In the new government science strategy 2.5% of the GNP by 2020 will be invested into research. Also the government will consider Ireland becoming a member of CERN and ESO. This plan is a big step forward for Irish science. But with the European average of investment into science research is 3% and many European countries have been members of CERN and ESO for many years, Ireland still has a long way to go. Government’s input into scientific research needs to increase. The exclusive focus on funding research into projects with applications needs to end, with money also spent on pure scientific research without a specific application in mind. One of the key components in achieving this is increasing the public awareness about science.
Dublin – City of Physics
In an attempt to bring science to the public, in 2013 Dr Shane Bergin from Trinity’s School of Physics ran an initiative called Dart of Physics. This involved physics students from Trinity sparking conversations about physics on the DART and at Pearse Station. Posters with interesting questions and facts such as “I am attracted to you… gravitationally” were also put up in the trains, buses and across the city. This year Dr Bergin joined forces with Dr Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain from UCD school of mathematics and statistics and founded City of Physics. Here is my interview with Dr Bergin about his science communication work and the importance of scientific outreach today.
Interview with Dr Shane Bergin
I heard that the DART of Physics was a roaring success. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Thanks! I think it was too. City of Physics aimed to spark a city-wide conversation about physics in Dublin. We did this by placing the beauty of physics right across the city – from murals above the Arts Building entrance, to projections of the Sun on Dame Street, to adverts on the DART, Dublin Bus and on the streets themselves. We worked with artists and designers to bring physics to people in a way that was visually appealing.
Tell us a bit about the background of City of Physics
I joined forces with Dr Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain to imagine ways that might connect physics with places around the city of Dublin. We had a great team of web designers, illustrators, graphic designers, event managers, a blog editor and a podcast editor. Working like maniacs for 6 months, we crafted a campaign that would reach the entire city.
One of our secret ingredients was to involve students. They were such a catalyst for many of the conversations that Dubliners had about physics. Decked head-to-toe in physics t-shirts, jackets and badges students from science, physics, engineering and a few of the arts took to the streets and spoke to Dubliners about City of Physics, their College, and their discipline. Dubliners responded well. We surveyed a few hundred random people and asked them if they had seen our campaign. 35% of those asked said they had. Incredible!
What was your vision for City of Physics? Why is scientific outreach so important?
As I wrote in the City of Physics Blog online, science and scientists that do not connect with the culture they are part of miss the point of what science is about. Is there anyone in Ireland who doesn’t have an opinion on their GAA county team, the government, or Bono’s continuing contributions to save the world? Probably not. Whether they make you defensive or search for your passport, issues like this are part of our cultural make-up. We own them. And they matter to us. Culture mediates how a society evolves. To be outside it is to act in opposition to it.
Is Science outside it? I think it is. It has not always been this way however. The world’s first one-way street was Abermarle Street in London, home to the Royal Institution – such were the crowds of people who came to witness Faraday’s electricity. People talked about science. Things today are different. Whether it’s due to the seemingly impenetrable array of facts and disciplines associated with science or public suspicion of its motives following wars enabled by it, science has been pushed to the edge of our cultural identity. This bothers me.
Science must broaden its access to generate the conversations and debate that are needed for us to ‘own it’ again. We must do more to give citizens access to the scientific process. This would be quite a change from promoting science as just a body of completed facts. Seeing and talking about how it works may allow scientific habits of mind to seep into our cultural makeup. The vast majority of scientists will tell you global warming is real and we are causing it. A small minority disagree. Thinking about the process they use to come to such conclusions is, perhaps, far more empowering for citizens who don’t know who to believe.
If Seamus Heaney gave us the language that reflects many aspects of who we are, or Christy Moore songs’ a sense of shared euphoria for sporting triumphs, then science – as part our cultural identity – can instil and enable our collective wonder as to where we might be tomorrow. This thinking lies at the heart of what City of Physics is about – weaving physics into the city such that people talk about it and it becomes part of who we are. City of Physics was about taking the science outside of the laboratory and into the city.
City of Physics would not have been possible if it wasn’t for the student volunteers. What feedback did you get from students? Why do you think students get involved in such initiatives? What do they get out of getting involved?
