I’m on the Writers’ Rough Drafts Podcast!

Writers’ Rough Drafts is a podcast hosted by Elisa Doucette, Founder and Executive Editor of Craft Your Content; a business that aims to do the unthinkable – make writing a less lonely process. They offer group courses, as well as one-to-one support on writing and editing projects from website copy to novels. The Craft Your Content website is also a wonderful resource in itself. As a frequent visitor to the Craft Your Content website, and an avid listener of the Writers’ Rough Drafts podcast, I jumped at the chance to talk all things writing and creativity when Elisa approached me a few months ago.

Listen to our podcast episode here.

Elisa’s incredibly flattering introduction:

Heidi Gardner is a scientist, researcher, blogger, entrepreneur, and activist. While her “full-time gig” is as a research fellow at the Health Services Research Unit at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, after receiving her bachelor’s degree in pharmacology and her doctorate in participant recruitment, she has a lot more going on besides her fascination and love affair with science and improving participant trial experience.

This year, Heidi embarked on an international odyssey as a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust fellow—visiting art installations, chatting to professors and female scientists, and reading tomes upon tomes worth of articles and literature in North America, Europe, and Asia—to find interesting and unique ways that people share scientific research and results so it is more accessible to, and engaging for, the general public. A regular blogger herself, she updates her site with posts not only about her work and pursuits, but also her life as a woman in science and as a human on planet Earth. Which is part of her “side hustle,” an Etsy store and ecommerce brand called “Science on a Postcard,” a fun project that helps to see science in a new light.


From the show notes:

What You’ll Learn About Writing:

  • Why you need confidence to break writing rules
  • The importance of finding gatekeepers and peers who are “on your team”
  • How blogs can serve as a great place for a “brain dump”
  • Why we should tap into our creativity and retrain our brain to think more creatively, even if you think you’re a “noncreative” person
  • How you should find specific sources, information, and experiences to share that no one has written about before
  • Why not only being creative but being able to explain parts of that creativity to others often bring you more collaboration and readers
  • How we, as writers, can try to write more humanly and less pretentiously no matter what industry we’re in

Mentioned in This Episode (Links and Resources!):

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Gentle Science Communication: Bill Nye vs David Attenborough

I’ve been promising this blog post on gentle science communication for months now, so apologies that it has taken me so long to get round to writing. I first thought of writing about this topic when I was in Toronto as part of my WCMT Fellowship (that reminds me, applications for WCMT Fellowships 2020 are now open, find out more here!). Anyway, yes, Toronto. I started my Fellowship work in Toronto at the beginning of January, and my initial aim was to find out how to make science communication more engaging.

The field of science communication research is vast, and there are hundreds, if not thousands of published, peer-reviewed studies that provide robust data on what works, what doesn‘t, and why. My Fellowship was different to that field of research because I was coming at it from a different angle; I approached this from an entirely practical perspective. To be blunt, I didn’t want to know why specific science communication techniques worked, what causes specific responses to communication methods. I wanted to know, in very simple steps, how I can improve the way I engage with people online. (Spoiler alert – blogging infrequently, irregularly and in rushed snippets of time is not as I have been over the last few months? That’s absolutely not the answer; do as I say not as I do and all…).

See the source imageOne of the biggest learning points I took away from that first week in Toronto was the importance of gentle science communication.

For me, there are two extremes to science communication; the shouty type where you are communicating a fact in an effort to tell ‘the truth’, and the more touchy feely, diffuse, hard-to-put-your-finger-on type where you are finding out scientific story or learning skill (e.g. critical thinking) but it’s not so immediately obvious.
This time last year I’d say I sat firmly in the middle of those two extremes. I got frustrated by people that were against vaccination and would find myself thinking things like, ‘but how on Earth can this person think like that, they’re intelligent!’, and the prospect of engaging with a flat-Earther or someone that ‘didn’t believe’ in climate change just seemed pointless.

Honestly I’m a bit embarrassed by that.

Now, my views on science communication lean much more toward the touchy feely, diffuse, hard-to-put-your-finger-on type. So why have my views changed so much?

