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Demystifying science

By Paul Callaghan - posted Tuesday, 11 September 2007

In the MacDiarmid institute we have ambitious goals, which can be summarised in two words: “culture change”. We want New Zealanders to see their future beyond the farm and the themepark. Our vision is for a research culture in which New Zealanders are able to function as world class scientists in New Zealand, in which we attract the world's best to New Zealand, while re-connecting the diaspora of international Kiwi scientists. That vision sees our science as internationally connected, wealth generating, a focal point for the society, especially the young, and as a critical component for successful new technologies.

Part of the strategy is to try to train our graduate students for a new way of doing science. This is a world in which it is increasingly important for scientists to demonstrate the value of their work and to demonstrate that they are professionals worthy of public respect and trust.

Our aim is to assist the universities to educate new researchers who seek a societal context for their work. We are trying to nurture excellent physical scientists, committed to the values of science, who are at the same time entrepreneurial, communicative and socially aware, and seeking to make lifetime contributions to their country. The response from our graduate students has been overwhelmingly positive. They appreciate the focus of their own intense research far better when they actively participate in thinking about the context.


We also put a lot of effort and resource into outreach and public communication. One of the more astonishing activities has been to have more than 20 physics demonstrations produced in Te Reo Maori with kids from local Kura Kaupapa doing the physics, and Maori language scholars working with our physicists and one of our Maori physics scholars to script the real time translations on web-based video.

The Te Reo project is about science first and foremost and not about adopting elements of indigenous knowledge. It is about science showing respect for language and culture. And here's the point: in the New Zealand context, building a knowledge economy requires participation from all segments of society. New Zealand's Maori population is more than a major component of our demographic. Maori represent a major element of our identity as a nation. We want to ensure that science is intertwined with essential elements of the New Zealand identity.

Science communication is not just about promoting the value of science in wealth generation, in human benefit or in understanding and protecting the biosphere. It runs much deeper than that. With the increasing array of challenging social and human consequences of their profession, scientists will be called up much more to explain what their do to a wider audience. They will do so more effectively if they are able to acknowledge human consequences in an honest and sympathetic manner. When scientists are seen to be interested in a world outside science, the public are more likely to trust them.

One of the most effective science communication activities carried our by the NZ physics community in recent times involved not one single physicist talking about his or her research. On the contrary, they merely acted as conversational catalysts for a group of non-scientists, well known and well-loved by a non-scientific public. What we discovered in that project was that the enthusiasm for science shown by New Zealand's leading poets and novelists was not only encouraging for us - but enormously reassuring to the wider public.

I have a radio show about science every four weeks. I get an enormous about of feedback about that show, almost universally positive, with the common remark that people like it because they can comprehend what I am saying, that I am able to explain science simply, in terms they can understand.

I am fascinated by these comments because in fact, I believe them to be untrue in the sense in which a scientist normally says, “Ah, I understand that”. I do believe that people like the science they hear but I think that the reason the show works is because first and foremost, the host of the show is someone who is known and trusted and well-loved. Her Saturday morning listeners, 300,000 at a time, know her quirks, her likes and dislikes, and her polymath knowledge and interests. And when the two of us talk, we get on. In short, we converse, and if Kim enjoys talking science with me, then her listeners are in that sense enjoying and understanding science.


We are having a normal human conversation, and I believe that is what people relate to. They also understand that science can be fun, that scientists don't know everything, and that non-scientists like Kim can talk about science without being patronised or put down.

People feel that they “understand” science when it connects with them. This type of understanding is an appreciation of the purpose, of the relevance and of the beauty and fun. In does not require understanding of detailed logical progression - and, let's be honest, most of us who practise science don't even have that all the time. People like the fact that science underlies familiar phenomenology, and that it can encompass their burning questions, even if the scientific response is “I've always wondered about that too, and I really don't know the answer”.

It's a sobering thought, but maybe scientists do more to raise respect for science by being human and fallible than being clever and insightful.

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This article is republished in collaboration with ScienceAlert, the only news website dedicated to Australasian science.

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About the Author

Professor Paul Callaghan is the Director, MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology in New Zealand.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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