One of the things I have noticed in the past couple of years is that all kinds of interesting and unexpected invitations come my way. I think this is something arising from the award of the L’Oreal/UNESCO Laureate in 2009 when the wonderful L’Oreal PR machine shone a spotlight on me. That was the point at which I got asked to do Desert Island Discs, something that was a lot of fun as well as stress and anxiety (being grilled about personal stuff on air definitely creates a nervous frisson). This week it has been the turn of the intellectually more challenging Radio 3 version of ‘choose the music that means something to you’ programme, Essential Classics. I suspect this has a substantially lower audience than Desert Island Discs, at least in real time (after all how many working people can tune in to hear a random guest at 1030 in the morning), but of course there is iPlayer to swell the numbers.
Anyhow, I feel immensely privileged to be given such opportunities to sneak a little science into people’s everyday lives through the medium of radio. I am not sure whether this can really be described as public engagement in the normal meaning of the phrase, but I feel very strongly that all of us need to do what we can to reassure the public that scientists are not somewhat lunatic obsessives who see nothing beyond the end of their test-tube, and who can’t talk sensibly about anything other than their pet theory/experiment. In other words, to demonstrate that scientists are just like the rest of the population, only they happen to pursue science as their career.
When I received my invitation to participate in Essential Classics, it was clear that this week the programme wanted to have a scientist because Saturday (November 10th) is UNESCO’s World Science Day for Peace and Development. Did you know this? No, I didn’t either; in fact I hadn’t even heard of this particular day of celebration. I’m afraid UNESCO’s actions are not very obvious in the UK, although I believe we are fully signed up contributing partners, unlike the US which withheld its dues last year due to the admission of Palestine as a member state of UNESCO. Unlike many, I have been given a chance to learn a bit more about UNESCO’s work because I was given a tour of their Headquarters in Paris during the week-long festivities in 2009 around the L’Oreal/UNESCO prize-giving; indeed the ceremony itself was in their massive hall. Nevertheless I don’t feel their work is much appreciated in the UK, although it’s clearly hugely important in some parts of the world. However, if you look at their website for World Science Day, one cannot but appreciate their aims for the day:
- To strengthen public awareness on the role of science for peaceful and sustainable societies
- To promote national and international solidarity for a shared science between countries
- To renew national and international commitment for the use of science for the benefit of societies
- To draw attention to the challenges faced by science and raise support for the scientific endeavour.
If it is used by Radio 3 as an excuse to get a scientist to join as guest each weekday morning, that seems to fit right in as part of ‘strengthening public awareness’.
When I did Desert Island Discs I had had a long conversation in advance with one of their researchers, who discussed my life and motivation for becoming a physicist, together with a little bit about my science. Having made sure L’Oreal provided me with media-training, I have had some practice at expressing what I do in my research in a handful of sentences without too many technical phrases or other odious jargon (I was lousy at it initially). It is at times such as when sitting squirming in front of a microphone across the table from Kirsty Young, that such media-training really comes in handy. In advance of my appearance on Essential Classics, no researcher had been in touch with me other than to get me to provide my list of musical selection and a couple of sentences explaining why I’d chosen these particular pieces. So, despite it being prompted by World Science Day, I hadn’t really been expecting my science to get much of an airing.
It was only when I started doing my own homework at the weekend I realised this was likely to be wrong. Much of this homework consisted of reminding myself what the music I’d chosen sounded like along with a bit of historical context for each piece in case I needed to talk in any detail about the choices I’d made – which indeed I did a little. I always knew that I was going to be interviewed by Sarah Walker (there are two alternating interviewers of which she is one), so in addition to reminding myself about the music I set out to find out something about her on. It turns out she has a doctorate in English experimental music, her twitterhandle is @drsarahwalker and she has a blog. And when I read her blog for the week I discovered she’d been reading up about electron microscopy in order to interview me. So a quick rethinking about what I might want to say was in order; usually my few chosen sentences (as on Desert Island Discs) relate to work I do on protein aggregation because that is so easy to make relevant. But this looked like an opportunity to talk about something different touching on many different aspects of soft matter and biological physics.
In the end I was given an opportunity to explain why I’ve worked on food physics and why normal electron microscopy uses gold coating of insulators as well as the standard few sentences about protein aggregation (off air she also expressed an interest in block copolymers; this presenter had done some very serious homework herself). In fact, quite a lot of science got squeezed in along with the more personal stuff about marriage and careers – and of course a bit about women in science issues. (The format of the recording means Monday’s slot is live, but the rest of the week’s interviews are pre-recorded on Monday too, although broadcast at 1030 each morning. This means that I know what the rest of the week will hold, but also know that I have had the opportunity not to mess up my thoughts too badly since she keeps the questions in the live slot deliberately simple and the rest can be redone if necessary. In fact, apart from one stuttering sentence, it wasn’t.)
I have to say, in all my dealings with the BBC, I have always found the interviewers delightful and easy to chat with: be it Melvyn Bragg, Kirsty Young or now Sarah Walker. In fact, even my experiences on Today have, mercifully, been benign. In the case of Kirsty Young the challenge is that her whole persona is aimed at relaxing you in the hopes that some unwise comment slips out on air; from Sarah Walker I merely felt a genuine interest in how I’d turned into the person I am and she was easy to talk to both on air and off.
So, another airing survived and I hope an opportunity for a little science to penetrate into people’s living rooms and kitchens and thereby to reach a different audience. Every time I’ve done something on air before I’ve always really appreciated the random emails from strangers who say it’s provoked them to discuss science with their daughters, or made them think about stuff in a different way. Fingers crossed my Radio 3 debut will have the same effect, whether I ever know it or not. It’s very different from doing formal science programmes, but I’m sure it has its place in the ‘engagement agenda’.