Way back in 2013 I took part in my first ever Science Slam. It also happened to be the first ever Science Slam held in the UK. A Science Slam is a competition; the competitors are PhD students and they each give a 10 minute talk about their research. Usually they try to make it as exciting and entertaining as possible, since the audience is likely to include non-scientists. When all the talks are done the audience votes for their favourite and the winner gets a prize.
It’s a great introduction to public speaking because the audiences are usually very friendly and attentive and because 10 minutes is a good length of time. You can make anything interesting in 10 minutes (I still struggle with talks that are longer than ~45 minutes). You get plenty of time to practise and there’s the opportunity to get really creative. I just spoke when I did mine but I’ve seen people use props, music and glamorous assistants to aide them in their explanations.
In 2013 I came second. A couple of months later I was invited to the second Science Slam which was held in London and I was lucky enough to win. Since then I’ve always helped out with the Glasgow Science Slams in some way, either by helping out on the night or, more often, by talking to the speakers and helping them to get their talks up to scratch. I wish I could enter again, but having done well in two in the past it wouldn’t feel fair.
Last month, Glasgow’s 4th Science Slam was held at its usual venue in Cottier’s Theatre. It might just have been one of my favourite ones yet. We heard about people studying everything from droughts on the Canadian praries to the fundamental definitions of physical properties. From nuclear power to beating the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal. I was so proud of the speakers and how well they did.
I think that’s part of the joy of it too. In academia it can be easy to get blinkered and to exist in your own little bubble. I mean, sure, I’m in the College of Science and Engineering, but within that I’m in the School of Physics and Astronomy. Then, within that I’m in the Institute for Gravitational Research. The next level down is that I work on detector development/thermal noise/bonding. It’s easy to forget that most researchers aren’t even in the same college.
And their research is so exciting! I know I’m not alone in that I want to hear all about everyone else’s research. The variety is amazing but sometimes it can be easy to miss out on the exciting stuff. A couple of years ago I was talking to a researcher who was investigating how we could mine asteroids to a) get additional resources safely and b) prevent them from ending up on collision courses with the Earth. He was basically Bruce Willis but smart. He didn’t want to talk about that; he wanted to talk about Lagrange Points (which are basically stable positions in space where things don’t float away). He didn’t understand that that wasn’t the exciting part, he just really liked the maths.
Then, this time, the researcher talking about the fundamental physical properties was measuring electron flow. It turns out that our definition of electrical flow is really flimsy. She’s working on a really delicate experiment to give us a better definition. There’s some terrifying statistics involved. However, these definitions literally underpin the rest of science – as we improve them we’re able to trust our scientific results more and more. If she gets a different number to the one we expected it changes everything. Explaining the significance of this is almost impossible and I wouldn’t know a thing about it if not for the Science Slam.
If you’re a scientist, I urge you to go share your research with the public in any (hopefully fun) way that you can. If you’re not, then go find some Science Slam videos on YouTube. There’s some amazing stuff going on out there and you deserve to know about it.