As with anything, there are pros and cons to each of those two extremes, but after the conversations I had during my Fellowship, I’m not sure I’ll ever be involved in shouty science communication (yes, that’s a technical term) again.
Gentle science communication allows us to build an understanding environment, one where people are free to explain their anxieties, fears, and unease about a subject, and where the scientist or science communicator takes those concerns into account, respectfully engaging in dialogue that factors in uncertainties no matter whether they are scientifically accurate or not.

That might make complete and total sense when you read it – ‘of course we should be respectful and not belittle people’ I hear you cry! Unfortunately, that’s not always how things play out. A recent example of this comes from science celebrity Bill Nye. Now, I am not anti-Bill Nye; I’ve paid money to see him and written about that experience on this blog before, but I think it’s important that we are able to take a critical look at people that we admire.

A few weeks ago, Bill Nye appeared on US TV show Last Week Tonight, explaining that:

“By the end of this century, if emissions keep rising, the average temperature on Earth could go up another four to eight degrees. What I’m saying is: The planet’s on fucking fire.”

For those of us who agree with Bill’s stance on climate change, this video might offer a quick laugh or a frustrated sigh in agreement.

What do you think it offers people that have different views on climate change? Personally, I think it has the potential to offend and insult those people, likely causing them to immediately disengage with any further communication efforts focussing on the science behind climate change.

See the source imageBill Nye is one of the most famous scientists alive today, and in my opinion, this brand of harsh science communication is doing more harm than it is good. The topic of climate change is contentious; there are those that believe it is either not happening, or a natural phenomenon that would be happening whether humans were on the planet or not.

On the other hand, millions of people agree that it is happening, and that is it caused by human-kind. I am in that group; I don’t eat meat, I always carry a re-useable water bottle and I try to limit the amount that I consume in terms of fast fashion and single use plastics. I believed in climate change before, but this clip from David Attenborough made me more conscious of the part that I am playing in the progressive warming of the planet.

So, why do I think David Attenborough’s approach is more effective than Bill Nye’s?

See the source imageFirst and foremost it’s about emotional impact. Both Bill Nye and David Attenborough were presumably hoping that their communication methods would encourage people to make changes their behaviour. The former used anger and frustration, the latter opted for emotion, visuals and gentle words. David Attenborough caused me to change my behaviour because I was able to see myself in the nets and straws that overwhelmed the sea in front of him. Bill Nye on the other hand, made me pity the people that I already disagree with. Swearing and belittling an audience with an opposing view to you is going to alienate them, rather than encourage them to listen to you. This shouty approach is not one-time screw up that can be remedied by another interaction later on, dismissing someone’s views (whether scientifically correct or not) is likely to make them think twice about engaging with a scientist in the future; it’s a screw-up that could have negative long-term consequences.

As scientists, it’s important that we learn from those that are doing science communication respectfully. Please, think twice before you make a joke about someone’s views on science; it’s the fault of generations of scientists before us (and likely a few that are still alive and well today) that members of the public are basing their opinions on factually inaccurate information, and it’s up to us to do better.

This piece published in Scientific American is also worth a look – even the scientists that we look up to can be problematic. It’s important that we acknowledge that and aim to do better.


I’m sure there are professional science communicators that are reading this thinking that I am naïve, and they’d be correct – I was hugely naïve before embarking on my Fellowship. Now I’m a bit less naïve, and I’m working to share my own little journey in a gentle and understanding environment. I’m not perfect; I’m learning, and I hope that sharing my thoughts on topics like this can help people learn from me just as I learned from others.

 

Jen Campbell’s Creative Non-Fiction Writing Workshop

I write non-fiction all of the time. it’s the most consistent part of academia – backgrounds, methods, analysis, it’s the one thing I know I could do every day and never get to the end of. Academic writing is a specific type of non-fiction designed to convey information, packing in details though remaining concise. What I do much less frequently is creative non-fiction. That is, using storytelling techniques to communicate factually accurate things.

