ask me questions as I talked. I chatted to them afterwards, and they told me how they’d just been doing polymers in their Chemistry GCSE course, so it made a lot of sense to them, but took them somewhere way beyond the stuff their textbooks had given them. An older audience member said she’d never been interested in science until she’d heard me talk which, allowing for just a little hyperbole on her part, was still a pleasant statement to hear.
However, towards the end of my slot, the drizzle turned to a downpour. Despite being somewhat protected by trees, umbrella and lab coat it just got plain unpleasant for everyone and I quit, not quite filling the maximum hour-long slot I had. By the end I was exhausted. I’d been uptight for weeks about trying to talk on my soapbox, but it was fun despite my anxiety. If you’re ever asked to do anything similar, do give it a go. I hope that all my fellow speakers (4-5 of us were talking on our respective soapboxes simultaneously, 13 in total at hourly intervals) had a similarly exhilarating time of it. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay to listen to the later speakers, as I had to head off immediately to the Royal Society for their Equality and Diversity Advisory Network meeting, so I couldn’t compare notes.
My overall impression is that it’s a brilliant idea, and had the sun shone and the passers-by strolling along the South Bank Walkway flocked to hear us, it would have been even better. As it was, the passers-by were thin on the ground, but those who came seemed to be having a good time of it judging by the fact they were willing to stick around despite the conditions. My congratulations to those who dreamed up this SoapboxScience event to showcase women talking about their science and why they love it!