Involving undergraduates is one of my core principles for science communication (note, I didn’t use the term ‘outreach’ which implies an ‘I know, you don’t approach’). I had about 50 students take part in City of Physics. That involvement ranged from writing blogs, making podcasts, or speaking to Dubliners about the campaign. They seem to have really enjoyed it. Every second student I see around my school is wearing a City of Physics badge!
Opinions on City of Physics
City of Physics was a unique campaign and I have asked students and academics and the provost of Trinity College about their opinion about it.
Dr Bergin’s main collaborator was Dr Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain and this is what she said about City of Physics: “City of Physics is the first science outreach project of its kind to put science in unexpected public spaces. We wanted to prompt Dubliners to think about physics in the world around them and especially to pique the curiosity of those who do not ordinarily see themselves as interested in science. It was wonderful to work on this collaborative project between Trinity College Dublin and UCD and to bring together physicists, artists, students, and members of the public in this initiative sponsored by SFI Discover.”
The provost of Trinity College, Dr Patrick Prendergast, remarked that: “Initiatives such as the City of Physics which bring together science, art, and the city are important in raising public awareness about science and sparking conversations in the community. It is clear to see that the offerings of such an event are widespread. The varied selection of events ranging from installation pieces, lectures, campaigns and workshops have a mass appeal and offer many outlets of engagement for individuals of all ages. I hope to see more events of this nature in the future which bring Physics and all sciences to life in our everyday thoughts and conversations.”
As Dr Bergin mentioned in the interview, students were the secret ingredient of the whole initiative and without them this project would not have been possible. I asked some of the students involved about their experience with City of Physics.
Pearse Murphy, a Trinity student who was involved in the solar projection on George Street, said: “I found it to be very interesting seeing how reluctant people actually are to stopping on the street to chat, but once you eventually got talking to someone they were very impressed with the projection itself and the campaign in general. As for what I learned, mostly it’d have to be that there’s a whole lot of physics I don’t know”.
Megan Weston, a second year Trinity student studying maths, chemistry and physics, explained that she volunteered for City of Physics because she loves talking about scientific ideas to people who would usually not come across them. As science is so involved in our everyday lives, she had long felt that everyone should be given the chance to learn about it.
Writing a blog for City of Physics, Weston relished the opportunity to do something that she never thought she would get the chance to do. In her blog she talked about why physics is important to her. She also helped out at the Solar Projection on Dame Street talking to passersby about physics. Although nervous at first, she soon found “every bit of information about the sun, light, astronomy that I find interesting just started flowing out of me and I couldn’t be stopped talking!”
Weston observed,“ I was surprised about how many people stopped to talk and were genuinely curious about physics. One couple in particular walked by me but then came back when they realised I was not just some crazed lunatic pointing at the sky! I ended up talking to them for about 15 minutes and they were so enthralled by the concepts that we take for granted while studying science. After I went into the vastness of our universe and we chatted about the possibility of aliens they had to leave but assured me that they couldn’t wait to tell everyone around the dinner table what they had learned when they went home and they had enjoyed talking so much they said they would love to take me on their journey home and let me continue to jabber on about space. When they left I felt like I had actually taught someone something and it was a great feeling. The whole experience reenergized my love of physics and has made me consider pursuing a job in science outreach or teaching in the future”.
Alison Hennessy, a third year of nanoscience, physics & chemistry of advanced materials at Trinity, explained: “I got involved with the City of Physics after seeing the amazing success of Dart of physics. I volunteered at the solar projection on Dame Street. Here a short time lapse video of images of the sun was projected onto the wall of a building. As a student volunteer, I spoke to members of the public about what was going on in the video. It was great to try and get people thinking about the physics around them. Hopefully igniting a bit of curiosity inside them. I spoke about the projection and the whole project in general. It was also just really enjoyable, engaging with people and showing them that physics is in every aspect of life, and it can be both beautiful and really cool”.
City of Physics has been a wonderful project that will hopefully continue in the future. It is not only an opportunity for the public to learn more about physics, but it is also a great chance for students to strengthen their knowledge and develop their communication skills. Perhaps in the next few years this initiative will spread to other universities around the country and may expand into other scientific disciplines beyond physics.