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'Can I Teach My Mum String Theory?'

/ Source: Discovery Channel

I spend most of my life talking, writing and tweeting about astronomy and space.

I also find myself probably spending far too much time reading about it too. Indeed, only the other day I was reading an overly-technical article about asteroid 2005 YU55 in a reputable UK daily newspaper when I found myself wondering who the audience was supposed to be.

Typically, I would expect to see this kind of heavy-going tome in a scientific journal, not in a newspaper read by the populous of Old Blighty (that's the UK for those of you not of this land).

My thoughts wandered further into popularizing astronomy and space science and I found myself asking: have we got it right?

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Science communication in general is a tricky affair, particularly when it comes to public communication. The problem is this: science relies upon systematic ideas with a logical structure, yet the average person on the street relies on non-systematic thinking and often avoids logic at all costs.

For a scientific message to be successfully communicated it must be converted from one to the other. The best way of checking if you have been successful in this conversion is to ask yourself "Would my Mum understand?" I love my Mum to bits, of course, but she 'aint no Einstein so using the "mum-o-meter" is a fantastic gauge to measure your message.

Get it right and you will have a happy and informed audience.

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The key is to accept that a scientific concept may need to be tweaked slightly to make it digestible for non-science folk and there is nothing wrong with that -- so long as accuracy isn't lost. If it gets the science message out there and educates people about the ways of the Universe (and perhaps even entertained a little) then that's great.

It's also of paramount importance to try to make the message relevant. That's why natural world topics are often so successful, because they are relevant to people's lives. A supernova will unlikely make headline news unless it's in our galaxy and visible to the naked eye.

Asteroid 2005 YU55 is another fine example of this relevance and how the media have granted it some coverage -- even if it is a little sensationalized at times.

My work on BBC's The One Show is another example of how very careful you need to be in tuning a message appropriately for the audience. It is classified as a "magazine show" and enjoys an audience of around 5 million people sitting down to their evening meal.

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Most of them have little idea about how science works -- let alone astronomy! -- so my films have 5 minutes to get them interested and hooked. Drop all the fiddly faffy sciencey bits and go straight for the "big bucks" headlines to grab their interest.

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The truth of the matter is there are some topics that just can't be converted for a general audience and I would question whether it's even worth trying -- especially if you are restricted to five minutes at dinnertime.

Take string theory for example; a beautifully elegant yet very complex concept. However, a very basic overview can be converted by the "mum-o-meter" using the analogy of the vibration of a guitar string determining the musical note that is heard against the different vibrations of strings determining which fundamental particle exists.

Explain that to my Mum and she would get it; go to the next level and she would be lost. So perhaps it's best to not try at all and leave her happy with a basic understanding.

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You can't change the fact that some advanced science theory is pretty darned hard and not everyone will have the ability -- or even interest -- to understand more.

There are of course places for the more scientifically inclined to get their science fix -- Discovery News, New Scientist, Discover Magazine, the BBC's Horizon program and I must mention Stargazing LIVE, not forgetting my epic meteor moment! -- and it's here that science writers and presenters can go into more detail. It's just right for the audience.

It is interesting that even 4th Century BC Greek philosopher Aristotle identified the differences between audiences: "Scientific discourse, which is valuable in a teaching situation is not meaningful to some audiences and in that case, arguments must use ordinary concepts which ordinary people can understand."

Science is, and will continue to be, a very large part of our lives and it's up to all of us to not only to be true to science but also to be true and considerate of the audience we are addressing.

If that means a message needs to be changed a little, it's no bad thing so long as it gets the gist of the message over and means the reader/viewer hasn't been talked down to or totally bamboozled. They should leave the experience with a little more knowledge and appreciation of the Universe around us.

Remember, science is for everyone not just the scientists, keep that in your mind at all times and science communication can be fun and rewarding for all.