Striking a balance between science and communication

Jim Al-Khalili

Since this is meant to be the first of many regular blog posts I have promised to write for the Institute of Physics, I thought I would begin by saying something about how one finds the time to do such things. I happen to be writing this on a Sunday evening having finished reading the newspaper, going through my emails, doing the few DIY jobs around the house and watching as much TV as I can stomach in one sitting, and so have run out of excuses not to write it.

Of course in the vast blogosphere it seems everyone has something to say. A number of prominent physicists, such as Athene Donald (Cambridge), Jonathan Butterworth (UCL) and Paul Stevenson (Surrey), write regular blogs that are read by hundreds of people. Those are just the ones I read regularly because I know them. Of course blogging is just one of many ways we communicate our science today and reach out to a wider audience than just the handful of fellow academics who read our research papers or listen to our conference talks. Clearly it’s not for everyone. But what if you are a physics PhD student wishing to devote a little time to science communication?

Firstly, I should say that, in case you hadn’t noticed, we are living in a golden age of public engagement in science. Certainly, the UK now leads the world by a huge margin when it comes to communicating the excitement of scientific research, reporting on the latest discoveries and enthusing both young and old with our curiosity and fascination with the workings of the Universe. From the increase in the number of TV documentaries, articles and news reports in the press, the explosion in science festivals and other public events that bring scientists and the public together, it seems science is everywhere. Many of my students tell me that they are not in the least embarrassed or ashamed to state at a party or in a bar that they are studying physics. What a contrast with just a generation ago when being a science geek really wasn’t cool.

This surge in interest in science communication has been inevitably accompanied by a rise in the number of science students who would like to be involved in the action. I certainly see it among my own students, both undergraduates and postgraduates. This article summarises the advice I give to them.

My own journey into science communication was in a sense a series of happy accidents; a sequence of events in space-time, each sitting in the previous one’s light cone. I guess that is a geeky physicist’s way of saying that each opportunity that came up would not have happened if not for the previous one: if I hadn’t given that schools talk on black holes in 1995 I wouldn’t have been invited to give the IOP Schools and Colleges lectures in 1997. That was what got my first book commissioned, and that led to my first TV work, and so on. But when I began my first tentative steps into physics outreach, all I was sure about was that I enjoyed the challenge of explaining hard concepts to a lay audience, whether they were school children, an audience at a public event or just a friend down the pub.

Crucially, I didn’t want science communication to take over my life. I enjoyed my research even more and was determined to try and balance the two. By the time I began to devote a significant fraction of my time to science communication (writing, public lectures, talking to journalists and a little bit of broadcasting) I was a full time academic, with research papers to write, conferences to attend, grant proposals to prepare, as well as undergraduate teaching, departmental administration and my own PhD students to look after. And the truth is, I had no one to really offer me sound advice as to how to balance all these areas of my work. It hadn’t been done before. Until then, one was either an academic research scientist or one was a communicator – to do both was deemed to be something of a ‘jack of all trades’.

But I managed it. And I am now keen to ensure that young physicists who would like to do the same thing get the best advice. The first thing to note is that if you are, say, a PhD student who wishes to move into science communication after completion and to turn your back on research, then this should in no way be thought of as some kind of failure. There is a big world out there and research is not for everyone. However, if you enjoy the thrill of research and feel that taking time out to pursue activities in science communication may be a distraction, then think again. Take it slowly, and balance your time sensibly. Giving a talk at a local school or science festival, or taking part in media training to understand how to write a press release or how to talk to a journalist can all be hugely rewarding and need not impinge adversely on your main work. They can also have a very positive influence on your own research. For one thing, you only really get to understand your research area when you are required to explain it to others in non-technical language. Moreover, science communication gives you the chance to find out about other fields and helps put your research into context. It may even, as has happened with me, lead to new insights that only come with a broader, even interdisciplinary, way of thinking.

Not all academic supervisors agree with me, and not all research students are cut out for getting involved in outreach activities. But times have changed and science communication is now respectable. And as I have said on numerous occasions: what’s the point of find out something new and interesting about the workings of the universe if you don’t tell anyone about it? That need not just be the half dozen other experts who will read your paper in Physical Review. There’s a big world out there.

Jim Al-Khalili

Jim is a theoretical physicist, author and broadcaster, Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey.

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