In late October, 2015, my colleagues and I welcomed eight science communicators from Switzerland to swissnex San Francisco to attend some of the Bay Area Science Festival’s coolest events, to meet with peers from local museums and universities, and to participate in workshops aimed at building skills in our field.
The overall goal for the group: Get inspired to experiment with science communication in Switzerland, online, and globally.
I got inspired, too. Here are 12 moments and lessons that stood out for me and for our visitors:
Fake science can teach us about science, too.
BAHFest, the Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses is “a celebration of well-argued and thoroughly researched but completely incorrect scientific theory.”
At a recent BAHFest West at the Castro Theatre, contestant Nick Blanchard-Wright laid out a bogus claim that there’s an evolutionary advantage to becoming stupid. Before a panel of judges with real scientific credentials, he hoped to entertain—and take home the coveted trophy of Charles Darwin shrugging.
Though silly, the festival (launched at MIT in 2013) shows how the scientific method can be fallible if results are handpicked to show correlations that may not be real. And it demonstrates that fanciful theories can be appealing if presented well. Beware the pitfalls of a good story.
Drone photography is awesome, especially inside an erupting volcano.
Volcanologists (geologists who study volcanoes) are great and all, but until you’ve seen a drone land on a lava flow, you know nothing. Nothing!
At Tested: The Show, held at the Castro Theatre as a live incarnation of the online Tested experience, photographer and drone expert Eric Cheng recounted a trip to Iceland with Good Morning America during which he captured fiery footage of erupting volcanoes with quadcopters.
To get science to the people, you have to go to the people.
Director of the Bay Area Science Festival, Kishore Hari, told our group how he approached launching a science festival.
“I thought about what I liked doing in my free time, and then I thought that I also liked to learn,” he said. The result: Science in a bar, science in a baseball stadium, science in a movie theater, etc.
“Science can be where you least expect it,” remarked Hari. “We have to move from the old push model of public understanding of science to new model of public engagement.”
Our connected world, visualized with real data, is enthralling.
At the California Academy of Sciences, the touching and gorgeous planetarium show Habitat Earth, steers away from astronomy and space and very clearly points inward at life on earth, including humankind, and how we’re all connected.
Planetarium Director Ryan Wyatt and his team of talented animators, editors, and producers in the visualization lab shared with us how they made this masterpiece based on real science and hard data.
Under their digital dome, they created a vivid look at life’s global network, from forests to underwater worlds to airplane and shipping routes, animal migrations, and agricultural development. Can’t wait to see their next production.
When people play with science, the results can be ridiculously silly and super impressive at the same time.
At Science Hack Day 2015, which took place over a weekend at the GitHub headquarters in San Francisco, the non-stop (seriously, people slept there) hacking resulted in 3D candy drawings, a laser-assisted pool table so you never miss, a Harry Potter sorting hat powered by the IBM Watson computer, and much more.
Science Hack Day San Francisco’s founder and organizer, Ariel Waldman, says, “Science Hack Day is inherently about the unexpected, the serendipitous, the unlikely and the unexplored.”
Science is for everybody.
The Exploratorium’s senior scientist, Ron Hipschman, explained how all of the exhibits on the science center’s main floor are supposed to look and feel accessible to encourage interaction. Visitors instinctively touch, feel, and play with the materials in the collection, all created in-house to “explore” science, art, and human perception.
Science is in everyday objects.
At Autodesk Gallery, the 3D software maker showcases customer projects that bring together design and engineering for a better world. We saw things like SOCCKET, a ball that generates power while you play with it to recharge you phone or power a lamp. A car made from biomaterials. The greenest, most sustainable buildings in the world. Self-assembling molecules. And a program that calculates the aerodynamics of your body.
The gallery shows us that science stories can be told everywhere.
Nature inspires technology.
At an event at swissnex San Francisco, we learned from Swiss and US scientists about how they look to the animal kingdom to develop robots and other technology that can work safely beside humans and the environment.
Alongside speakers from Stanford University, NASA, and UC Berkeley, Auke Ijspeert of the Biorobotics Laboratory from Switzerland’s EPFL shared the secrets of the Lab’s fast-running cheetah robot, a salamander bot that navigates both land and water, and modular machines designed to be the building blocks for furniture that moves and evolves.
Ijspeert’s biorobots can teach us many things, but they can also be so cute that people want to pet them.
Scientists are human, too.
At a Story Collider event in San Francisco, speakers including two string theorists and three science writers with backgrounds in biology, genetics, and neuroscience shared personal stories about how science has impacted their lives.
Author and Wired editor Adam Rogers, for example, recounted the tale of working in a marine biology lab to decide if he wanted to be a biologist (his major) or switch to journalism.
Story Collider and it’s speakers—who present live and onstage but are also podcasted—humanize science and research and show us that scientists aren’t foreign, stiff, or untouchable, but people just like the rest of us who have been touched by science in a meaningful way.
Write short, even about science.
Science communicator David Harris gave a workshop on whittling down scientific results to the bare bones and crafting brief, meaningful messages. An especially important reminder in an increasingly online, tweetable world. Enough said?
You can tell amazing stories with an iPhone and an accessory or two.
At the Berkeley Advanced Media Institute, we learned from BBC North America’s technology correspondent Richard Taylor just how much you can do on your phone with some clicks and swipes and different angles. For science communicators on any budget, the tools are not the barriers to engaging content. Start filming.
Duty calls. Scientists should share knowledge with the world, not just each other.
Why wouldn’t that also be true for sharing on the world’s most accessed source for health related info, asks Head of Research for Wikimedia, Dario Taraborelli?
Wikimedia (the parent organization for Wikipedia) has programs that encourage universities and labs to make contributions from their faculty “count” in order to incentivize sharing on Wikipedia. And some museums and curators are hosting Wikipedians-in-residence to help them disseminate more content, and the right content, on the platform.
— swissnex S Francisco (@swissnexSF) October 28, 2015
Photo: Biorobots Escape by swissnex San Francisco.