Communicating Astronomy

07 July 2011

Interview with

Mark Thompson, President of Norwich Astronomical Society

Ben -   How should astronomers go about communicating their work?  Mark Thompson is President of Norwich Astronomical Society.  He's a regular on the BBC's the One Show and recently, he was one of the team alongside Professor Bryan Cox and comedian Dara O'Briain on Star Gazing Life.  At this years' National Astronomy Meeting, he took his presenting skills to a new audience that of astronomy academics...

Mark -   The problem I'm trying to solve is all about astronomical outreach.  Now science has always had a problem throughout the length of time I've watched TV and listened to radio, and looked at magazines.  Getting science out into the masses is a very difficult thing to do and so, I'm trying to see how we can actually do that and get more science out into the public.

Ben -   It seems that your timing might be a little bit off because from what I can tell, science has probably never had a better public face on television.  We've got people like Bryan Cox, Dara O'Briain, a very popular comedian who's also promoting science, and this is primetime stuff, so how does your problem actually been solved for you?

Mark -   I think the answer is there but what I'm trying to do is actually get that answer out to academics because I think yes, you're absolutely right.  Astronomy is getting a fantastic coverage in media and that's national media as well, not just local media.  It's getting fantastic coverage at the moment.  We've had Wonders of the solar system, wonders of the universe, Star Gazing Live of course, so it had some brilliant TV shows, but it's really trying to educate people on how you can engage with the public better and trying to get them more switched on to receiving that message.

Ben -   Is communicating their science really a role for the scientists?  They obviously have their funding to do their work which is about astronomy in this case or whatever science it may happen to be.  Surely by encouraging them to spend more time communicating, you're actually going to reduce the amount of time they can spend doing research.

Mark -   It is a very fine balance and I think the method of communicating science - yes, absolutely, there are people out there who could just be presenters and could just present the information, but I think for an audience to receive that information, you need to have somebody with a bit of klout, with a bit of education.  Not necessarily education behind it, but with some standing in the subject they're talking about.  So I think you can't use Dara as an example because he's got that theoretical physics degree.  But if you were to use a bog standard TV presenter to do a science show, I think it would lose something.  I don't think the people would receive it as well because they're not getting that message from an experienced person.  I think that's the key there.

Parkes radio telescope viewed from the visitorBen -   Patrick Moore of course, being another example of somebody who is not in academic, but having been an amateur astronomer for a very long time is well respected amongst academics as well as the public, and therefore makes a very good presenter.

Mark -   He does and it is incredibly difficult because there's this big gulf between the way a scientist deals with a topic and the way a topic is dealt with for the masses, for the public, and there's this big gap, this gulf between them.  It's knowing how you can get and transform that message.  So the key in all of this is transform the scientific message - that's the secret bit - to transform the scientific message into something that the public will be receptive to, and I think that's the key and you're absolutely right.  Patrick Moore, an experienced amateur has done an incredibly good job for the science.

Ben -   So what do scientists need to do?  How do you think they should start going about bridging this gap?

Mark -   I think one of the key things is around not being too worried about 'cheating on science' to sort of coin a phrase.  I think there's a lot of worry around dumbing down a scientific message too much and almost changing it so it's slightly different, but you got to remember that sometimes a scientific message isn't something you can change in its raw state to something that a member of the public would understand.  So you've got to change, you've got to accept that that message has to be changed and morphed little bit, have slightly different values, slightly different information in there, but still true to the core subject.  But it has to be changed and that's the trick and it think that if you can get that and there's also a little bit about sensationism because you know, good old newspaper journalists, editors, TV directors, they want something that will sell newspapers and get people tuning in to the TV and talking to them about a dull scientific subject, however interesting it might be to you, is not going to sell a paper or get people tuning in.  You've got to sensationalise it to get the media people interested and once you've done that, then you can massage the message to get it out so people can understand it.

Ben -   Is there a stigma among the academic community against people who do slightly sensationalise their science or perhaps who are quite happy to put something out in terms of certainty which of course never really exists in science?

Mark -   There is danger.  I'm not an academic, I've come from an amateur astronomy background so I'm not an academic, I must stress that.  I think there is an element of that from some people absolutely.  There is you know, I suppose a concern that a subject is being dumbed down, it's being changed, it's not what science is about, and that is absolutely true.  Of course, that's what's happening, but the two can co-exist and I think that's so important because otherwise, the general public won't get any understanding of science if you don't change it, and I think that's the key thing.  The ultimate is about getting the public to understand science and after all, if the public want more science then there'll be probably a little bit more funding from the government if they realise science is important so actually it means you can do more science.  So there is a very important flow of - a scientist does some research, get that information out to the public, the public want more science, and so, you know, you can do more science because there's more support for it, and that is what it's all about.

Ben -   Mark Thompson, President of Norwich Astronomical Society.

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