Monday, August 21, 2006


We've just had Science Week here in Sydney and the weekend was packed with fun and exciting stuff to do at the Ultimo Science Festival. The Dude and I, along with his friend Titania and her brother Boris and parents, headed down to some of the displays, events and talks. Who knew that you could turn an ordinary drinking straw into a maddeningly annoying noisemaker with just a pair of scissors? Thanks to the Young Scientists Australia, NOW we know....
Yesterday the Dude and I went to listen to a lecture by Brian Cox -- former new wave pretty boy musician and current plotter of the paths of electrons -- about what the universe is made of. Maybe it was partly the adorable Mancunian accent and the floppy Beatles-style fringe, but this guy really lived up to his claim of being a science communicator. The Dude, who had threatened to fall asleep as he did in the front row of the Darwin Day lecture, stayed awake for the whole thing. I copied down a really cool little table that explains all about quarks and leptons and bosons (such as the relationship between up quarks and charm quarks, for example, which I have never been able to understand before).
But I am not going to give you a precis of the whole lecture here. What I wanted to blog about was the weirdos. We sat through an hour-long talk, with lots of pictures and graphics and even quotes about poetry, and heaps of stuff about the subatomic structure universe made sense even to a layperson like me (and the Dude). But when question time came around, the first person to stand up said, "Everything you have just said is wrong because..." [produces a small bottle] "... I have gravity right here in a jar." Or something like that. (I swear the bottle bit is true, I just don't remember his exact words.) Much rolling of eyes around the audience ensued, but super-smooth Dr Cox just smiled and said, "I promise to talk to you later, but now we'll move on to a question that will interest everyone in the room." How I could have hugged him! (Mmmmmm....)
Second question comes from the other side of the lecture theatre, from a bespectacled middle-aged man in suit who claims to be a physicist: "How can you do experiments on quarks and stuff if you can't see them?" I would have said, "Well, der, weren't you listening for the last half hour?" but super-patient Dr Cox took the trouble to explain AGAIN how his experiments work. Then he cracked a joke at the suit guy's expense, in the nicest possible way, so that even the suit guy had to laugh when Dr Cox asked what branch of physics he was in, "because those kind of questions usually come from people who are after my grant money."
After that, a few sensible questions were asked and answered. But it made me realise that science communicators must get to see more than their fair share of weirdos. My admiration for those who do it (Bad Astronomer, Pharyngula, etc, please take a bow) has just doubled.

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