How to rewire an astrophysicist's brain - Lessons learned at the 2009 Banff Centre Science Communications Workshop

by Rob Thacker

“In one sentence, why is this important to the man on the street?” The reporter's question took me completely off guard. I didn't have a good answer. I was prepared to talk about galaxies, not whether they were even worth studying. After taking a second to think, I bumbled an old Sagan quote about the universe and apple pies. It had no impact. At that moment I vowed to be more prepared.

Mary Anne Moser & Jay Ingram

It took a while to make good on the vow, but last August I took part in a two-week program at the Banff Centre dedicated entirely to communicating science. This annual workshop is chaired by Jay Ingram, of TV's “Daily Planet” show, and is directed by Mary Anne Moser of the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary. Five additional professionals from various media took the faculty complement to seven, while there were 20 participants.

Jay began the program by saying that it was, “The two most exciting weeks of the year,” for him. This seemed to be setting the bar very high, but we would later come to understand why he felt this way. Following some introductions it was very clear that we had 27 extremely talented and exciting individuals participating—from musicians through to neuroscientists. I was almost immediately energized by the diversity and energy of everyone in the room.

I checked my ego at the door and decided to be a student again for two weeks. It was strangely liberating to be—briefly—devoid of the responsibility of mentoring and teaching.

The program split roughly into two parts. The first four to five days were spent going over skills, such as how to write a popular article, develop podcasts, website design and even branding concepts. The second part of the program was devoted to group projects, in which teams of five came up with new ways to communicate a particular science concept.

The skill sessions were frequently “free form”. For instance, Mark Winston of the Centre for Dialogue at SFU had the participants arrange themselves in a circle. We then discussed the personal aspects of science and how we can find our own voice in communication. He also took pains to emphasize brevity, focus and impact. “Lose the preamble!” is one his mantras.

Perhaps the most unique session in the first week was an evening at a ceramics workshop. I confess to having been extremely skeptical prior to the program. I wasn't going to learn anything from making clay pots, was I?

Well, we didn't make any pots. Instead the evening went from using clay to communicate non-verbally, to seeing how different ideas can evolve through interpretation. One exercise in particular has stayed with me. Groups developed a model of something, a maze, a beach scene, you name it. We let our imaginations run wild.

What should we make? So many possibilities...

Then after five minutes all the groups rotated on to the next bench and began working and building on what had been done previously by a different group. This was repeated three times. The results were intriguing and hilarious. Some themes, such as the beach, filtered through, others were utterly lost. It was an amazing exercise in seeing how ideas can develop without boundaries.

That was our strongest exposure to being given absolute freedom to “think”. No constraints. In contrast, the science we do is so often limited by the realities of our instruments, or funding, or our theories. That isn't necessarily bad--sometimes creativity can come from the tightest binds. However, being given a tabula rasa was both freeing and simultaneously alien.

By the end of that first evening I was using parts of my brain that I hadn't used since high school. I was also pretty exhausted. The program had events planned from 9am to 9pm almost every day, and it suddenly appeared as though I was facing a test of endurance. While some participants headed off for beer my wife and I, who was also participating, headed off back to the residence and collapsed. Sleep didn’t come easy though. Our brains were both buzzing.

By the end of the second day the goal of the program was becoming clear. No matter how we look at it, the level of scientific literacy in our society is low. Is this a function merely of low standards in education system, or rather that we don't do a good job of communicating science effectively? Probably both. However, if we could get the information out in a way that connected with people, beyond poorly written newspaper or web articles, wouldn't that be a good thing?   

The next few days covered skills we would need for our projects, but focused most strongly on journalism. Tom Hayden of Stanford gently coaxed us through a two-hour “Journalism 101”. After this brief tutorial all the participants developed a 700 word piece on a science topic of their choosing. I wrote about the different roles of “proof” in law, science and mathematics and the problems that occur when the meaning is misinterpreted.

Discussing my article with Mark Winston

The “CSI effect”, that forensic science can be “absolutely certain”, is a classic example of this confusion. Desiring “unequivocal proof” of climate change, another. The article was well received but I struggled with different editors who wanted the style of the piece to go in different directions. It's still a work in progress.

By the end of the fourth day our groups had been assigned. I was incredibly lucky to be on a team that ran the gamut of skills: a journals editor, a neuroscientist, a science communications consultant and communications and marketing manager. I was also the only male on the team, which was at times interesting. That wasn’t entirely a surprise either. Two thirds of the participants in the program were female.

When the groups were assigned, strict guidelines on interaction were provided. We were to “presume positive intent,” namely that anyone contributing was trying to help. We also were given a questionnaire to help us focus on interpersonal skills that needed improvement. Turns out I seem to be a poor listener and let my thoughts drift. Others needed to work on paraphrasing and summarizing. It was fun to know who was working on what.

Our project goal was opened ended: choose a science communication idea and then come up with a project that communicates it. It could be a website, pilot for a TV show, a play – as long as it was practical we could go with it.

The team came up with the idea of a website, including podcasts and videos, promoting science to the 11-15 age group. “Fun and unexpected” became a makeshift theme. Two characters, Skydiver Sally and Skydiver Steve would parachute into a location and discuss or present a science issue. You wouldn't know where Sally and Steve were going or what they were going to do.