Earlier this year, I had an idea for a non-fiction book. I’m not going to say any more than that – maybe one day I’ll write it, maybe I won’t – for now I’m mulling the idea over in my head to see if it’s got legs. Anyway, after having that idea I decided I’d like to learn how to write creative non-fiction. I searched online for local training courses, regular classes that I could attend to learn the basics, and I struggled to find anything around the Aberdeen area. Most options were online, and most were cost-prohibitively expensive. I pushed the idea to the back of my mind, and a few days later whilst watching one of Jen Campbell’s YouTube videos, she mentioned that she was starting a new online writing workshop for creative non-fiction. I signed up straight away; it was only £50 and though I didn’t think that something so short (and distant) could teach me a huge amount, I figured that it would at least get my head into the right space to get started.

I completed the writing workshop whilst I was on my Fellowship travels in Singapore and Hong Kong, and I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to talk about it here.

Who?
Jen Campbell
Jen Campbell

Jen Campbell has written a number of (fantastic) non-fiction books about books and booksellers, she’s also written poetry, short stories and children’s books, and she’s currently working on her first novel. Jen runs these workshops for a small group of people a few times a year, and you don’t need to have any formal writing experience or training to take part.

Where?

Since this workshop is online, you can take part wherever you are in the world. There is a text-only Skype session scheduled for feedback, but if the time isn’t suitable then you are able to get feedback on your work via email instead.

What?

The workshop includes two tasks. The first involves looking at some examples of creative non-fiction and analysing them to work out why they are (or are not) successful, the second is a bigger beast; writing your own piece of creative non-fiction of up to 2,000 words.

The first task was necessary and interesting, but it was the second task that really got me thinking. The instructions Jen gives state, ‘You might want to write about a personal experience, you might want to write an informal essay, or a piece of memoir. Do whatever you like.’ I’d never had this much freedom to write non-fiction before, and it scared me (I’m not sure why, only Jen and the other workshop participants would see my writing. It wasn’t as if the stakes were particularly high – we were all there to learn). Regardless, it took me a few days of bouncing ideas around in my head to settle on something to write about, and then I did it. I sat down at my laptop and wrote, and honestly, it felt like a form of therapy. I wrote something very personal that I doubt I’ll ever share, and I loved it. It was a rough first draft and I knew it could be significantly improved, but for the first time in months I genuinely enjoyed the process of writing.

I sent both of my completed tasks to Jen before I had time to doubt myself, and a week later I got feedback. I’ve watched Jen’s YouTube channel for a few years and I’ve read lots of her books so I know that she is good at what she does, but for something so quick (and reasonably priced), I was expecting surface level feedback at best. Instead, I logged into the Skype chat (the one good thing about my experience with jet-lag) and she explained fundamental techniques, gave in-depth, well thought through feedback, suggested edits to my text, and the promise of a second round of feedback on a future draft. There were only 3 of us on the Skype chat and it was useful to hear both Jen’s feedback for the other workshop participant, and the other participant’s feedback on my piece.

I fully intended to edit that piece of writing within a week of the Skype chat; I felt passionate about learning this new skill and I was looking forward to revising my work (seriously, when does anyone think that?). Perhaps obviously, I didn’t have the time. My Fellowship travels were in full swing, and I got caught up with writing what felt like a million other things.

Now, I’m at one of Rowena Murray’s writing retreats, and as usual, I’ve managed to get way more work done than I thought I would (if either of my PhD supervisors are reading this –  I’ve finished a new draft of the qualitative paper!), so I’m using one of the last sessions to edit my piece and write this blog post.

On reflection, I’m glad that I took a forced step back from creative non-fiction as it feels like Jen’s advice has sunk in over the last few months. Now I’m excited to make time to write, whether it’s as a sort of therapeutic outlet, or to continue banging on about science and science communication in a (hopefully) more engaging way.

When?

If you’d like to try one of Jen Campbell’s online writing workshops for yourself, take a look at her website for dates. There are currently no dates for group workshops, but she also doing individual workshops throughout the year.

Recommended?

Yes, absolutely. I’m actually thinking of signing up for another one of Jen’s workshops later in the year – something further out of my comfort zone; perhaps this is the year that I start writing poetry!


