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I’m a Scientist 2013

I'm a Scientist 2013

So, we approach the end of week one of IAS2013 and the organisers seem to have given me the evening off for a change by not passing on any questions from the schools. That gives me the chance to draw breath and blog about the experience.

Myself, Susan, Rachel, Lou and Dilwar are the denizens of the Iodine Zone. This is the odds and sods zone of IAS and students post questions on just about anything vaguely scientific for us to answer. I would estimate I have spent two hours a day this week fielding questions on nutrition, space, microbiology, careers in science, reproduction, environment and more philosophical matters, such as ‘is there life after death’. When I started handling these I thought I would make a lot of use of Wikipedia and Google to look up things I didn’t know. Yes, I did cheat on ‘Who invented the LED light bulb?’ but actually I have relied far more on my own knowledge. Some of what I may have written may be a bit off in places, but I have tried to give honest responses to the questions and explain things as I understand them.

The questions posed offline give us the chance to put some thought into the answers, so when a student asks us ‘How long does it take for a baby to be born?’ there is the opportunity to impart some knowledge and time to frame the words in an easily understandable way. A lot of questions are posed to all five scientists and we have sometimes disagreed and some good discussions have developed, occasionally involving the students. For example, I am a backyard amateur astronomer and love to answer the astro questions from my perspective. Susan is a proper astronomer though and so her answers are more detailed and put right some of the errors I make.

Alongside the offline chats we do live chats. These are text based chat rooms rather than a Skype type activity. All the ones I have done (3 in one day today) have involved multiple scientists. We have a scheduled time slot with the schools and the students log on to ask us questions in real time. Things get incredibly chaotic with questions constantly being thrown at us. The challenge is to manage handling dozens every minute. There is no time to think, no time to see if any of the other scientists are answering it- you just pick a question and answer immediately. It flies by and it is hard to remember even what we discuss. I think that we were asked to day (in the midst of lots of chat about cake) about what happens to the body when we die?; how do you make a nuke?; why do we call science volunteers guinea pigs?; why when so much money is being paid for it, have we not found a cure for cancer?; what is gravity?; if you fart in space would it propel you?; if you pee in space would the pee freeze? The kids today were lovely, so polite and appreciative and it was a pleasure to talk to them.

However the questions are posed, the thing that I have really loved is seeing how the students minds work. They ask amazing things that speak of a profound, uninhibited imagination. Modern kids get such a bad press- they are lazy, internet obsessed slobs with no ability to think- but the ones we have been talking to are bright, vividly curious and not afraid of expressing themselves. Their spelling leaves a bit to be desired sometimes, but let’s not be judgemental. We did one chat today where four scientists were present, but only one student logged on. She was great and although she was on her own, and obviously a bit shell-shocked to begin with, she kept us peppered with questions for half an hour. Clearly she was just asking the first things that came into her head, but the things in her head were brilliant.

I am thoroughly enjoying the event and am glad that I signed up for it. I would recommend it to all of my colleagues and have already spoken to a few people who might take the plunge and put in an application. The University and funding agencies really want us to take part in outreach events. Certainly this is the most rewarding and the most exhausting outreach activity that I have been involved with. And there is still a week to go…

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