In which the ball is mightier than – well, pretty much everything

Sometimes you can be so involved in your own obsession that it starts to seem vastly more important and all-encompassing than it truly is. Like a cave-dwelling beast stepping out into the light of the greater world for the first time, sometimes the only response is to blink in bewildered awe and marvel at what you behold.

On Tuesday afternoon I was holed up in a conference room in Bern, Switzerland with about a dozen other people, all with various interests and expertises in science communication and public engagement. We were thrashing through a brand-new model for promoting science to the masses. It was tiring but satisfying work, identifying the issues that keep scientists from communicating their work and figuring out just how they might be offered incentives to not only do it, but do it well. We all brought to the table different perspectives – from teaching, from philosophy, from theory, from practice, from funding, and our collective experiences spanned methodologies from digital media and museums through to science festivals and the classroom.

But that’s not what I want to write about today. What I want to write about is what happened afterwards, when the session closed and I stepped out into the early evening light. A gentle drizzle was falling over the city, slicking the cobblestones and muting the sounds of passing traffic. At the same time, I was aware of a peculiar tension, as if the entire city was holding its breath.

Before long I came across a crowd of people massed around a shop window, peering at a bank of flickering, large-screen televisions for sale. Had something happened in the world while we were busy setting it to rights – a war? A plague? When I got close enough to make out the screens, I clocked red-shirted men swarming around on an emerald-green pitch and it all became clear. I reached the periphery of the crowd just as the Swiss national football team beat Spain one-nil. Within seconds, the entire city had erupted into absolute mayhem – cheers, shouts, embraces, flag-waving, horns, honking, and a spontaneous street party that was to last long into the night.

It is indeed all relative: in the face of this, what hope have we of truly interesting people in something as trivial as science?


About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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13 Responses to In which the ball is mightier than – well, pretty much everything

  1. paul baker says:

    A group of science organizations could buy a 15-second or 30-second public service ad for airing during game play. The ad would be entertaining and explain “the physics of a soccer ball,” for example, with a URL to a science web site.

  2. Bob O'Hara says:

    I’ve been in a retreat for our institute, here I’m Frankfurt. We were made to work through the Germany-Serbia match. Fortunately I had my iPhone, so I could follow the disaster as it happened.
    BTW, I’m writing this on my iPhone, sat in a Vietnamese restaurant in front of the TV waiting for the England match to start.

  3. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Paul, it’s an interesting idea but I somehow doubt it would elicit anything more than head-scratching. There is just no competition between football and science – as much as I dream about science being taken as seriously as sport.
    Have fun, Bob – I’m just relieved the US managed to salvage some dignity this afternoon.

  4. Jennifer Rohn says:

    This is a hilarious take on the opposite phenomenon:if sport got reported like science…
    (via @brook_88 on Twitter)

  5. Richard P. Grant says:

    Ha ha! That’s a little too close to a current bone of mine…

  6. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I am trying to think of the scientific equivalent of the England-Algeria draw just now. Is it like when you do a Western blot and even the controls don’t work?

  7. Richard P. Grant says:

    I’ve had days in the lab like that. It’s much worse than controls not working. It’s like when you come in, and you actually screw something up so much that, once you take into account the expense of the reagents and and contributions to atmospheric carbon and everything, it would have been better by all objective measures to have stayed in bed.

  8. Richard Wintle says:

    Hm. One day I will get around to watching a World Cup match.
    Also – I don’t know nuthin’ ’bout no Western blots, but RPG’s summary reminds me of more than one day I had in the lab. I’m safely in an office now.

  9. Stephen Curry says:

    Not really related to football but how’s this for public engagement (from Armstrong and Miller – the latter of whom almost has a physics PhD):

  10. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Brilliant clip, Stephen, especially as I didn’t realize it was comedy until half way through!

  11. Ino Agrafioti says:

    Oh how many times have I had the same thought!!!
    In order to keep going, I decided that people can be interested in more than one thing. If they are interested in Sport, that does not mean they can’t be interested in Science too. In the same way that scientists are interested in other things. 🙂
    So far it has worked! 🙂

  12. Jennifer Rohn says:

    The day people are interested enough in a scientific breakthrough to dance in the streets, my work here will be done.

  13. Richard P. Grant says:

    Keep us informed Jenny. I understand things are going well.

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