As professional scientists we all appreciate that progress frequently relies upon serendipity. Yet how many of the public truly appreciate this? The team agreed that communicating this was immensely compelling. Breaking down any perceptions that science is predictable or routine was our goal.

I’d like to say the concept named itself: “Out of the Blue”. But, it took a stroke of genius from one of the team members to come up with that name. Once we had the concept and the name our “brand” became clear. Everyone bought into the idea and felt it would “sell”.

But first, we had to pitch our idea to the faculty. 

That proved to be surprisingly nerve wracking. We were presenting to a hardened group of TV and communications professionals. No egos were spared. “You have no content” was one criticism. “It isn't clear you have the creativity to carry this through.” was another. All that said, the panel agreed we had a good idea. It was now down to us.  

We were fortunate to have professional help in developing our concept. The program provided access to graphic designers for the website, TV producers and professional cameramen to help with shooting videos, sound experts to help with the podcasts, and not to mention the years of experience that Jay Ingram would draw on whenever we wanted some advice.

Our group developed a podcast on auditory illusions. Sally and Steve parachuted into Banff Community High School to talk with a student. The piece was extremely difficult to produce and edit--vocal skills need both coaching and practice. But we had great fun crouching around the microphone, which prompted our sound engineer to reminisce about 1930's radio shows.

It quickly became clear that creating a convincing “atmosphere” aurally is a lot harder than you would think. Getting believable reverberation on voices, not to mention the right levels from cut to cut takes some patience. While the final edit was extremely well put together, I think the team agreed we’d like another go at our podcast. 

Producing our video skit was an even bigger adventure. From the very beginning, we felt we had a great story: Sally and Steve would parachute into Banff to go climbing, but would find they had forgotten the rope. So they would make one out of the toilet paper that they had!

Close-up of the rope

Making a toilet paper rope is not easy. You have to twist sheets into a string-like form using an electric drill. These strings are then twisted upon themselves repeatedly. You then braid, and then braid again. To create a 14 foot rope took almost five hours! We also found out that you don't want to use Royale 3-ply! Use the industrial paper with no perforations, it is much stronger.

We filmed at Bow Falls, just outside Banff. The tourists in the area were clearly curious about what we were doing. You can look pretty silly dressed up in painter’s overalls, a Bauer hockey helmet, some glasses and a backpack! Throw in a hefty video camera, sound engineer with a “shotgun microphone” and the onlookers were really intrigued.

Cast and crew on the video shoot

Despite our final cut being just under three minutes we needed over four hours at the location. This seemed like a long time to me, until the cameraman told me a 30 to 1 ratio, of footage shot compared to the final cut, is common. We shot 27 minutes of actual footage in the four hours, so our ratio was closer to 10 to 1. There was a certain amount of pride at the “wrap party” that we didn’t do more than 3 takes on anything!

All the different projects were presented during a reveal on the penultimate day. We thought four hours would be too draining, but all the presentations were completely engrossing and time passed almost too quickly. The other projects were: “Carbon Dating Service” a pastiche on a dating service for different atoms (the personalities were taken from the atom's bonding properties). “Bifurcated”, a website idea comparing the artistic versus scientific viewpoints on different things (water was an extremely powerful example). “ourDNA.ca”, a fun and professional website promoting information about genetics and genetic disorders.  

The level of professionalism and creativity in the projects was quite incredible. Yes we had some exceptional help, but the way the teams bonded and made the final products gel was spectacular. By the end of the program we really believed Jay's comment about this being his most exciting two weeks of the year. Looking back on things, every team can be justifiably proud of what they achieved.

The final day and saying goodbyes was quite emotional. It was almost like leaving summer camp. The intensity of the program was extremely high, both in terms of the energy required and the emotional constraint of not wanting to let anyone on your team down. All self-imposed pressures, but everyone felt them. I left feeling attached to all the people in the program and with a soft-spot for the members of my team. I hope to keep in touch with them in the future.

My wife and I had a rueful laugh together at the end. We had hoped to spend two weeks working together in the mountains. Instead we managed to grab a few minutes together most nights just before going to bed. It was not what we were expecting at all, but it was tremendous fun nonetheless.

Participants on the Tunnel Mountain summit

Post workshop, the “Out of the Blue” team has been wondering what to do with our idea. Lots of people seem to like it, and our video is on youtube (search for “theskydiversteve”). Still, it’s a long way from astronomy, and it takes a lot of money do these productions well. Despite going for a “hokey” and fun look, we estimated the video skit would cost close to $4000 to do professionally. 

How has the workshop impacted my research? I don't know. I am still piecing together my reactions to it. Peripheral interests have become a lot more interesting and I am also seeing connections I hadn't anticipated. A lot of research areas seem more exciting than they did before the workshop.

What has changed is my perception of the media and communication. I now spend more time thinking about analogies to explain my work. I'm searching for analogies that explain rather than confuse. Freeing up my creative muscle also seems to have helped. My brain doesn't seem to work quite the same way it did before the program--I think more laterally now. Perhaps that will be a permanent change, perhaps not.

Ultimately, the program has given me an understanding of what the media needs for a good story and how they need that story told. So, the next time someone shoves a camera in my face or asks me a potentially frustrating question I won’t freeze or bumble. I'll be prepared.

If anyone would like to know more about the workshop I'm more than happy to pass on further details. Feel free to send me an email.(thacker at ap dot smu dot ca)