Books with Jen podcast logoI also wanted to mention Jen’s podcast – BOOKS WITH JEN. If you’re at all interested in reading, writing, books, authors and/or cups of tea, you’ll like this. All of the episodes are spoiler-free too, which means it’s one of my favourite sources to find out about books before going out to buy them.

Good Things: April 2019

I haven’t blogged in over a month. I’ve been way too busy with work stuff, Science On A Postcard stuff, friend stuff and family stuff. It’s been a busy month, and I’m determined to get back into the swing of regular blogging – so I’m kicking off with a look back at the good things that happened during April.

Excellent humans

April’s excellent human of the month was my counsellor. I started person-centred counselling in the first week of March, and fully expected to be attending weekly appointments for at least the next few months. I’d planned to transition from weekly, to fortnightly, and then monthly appointments, with the aim of feeling more myself by the end of the year. I’ve spoken about how I’ve tried counselling before, that didn’t work out for me so I expected this attempt to take a while for things to begin to settle and for me to see improvements. Turns out, when you find the right counsellor things can start to feel good pretty quickly. I had 6 sessions in total, the last one just a few weeks ago, and I feel like my brain is finally allowing me to enjoy things again. April wasn’t 100% excellent headspace-wise, but I feel like those sessions have helped me a lot, and for the first time in a long time I’m looking forward feeling almost entirely positive.

I also met Dr Claudia Antolini in April! I’ve followed her on Twitter for a while and she will also be one of the speakers at Aberdeen’s Soapbox Science event in May, so it was wonderful to finally meet her and talk all things science communication, inclusion and diversity. She’s a fantastic science communicator and if you don’t follow her on Twitter, you should.

Cool places

I knew that this category would leave me underwhelmed every month since I listed places in Berlin and Washington DC in my January ‘Good Things’ post..

Does ‘in the air’ count? My partner took me flying in April, and we had a very lovely time. Though he did make us go upside down without warning me which was a little alarming to say the least.

April was pretty quiet in terms of travel, I went to Edinburgh Science Festival, but I’ve mostly stayed in Aberdeen. That said, I’ve really enjoyed working in coffee shops lately – I find that I can get on with work without being interrupted. The fact that I’m sat at a table with my laptop and strangers may see me not working means I’m more likely to knuckle down and get on with things. Also – cake and coffee.

Cult of Coffee has been my favourite, because look at this cake platter.. To be clear: I did not eat this by myself, and I went home and had a nap afterwards. Even between 2 we didn’t finish it, but holy cow it was delicious.

Book(s) of the month
Online media
One specific moment
  • As some of you may know, I have an Etsy shop (Science On A Postcard), and this month I went to my first local Etsy meet up. There’s a group of volunteers in Aberdeen running our local branch; they put together the Etsy seller fairs, they put on super useful creative workshops, and they have lots more creative and business experience than I do. I had a bloody lovely time at the meet up, and my favourite moment of the entire month was walking into the meeting and someone I didn’t know saying ‘oh cool, you’re from Science On A Postcard!’. It made me feel all warm and fuzzy because this tiny little business is reaching people that I haven’t nagged to buy stuff – incredible!
Work thing
  • This month I’ve had a Masters student working with me and it’s been so, so good! I still feel like an academic baby, but the first few weeks of working with a Masters student has been amazing for my confidence. I do know stuff, I do have experience, and I can share those skills and experiences with other people. Also she’s a fab student and I’m super excited to see how the project comes out, so that helps a lot.

What did you love about April? Leave a comment below and let me know 🙂

The Happy Brain with Dean Burnett – Edinburgh Science Festival 2019

This is the last of my posts from Edinburgh Science Festival’s Delegate Programme; The Happy Brain with Dr Dean Burnett. I also went to see Robin Ince’s I’m a Joke and So Are You, but I genuinely have no idea how to articulate what I heard during that show – I know that I enjoyed it, but I didn’t find it particularly science-heavy.

