Don’t feed the scientists! Who knows what might happen…


This weekend was the 72nd World Science Fiction Convntion – Loncon3 – held at ExCeL in the London Docklands. It coincided with the visit by my friend and collaborator Katie Mack to work on a new paper looking at fast radio bursts as a probe of the gas between galaxies. My colleague Dave Clements leapt at the opportunity to rope Katie into a number of panels and talks at Loncon3. Seeing the time for actual scientific collaboration slipping away, we hit upon the idea of turning our collaboration into public outreach. Thus was born our Loncon3 live science installation – “Don’t feed the scientists”. We got to do research; conference goers got to see unvarnished science in action. Everyone won.

Our space was pieced together from two benches, a table, and the all important white board. Cordened off with hazard tape and a collection of warning signs, both for fun, to give a sense of what was going on, and to dissuade too many casual interruptions. There was science to do after all! All day Friday and most of Monday, Katie and I worked within our little corral. Occasionally other scientists stopped in to chat and passers asked what was going on and what we were working on. Mostly we got on with research, relatively undisturbed.

I had a blast putting these together the warning signs using Adobe Illustrator and base signs from Very easy and very satisfying. A couple of people asked for the pdfs of the signs. I’d share them, but there are copyright issues. Here are some examples though.


It seemed to be well received. There were never large crowds, but lots of people paused to read the signs and observe us for a while. Many of those stopped to take photos. And it really was research as is. For theoretical astrophysicists anyway, so no testubes or bunsen burners. Sadly, it got really cold! Lots of paper reading, writing code, pen and paper calculations, staring into space, discussing problems at the white board, debugging code, getting excited at small victories, and generating new results. Even some science dancing. Maybe not sexy or much of a spectacle, but totally genuine. Just in a drafty convention space rather than a comfortable university office. Lots of fun and solid research progress was made.

Does this count as science communication? We weren’t really communicating science ideas or the amazement of science, which is what outreach is normally about. Still, I think its good that people see the plodding side of science in events like this too and see science with the walls removed. Science, as I experience it, isn’t flash-bang-wow but usual quietly enjoyable with times of tedium and moments of total exhilaration. At Loncon3, if you blinked you might have missed the excitement, but hopefully caught the humanity.

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