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I’ve been a bad blogger…or depending on how you look at it, maybe I’ve just been a common blogger, given that apparently 95% of blogs are essentially abandoned as internet flotsam.  What can I say?  Something something not-enough-time-in-a-day something something. [Shuffles feet.] Tsk.  [entitled, self-pity moment over. That’s the extent of my ‘I’m going to try harder’ spiel, I promise.

Last week my partner got us tickets to a talk by Sean Carroll at the Royal Institution of Great Britain.  This was a treat on many levels as I’d never been to the RI before.  For those who don’t know, the RI is an, “Institution for diffusing the knowledge, and facilitating the general introduction, of useful mechanical inventions and improvements; and for teaching, by courses of philosophical lectures and experiments, the application of science to the common purposes of life”, by, among others, Joseph Banks (then president of the Royal Society) and Henry Cavendish in 1799.

The Royal Institution of Great Britain, Painting by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (1793-1864)

The RIGB c. 1838, just “a medium sized townhouse in Mayfair”, apparently.

Amongst some of the most well-known work to have taken place under the RI’s roof was that of Michael Faraday, which lead to the discovery of electromagnetism.  And in the very same lecture theatre that Faraday discovered that electricity was indeed a force, Sean Carroll delighted a (nearly) full house on the story of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and the search for The Higgs Boson.  Oh, and did I mention?  He’s got a new book out too.

The point of all of this wasn’t so much to talk about elementary (sub-atomic) particles or a really large, really expensive bits of scientific kit.  Truthfully, what impressed me the most about the whole talk was the talk itself.  Given the venue and a quick Google search on Sean Carroll, I half-expected to be blinded with Bosons (or other matters of theoretical physics, which is what he actually researches).  However Carroll’s talk, though factually dense was still light, funny and chalked-full of pop-culture references—not to mention a talk-within-a-talk (eat your heart out, Hamlet!)  Carroll, concerned that he was mentioning an awful lot of male names while talking about the major players who have contributed to our current understanding of the Higgs Boson, gave a micro-talk about how the numbers of women in academic science are finally starting to come up, despite the persistence of male gender bias when it came to recruitment. (Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find all of the data he showed on the subject, specifically those supporting the ‘finally starting to come up’ point he made…any help here is appreciated).

I was impressed with Sean Carroll, not only as a scientist, but as a communicator.  You could argue that the style of his talk had more to do with his audience (ie. not just physicists).  It may be that if Carroll had been presenting his latest and greatest to a room full of The Physicoglitterati, he may not have invoked ICP’s “Miracles” as an example of how questions about physical phenomena have pervaded pop-culture.  Maybe.  The truth is, science needn’t (and shouldn’t) be spoken of in such an esoteric manner as to alienate an audience member, irrespective of their background.  As scientists, our ability to communicate our progress to our colleagues or to the public is one of the most important skills we can develop.

That said, in this day and age, even the most dedicated scientist gets exposed to pop culture.  Take Stephen Hawking appearing with Orbital at the closing ceremonies of the Paralympic Games in London 2012, for example. Including snippits of life into your work is part of what makes us human, I think.


Next public lecture:  tomorrow, Adrian Bird at the Royal Society, speaking about Genetics, epigenetics and disease.

June 2019
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