Front cover of 'The Happy Brain' book by Dean BurnettAnyway, today I’m talking about ‘The Happy Brain’ – a show based on Dean’s latest book, that aims to explain the science of where happiness comes from, and why. I bought the book a few weeks ago because originally I intended to read it before seeing the show, then I gave it a bit more thought and figured that probably wasn’t the best idea. I’d read the first 50 pages or so, so I knew Dean’s tone, the type of thing that the show would include, but I’m glad that I didn’t race through to the end as I would have spoiled the show for myself.

Going by the show, I think that the first chapter of the book will be the most jam-packed with neuroscience. I’m glad that’s the case, because honestly I found it a bit heavy going for a popular science book. I found it really interesting, but the first chapter was just so long that I found myself avoiding going back to the book to continue reading. Seeing Dean talk about the book has made me much more excited to get back to it, and I think that’s largely due to his delivery.

On his website he’s described as a neuroscientist, author, blogger, occasional comedian and all-round ‘science guy’ – nothing wrong with that, but I get nervous when a scientist is described as an ‘occasional comedian’. That’s no reflection on the scientists that I know; there are tonnes of very funny people around me, but I’m fairly certain none of them would use the label ‘comedian’ for fear of setting themselves up for failure.
As soon as the show started, my nerves settled. This was not going to be an awkward attempt at stand-up comedy under the guise of science, because Dean is actually funny. Like, really funny. He started off by telling us he needed to be taught how to speak as an adult (he had elocution lessons in his mid-thirties in an attempt to improve his delivery), clearly I can’t speak to what he sounded like before, but his current mellow Welsh accent served his jokes very well and I found myself happily chuckling throughout the entire show. Dean was significantly funnier than a lot of the professional comedians I’ve seen do stand-up, and the exploration of happiness through the lens of neuroscience was a bonus.

He starts off by going through a few genuine newspaper headlines related to happiness. These are all genuine headlines taken from the Daily Mail – I’ve linked them below if you’re curious to find out more.

I love it when science communicators do this. Dean questioned them, poked fun at them, and gently demonstrated the art of critical thinking whilst making the audience laugh. His points were daft enough to make us laugh repeatedly, but he was asking scientifically valid questions. In the research world we often refer to the ‘PICO‘ method for generating good questions – Population, Intervention, Comparison, and Outcome. What Dean was doing was going through each of those headlines and finding where one or more of those components was missing, and drawing attention to it; precisely what scientists are often trying to encourage the public to do. He did it with humour, and it worked brilliantly.

There are two main things that I like about the way that Dean communicates neuroscience, one that I picked up from the first chapter of the book, and another from the show.
From the book: Dean is incredibly open about the limitations of science. A substantial part of the first chapter talks about Dean’s plans for researching the topic of happiness through use of a functional MRI scanner that he hopes he can get some time on through a colleague he knows. When Dean reveals his plan, this colleagues laughs at him, explaining that just because a bit of the brain lights up when something happens does not make it the ‘X’ part of the brain. During the Q&A Dean was questioned on this, and he explained it (predictably) brilliantly – “if you put someone in an fMRI scanner and wiggle a carrot at them, the bit of the brain that lights up to show activity cannot then be referred to as the ‘carrot centre’.
From the show: Dean makes it very clear that being happy all the time is not something that we should expect or strive towards. As someone that’s spoken openly about living with depression, I really value this approach. As soon as we’re seen without a smile it feels like we’re bombarded with supposedly inspirational quotes on social media, told that it ‘could be worse’, and to ‘appreciate what we have’ – but being happy isn’t something that is sustainable 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

So, what makes a happy brain? Honestly, I still don’t know.
As with all learning processes, I came away understanding the science of happiness better than I had previously, but what that has ultimately done is given me an additional list of questions that are as yet unanswered. What I learned from this show is that happiness is much more complex than I thought; there are countless different versions of happiness, each of those is likely caused by something different, and every person is different. For me, I’m pretty happy right now writing this blog post whilst sat on my sofa in Aberdeen after a busy few days in Edinburgh. I’m currently the chilled, fulfilled kind of happy that means I’m content with what I’ve achieved over the past few days, and just the right level of tired – I’m looking forward to climbing into bed, but not over-tired and grouchy.

