Let’s face it, for the majority of the population the science lab is a place of myth and mystery. It either evokes memories of trying to surreptitiously melt rulers over the Bunsen burners at school, or brings to mind images of shiny laboratories filled with people in lab coats doing unspeakable things to animals.
In reality, the average biology lab in a university looks like a cross between an Edwardian dispensing pharmacy, and a computer repair shop. There isn’t usually enough funding to have the amazing shiny lab spaces found in the pharmaceutical industry, and any money that does come in tends to be spent on boring things like plastic tubes; so you’re left working in a lab that is slowly collapsing around you, buried amid old notebooks, cables for long-lost equipment, and out-of-date chemicals.
Sometimes I’m amazed at the quality of work that comes out of laboratories like these!
I’m sure you would be too if we spent any time or effort actually communicating what we do with the lovely public that funds our research; but we’re not very good at that. Research published in scientific journals is often difficult to understand even if you work in the same field, so no wonder the majority of the public bases their ideas of the average scientist on The Big Bang Theory (Just so you know, biologist are, on the whole, much less socially awkward than physicists, as we work on issues relating to animals and people. Really we’re rather nice and easy to get on with, and won’t often ask you to take part in our experiments.)
Recently, some scientists have started to buck the trend and are finding ways to communicate their findings in nice de-jargoned, public-friendly ways. One of the best of these is TED, whose 15 minute talks from experts on just about everything are an excellent way to train your mind for the next pub quiz. