What can you do with a soapbox?

Image courtesy the SoapboxScience Team and the L’Oreal for Women in Science Programme

There is no doubt that outreach is important, including getting into schools, science festivals, print, or whatever form you feel best qualified to offer. But one variant of outreach I’ve experienced consists, literally, of getting on a soapbox, and a pretty unnerving experience it is too. It comes with some interesting possibilities — as well as a fair sprinkling of terrors.

Nathalie Pettorelli and Seirian Sumner dreamed up the idea of ‘SoapboxScience ‘ after winning L’Oreal For Women in Science Fellowships in 2010. They wanted to find a way of raising the profile of female scientists simultaneously with doing some serious outreach. Getting a bunch of women to stand on a soapbox in central London is the result, with accompanying stories in the newspapers. For the last couple of years they have invited speakers to participate, a dozen each year. This year they decided to put out a call for volunteers. It is disappointing to see that the physics community is not particularly well represented amongst those chosen. I’ve no idea how many individuals applied, but as far as I can see the only two who can lay claim to research in or close to physics are Sabrina Maniscolo, a Reader in the photonics and quantum sciences group at Heriot Watt, and Jassel Majevadia, a PhD student in multiscale modelling at Imperial who (as her website makes clear) is very committed to outreach activities.

So what can these two intrepid speakers expect? I participated last year, on a very damp July down on the South Bank adjacent to the Thames. It rained pretty solidly during my ‘pitch’, which did nothing for the crowds we had hoped to pull in as they strolled along the river. Unlike a school visit or a Science Festival event, there is no captive audience at Soapbox Science (although a few school groups had been specifically invited, they most certainly couldn’t be described as captive). It is only the force of one’s voice, the sight of one’s props and the sheer oddity of encountering a group of women in white lab coats standing on soapboxes that are going to create a public for one’s talks. It is tough! Furthermore, one is exposed and not just to the elements. No PowerPoint to hide behind, no carefully crafted slides, lovingly created to illustrate whatever subtle ideas lurk beneath the science one is describing. You’re on your own to convey the excitement, armed merely with your arms and whatever props these can carry out to your soapbox, perhaps assisted by a kind volunteer.

I chose to talk about soft matter, that common squidgy stuff that is all around you if you look: shampoo, glue, food, paint… it turns up in many guises and the typical member of the public may never have stopped to think there could be science underpinning these common products. It is easily accessible as a topic, but allows plenty of opportunity to introduce concepts from polymer physics. Ideas such as entanglement (chain entanglement that is, not of the quantum variety) and reptation, that snake-like motion that allows long chains to escape their neighbours in viscous fluids (‘goo’) or polymer melts to flow and deform.

Although in the typical and controlled surroundings of a lecture theatre, when I can more easily set up props, I can use two giant beakers full of different length strands of beads to illustrate how entanglement occurs for the long but not the short chains, for a more impromptu setting I’ve got used to using wool. Everyone recognizes how skeins of wool or cotton will spontaneously tangle up into the most appalling mess without any effort on the owner’s part, so it’s an obvious way to demonstrate what — on a much finer scale — polymer chains can do. I also brought along some other props such as shampoo and water to show how viscosity varies with concentration. Of course, it’s best to avoid using words like viscosity at least at the outset, but letting dollops of shampoo (I find the bright blue of Wash ‘n’ Go catches the eye nicely) slither down card gets the idea across.

Nevertheless, talking non-stop for an hour with only such props and one’s imagination is tough going. That I managed to hold some teenagers attention for more than half an hour was great, but meant that I’d used the easy stuff I’d had in mind to talk about. I’d been led to believe people would come and go, not stay! It meant I couldn’t simply rerun my verbal tape as I’d envisaged. Furthermore, as the rain came down really hard, my umbrella (kindly held over me by a volunteer) and lab coat ceased to give me protection. I chickened out! I’d like to think I’d have stuck out the full hour had the weather been kinder. (For more on my experiences you can see what I wrote in the immediate aftermath .

This year the event is being run on July 5, on the South Bank a bit downstream from the Festival Hall. Do go along and offer support and have your imagination fired by women, young and old, from a variety of disciplines.

Athene Donald

Professor Dame Athene Donald is a Professor of Experimental Physics and Master of Churchill College. Her research is in the general field of soft matter and physics at the interface of biology; she has published over 250 papers in these fields. In recent years she has become heavily involved with policy issues, ranging from chairing the Royal Society’s Education Committee to chairing the Scientific Advisory Council of DCMS.She served on University Council (2009-14) and was the University’s Gender Equality Champion (2010-14). She is currently a member of the Scientific Council of the ERC and a former Trustee of the Science Museum. As well as various prizes from the IOP and Royal Society, she won the 2009 L'Oreal/Unesco Laureate for Europe award.

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