For more information about what Dean does head to his website, and I’d recommend picking up a copy of his book too – buy it from the publisher here (I’m doing my best not to buy books from Amazon, hence the publisher’s link).

The Science of Sin with Jack Lewis – Edinburgh Science Festival 2019

As I said in my last post, I’m currently at Edinburgh Science Festival, learning lots about public engagement and science communication, but also getting the chance to sneak into some of the shows for free. Monday evening saw me make my way back to the Pleasance to see ‘The Science of Sin’ presented by Dr Jack Lewis.

(On an unrelated but important note, I am now very familiar with the cafe at Pleasance, and wholeheartedly recommend their curly fries, veggie chilli nachos, and English breakfast tea, though I’d avoid the halloumi burger if I was you.)

The Science of Sin was probably the show that I was most excited about, though also the one I knew least about. I hadn’t heard of Jack Lewis before, and during the beginning of his talk he attempted to explain why – fantastic TV series hidden away on niche channels. Still, I was frustrated that I hadn’t found his work before, because it’s right up my street.

Image of Dr Jack Lewis presenting
Image credit: Hire conference 2018

Jack is a Neuroscientist by training, and now describes himself as an Author, Broadcaster and Consultant. To that I’d also add that he’s a passionate advocate for good science, a talented blogger, and my favourite kind of atheist, more on this later.

Front cover of 'The Science of Sin' by Dr Jack Lewis
The Science of Sin by Dr Jack Lewis

His talk focussed on his latest book, The Science of Sin, which aims to bring together the latest findings from neuroscience research to shed light on the universally fascinating subject of temptation – where it comes from, how to resist it and why we all tend to succumb from time to time.

Each of the book’s chapters is inspired by one of the seven deadly sins, and Jack’s talk was structured in a similar way, littered with tips and tricks to help us better manage out most troublesome impulse.
My favourite being, if you wake up painfully early and cannot get back to sleep, do not use this time for good. Do not head to your desk to make a start on work, do not spend your additional time beating your high score on whatever game you’re pretty sure you’re addicted to right now. No, do something you actively dislike; choose to use this time to clean the oven (or equivalent task that you repeatedly avoid). Why? Essentially, your brain is like a petulant child, if you reward it when it wakes up early you will remain awake, and you might just wake up early tomorrow as well. Forcing yourself to clean the oven will make your brain regret acting up, and you’ll find yourself yawning and sleeping soundly within a matter of minutes.

Image of cartoon drawings of each of the seven deadly sins

The rest of the talk looked more at how the seven deadly sins relate to human social interactions, and how each of the sins are essentially extreme versions of things that, in lesser doses, are good for you. He talked through each of the deadly sins and explained how they connect to the survival of the human species. Without greed, our ancestors wouldn’t have put on the much-needed extra chub that enabled them to survive times when food was sparse; without lust, our ancestors would not have found their partners and reproduced; without envy, our ancestors would not have been driven to self-improvement after seeing someone else succeed. The seven deadly sins are deadly only when pushed to the extreme; and the extremes of each of those ‘sins’ result in isolation.

So, back to that ‘favourite kind of atheist thing’… I wanted to draw attention to how respectful Jack’s discussion about religion, and how science relates (or doesn’t), to it. He is someone who respects religion and understands that it offers people a variety of things that science, currently, does not. He explained how he had been a member of his local church choir despite being raised atheist purely because he loved singing, and he went into depth about the impact that the church has had on his life in terms of community. In science, we don’t have an obvious community; we do science in labs, in offices, and in schools across the world, but we don’t have a place where we go to meet other scientists on a regular basis. We don’t have a place to go to where everyone knows your name (if you’re not singing the Cheers theme tune right now then I suggest you change that asap), a place filled with people that you know you can rely on; a sense of community.

Image credit: John Atkinson, Wrong Hands

After the show I went to get my book signed (no shame, I am a book nerd and a science nerd and a signed science book is 100% relevant to my interests), and we ended up having a beer in a pub round the corner from the venue. Nerding out with fellow scientists is one of my favourite things, and the conversations that we had left me thinking a lot about the way that scientists treat their work, and how they then decide to communicate that work with people that have chosen a different career path. I’m still mulling many of those thoughts over, but I’m sure once I’ve had chance to think some more they will prompt future blog posts – a few of them would be a bit political so I want to make sure that I’ve put enough thought into them before throwing them out into the internet!

