The Famelab Experience

Gazing out at the crowd of 960 people, mostly teenagers, the thought occurred to me that standing alone on a big stage, attempting to entertain such a large crowd of people with science might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But when I lifted up my model of an exoplanet orbiting a star and an “ooh” washed over the crowd, that’s when I realised what Famelab is all about and why, as scientists, we should care about science communication at all.

Famelab has been called pop idols for scientists. The format is you (as a scientist or engineer) get given exactly three minutes to give a scientific talk to the public. No powerpoint allowed, only props that you can carry on stage with you. Judges are present to judge the competitors on clarity, content and charisma. But I think I only really understood Famelab when I was well into the competition. You see, this is not a scientific talk: it’s actually a scientific performance. And it’s unlike any lecture, seminar or documentary you’ve ever seen.

A plate is glued to one side of a board, on the other side are the broken pieces of an identical plate. This was to illustrate how statistics can teach you about initial conditions (like the composition of the plate for example) as an analogy to how the statistics of galaxies teach us about the early Universe.

A plate is glued to one side of a board, on the other side are the broken pieces of an identical plate. This was to illustrate how statistics can teach you about initial conditions (like the composition of the plate for example) as an analogy to how the statistics of galaxies teach us about the early Universe.

I entered the Cape Town regionals, after some encouragement and motivation from my supervisor, where I competed against 17 other participants. The standard of the talks, with a few exceptions, was quite high. I gave a talk about statistics and its application to cosmology, using a fun prop involving a broken plate, which got me through the first round.

I then moved on, along with 8 other people to the second round of the heats. I gave a talk explaining the complex topic of how supernova observations lead to the discovery of the accelerated expansion of the Universe and what we now call dark energy. The only props I used were a light bulb, to explain the concept of a standard candle, and a tennis ball, to demonstrate how gravity normally works to explain why dark energy is so weird.

Of the 9 participants in the final round of the heats, three of us went through to take part in the finals in Grahamstown, which were held during Scifest, South Africa’s largest science festival. While there, we joined the six remaining finalists from the Johannesburg and Durban regionals. We attended a two day master class, run by Malcolm Love, a public communication skills coach and the official Famelab trainer. The master class really brought home to me the unique nature of Famelab. I doubt many scientists have spent two days doing acting, body language and storytelling exercises as part of their careers, and yet we expect scientists to naturally have these skills when they communicate to the public.

We also spent some time learning how to deal with media interviews. Scientists, especially those involved in high profile projects or receiving major awards, often find themselves thrust into the limelight without much training as to how to deal with it. Perhaps the best advice we got is prepare your message beforehand and remember the media is a great opportunity to communicate the passion we have as scientists to the public, but the media isn’t really interested in you unless you can make what you say entertaining and interesting.

It was during the master class that I realised quite why Famelab was different from all the talks I’d given in the past, both to the public and my scientific colleagues. It mostly comes from the three minute time limit. You simply can’t talk “off the cuff” and hope to have great content without going over time. In every other talk I’ve ever given, I would know the points I was going to talk about and just talk. For Famelab, I scripted each talk and delivered them word for word.

This concerned me greatly because how can you sound authentic and conversational when you’ve memorised a script? Malcolm’s expert advice was “all the best performers never make stuff up”. Even comedians, when they sound like they’ve just come up with a funny comment, they’ve probably worked on it for months. His advise when you have to write a talk, actually talk it out first. Find bits that sound good out loud and write them down. Keep talking it out until you’re happy with the content. That way, your memorised content will still sound authentic. I think it was the preparation I put into my final talk, more than anything else, which gave me the edge over my competition.

The final took place in front of an electric crowd of 960. They clapped, cheered, whistled and even gave a standing ovation for one participant who (with great zeal) spoke about saving the rhino. There were talks about the chemistry of the human body, how drugs target viruses, how plants defend themselves against bacteria, neural networks… I decided to talk about exoplanets.

I spent around two weeks working on the talk beforehand and, although I changed the delivery a great deal, the content did not change much from the master class. My fiancée, who has been an incredible support, helped me build the prop for this talk. I wanted to demonstrate how we detect exoplanets when we can’t see them. So we found a round, plastic lamp shade to serve as a star and a tennis ball (which we painted) to be our planet. The star and planet were connected by a stick and we used nylon fish gut, which is invisible on stage, to hang the mobile from (from the centre of mass) so that the planet could orbit the star. Because we wanted a real star, we put in 8 super bright LEDs with a switch to make it shine. Because the centre of mass was outside the star, you could see it wobble as the planet orbited. It also nicely demonstrated the eclipsing of the star, the other most popular method of exoplanet detection.

I didn’t realise how effective the prop would be until I got up on that stage. Because I was holding it at my side initially, there was a sense of anticipation as no-one knew what I would do with it. The moment I let it drop and start orbiting, a “ooh” whispered through the crowd. Those are the moments that make science communication worth it. When people get it, and become as excited about science as you are.

And I think that’s what Famelab is about. I feel like science communication should be a necessity, not just something we do if we have to. Not least because it’s the general public who pay for us to do science, but also because science makes people think. And with all the world’s problems, we could do with more critically thinking people. I hope that scientists see Famelab and think “hey! I could do that kind of thing!”. With just a little time and creativity, you can explain really complex concepts in a way that’s understandable and interesting. All it takes is to put yourself in the shoes of the audience and think “Is what I’m saying interesting and does it make sense?” I also feel like we should try communicating not just the cool, big concepts in our fields to the public but also our own work. Now I know I struggle to explain what I do to other cosmologists, never mind the general public but I feel like I should try because after all, if we don’t tell the rest of the world about our science, what’s the point?

So in June, I’ll be representing South Africa at the Famelab Final at the Cheltenham Science Festival. I’ll do my best to show the world just what South African scientists have to offer.

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