In May of this year, two very well known guys from TV land came to Adelaide with the promise of a show like no other. There would be loud noises, big (paintball) guns, audience participation, juggling, and an exploded water-heater.
I’m talking about when the Mythbusters, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, brought their “Behind The Myth” show to town.
Now, these guys are not really research scientists, as I’m sure you’re all aware, but they do have a lot of applied physics knowledge, and plenty of experience in their field of special effects. And typically, it’s the explosions and the comical mayhem of their show that brings audiences to the TV and keeps them there for an episode. Of course, they weren’t allowed to blow up anything in the Entertainment Centre, and they weren’t allowed to do anything with firearms in their stage show, but what they did do, was talk about something I wasn’t necessarily expecting when I took my seat that evening. They talked about science, and why it’s cool.
They showed how a small boy could lift a grown man off the ground with levers (Thanks Archimedes!), how two phone books laced together could suspend Adam a good 5-6 metres off the stage through nothing more than friction, and how it doesn’t matter how strong you are, you are never going to win a prize by hitting a bell with a hammer at a side show. They explained the basic physics behind all of these things, and were genuinely excited about everything they shared with the audience.
But how much of this pro-science message was getting through to the audience? Were they interested in the concepts being explained, or were they really hoping for guns and explosions that are a regular feature of the TV show? Without surveying the pople who saw the show, it’s a difficult assessment to make. Were people with no science background as enthusiastic about the science behind the stunts as they were about the stunts themselves, and if not, were they then disappointed with the show?
This is a difficulty we as scientists will face throughout our careers, whatever path we take, and it goes to a much more personal level that the difficulty in explaining new findings to a general public who may barely have grasped the old findings. How do we convince our misguided friend that homeopathy is bunk1 while sparing their feelings? How do we get schoolkids to stay with science when the overall feeling is that it’s too hard and you don’t need it in real life? How do we tell Nan and Pop what we are working on at Christmas lunch without confusing and scaring them? How do we, as scientifically literate people, talk to people who are not? This brings me back to the Mythbusters.
There was a question I would have asked these two men, had there been any chance they would pick me out of the hundreds of other eager people who desperately wanted to know what they thought of each other and how old Jamie Hyneman really is. I would have asked them if they thought their show over the years had shifted more into the realm of science communication. If they felt that was their goal now, and if that was the direction they had purposely chosen. Because either way, that is what they seem to be doing, whether their viewers realise it or not.
There, in that audience, was an enormous variety of people from a myriad of backgrounds with potentially little to no scientific knowledge, and they all learned something that night. They may not want to drop everything and become a quantum physics expert, but the next time there’s a BBQ, you can be sure someone will be telling anyone who’ll listen that strongman sideshows are rigged.
And I don’t think the lesson is to try and make everything scientists say entertaining, or to blow something up whenever someone asks a question. There are several schools of thought as far as the way a scientist should speak to a non-scientist about science goes, but maybe we can take a leaf out of the Mythbusters’ book and take people along for the ride. Let them feel part of the process, share in the learning and wanting to know more, and most importantly show them that the things we do as scientists are done for them. For everyone. Except carnival sideshow operators.
So thanks for the show, Mythbusters. And for the giant paintball gun. That was cool.
Written by Sian La Vars
(The opinions is this piece are the author’s, and are not representative of any group or organisation)