Beyond fame – the value of science communication

By: Bert Vercnocke,
postdoc at the UvA Institute of Physics
‘Who can pitch his research in the best possible way to a lay audience? That seems to be the concept of Famelab, the largest competition for science communication in the world. But looks can deceive. FameLab wants to be more than a contest for stand-up scientists. To help make science more accessible to the public, the British Council has built a worldwide web to train new ambassadors, many hundreds each year, spread over all continents. And I had the privilege of being one of them.’

As the Dutch national FameLab winner, I entered the international FameLab final, organized as part of the Cheltenham Science Festival in the beginning of June. The first few days of our stay there was not much time to take in the festival though, as they featured the FameLab semi-final and final. I admit that I was disappointed not passing through to the final, even though we were told many times that ‘we were all winners’. Aren’t we all human? But I succeeded to wash that initial disappointment away with doing what I came for: learning more about how to communicate science! It was the master class that was offered to national finalist that attracted me to FameLab in the first place: I was not in it to win it.

The number pi in actual pies

At the Cheltenham festival, there was so much more to discover. Two full days jam-packed with talks (free for FameLabbers!), debates driven by questions from the audience, discover zones, info stands on so many topics. I even earned a pink pen and a blue foldable plane for completing the statistics and airplane landing gear challenges. And I am proud to say that I earned a paper medal after successfully having jumped over a one-foot high bar and learning about guinea pigs that knew how to count. I gladly donated the pen and plane to my daughter and son, but the medal I kept for myself. Aren’t we all human (reprise)? Overall, I had a great time. The other FameLabbers and representatives of various national science centers were great people, with whom I exchanged many ideas and appreciated cultural differences – from dress codes in other countries to how to edit YouTube movies. On Saturday night we had maybe the best act as far as presentation goes: the variety show “An evening of Unnecessary Detail”. Starring, amongst others, stand-up mathematician and 2010 FameLab international finalist Matt Parker on how to calculate the number pi with actual pies (accurate to up to 2/3 of a pie!).

The curiosity behind science

I am very happy that I got a taste of the FameLab experience that allowed me to strengthen my own science communication skills. For me, communicating science is imperative to being a scientist. Both in general, to bridge the gap between the science and public domains, but also as a representative of fundamental science (I am a theoretical physicist). FameLab offers the opportunity to share with the world the deeper reason for doing science. It is not the short term applications in spin-off technology that come of fundamental research, nor the human capital of all the trained PhD students and postdocs who leave their fields and go out to strengthen industry, business and medicine. Neither is it the extremely long-term unenvisaged applications, such as GPS navigation that would not work without Einstein’s more than 100 year old theory of relativity. It’s our innate curiosity that drives our desire to know, to uncover nature’s mystery, that is also the driving force of most of science. As much as art, love and the appreciation of beauty, the curiosity behind science defines our very humanity.’

The winning pitch of Bert during the Dutch final

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