For more information about what Jack does head to his website, and I’d recommend picking up a copy of his book too – buy it from the publisher here (I’m doing my best not to buy books from Amazon, hence the publisher’s link). This blog post on Jack’s website also includes videos from the time that he went to Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park – a place that’s usually reserved for religious preaching – to talk about neuroscience.

Songs for Science Education with Jonny Berliner – Edinburgh Science Festival 2019

This week I’m at Edinburgh Science Festival as part of their Delegate Programme, and it’s been fantastic! The programme enables science communicators, researchers, public engagement professionals, teachers and creatives to come together to find out how the Edinburgh Science Festival team craft events, choose speakers and put together the programme. We’ve also been able to attend a number of the ticketed events so that we can use them as discussion points later on in the programme.

The first event of these ticketed events that I chose was, ‘Songs for Science Education’, which was described as a humorous and song-studded talk with science troubadour Jonny Berliner. Jonny Berliner - science through song

I’d never heard of Jonny Berliner before, but figured that using songs and music to communicate science would fit into my recent quest to further the impact of science communication with creativity. I’ll be honest here – before attending I fully expected these songs to make me cringe. I had flashbacks of the toe-curling songs that I’d been taught during science lessons at school that aimed to help me remember things, but ultimately resulted in me turning a vibrant shade of beetroot whilst I attempted to get away with miming the words. I was a quiet kid, and when teachers tried to push me by forcing students to sing these horrendous songs solo in front of the class, it made me dread attending lessons.

Anyway, I’m pleased to report that I found myself laughing, learning, and at times voluntarily singing along to Jonny Berliner’s science songs. Not only was I impressed with the way that the science songs made learning about areas of science that I’ve previously actively avoided (dark matter, for example), I was also happy to see Jonny discuss the important subject of ‘democratising science’, in his words the process of improving access to information, accountability of scientists, and representation of scientists. At beginning of the talk, I was unsure just how many of these issue that a seemingly simple science song could tackle. Perhaps predictably, again Jonny proved me wrong in his explanation of how songs can open science up to the masses by making subjects memorable, understandable, critical and universal.

The video below for Jonny’s song ‘Sexual Reproduction’ was a highlight as it allowed him to explain how he uses humour and diagrams to make his music videos just as engaging as his songs.

That said, I think my favourite song of the entire show was ‘Understanding Misunderstanding‘; a song written with Professor Abigail Williams from the University of Oxford, to communicate her work on 18th century English Literature.

From Jonny’s website:
“Abigail’s research looks at ways in which the misreading of text in the 18th century parallels many of the problems faced navigating new media in the digital age. Her research tells us that there is no need to worry. As people learned to handle new media in the 18th century, they learned to deliberately misread texts, leading to great satire. It is just a matter of time until we can do the same with digital information.”

I recorded a snippet of Jonny’s performance of this song, so you can see just how utterly brilliant it was. Also, the song was so effective that I found myself talking about Abigail’s research in conversation with a stranger this morning – we were talking about The Daily Mail’s reputation for bullshit science, which led to talk of fake news, and then suddenly I found myself humming the start of the chorus of Jonny and Abigail’s song; “There’s so much misunderstanding, fake news spread globally, how do you know what to think, when the web’s got no integrity?

Now, music is not my strong point.

I learned to play the keyboard when I was much younger, but quit when my teacher suggested that I sit the Grade 1 exam – my reasoning being that as a hobby, it shouldn’t be an additional cause of exam stress. I don’t think my teacher was very keen on me after that. That said, Jonny gave some excellent ideas during his talk for those of us that are less musically inclined than him; the act of writing a song is itself a learning exercise, and though I highly doubt that I’ll be singing about all things clinical trials any time soon, I may have a stab at writing a science song for my own amusement.

For more information about what Jonny does, and to access his portfolio of science songs, head to his website.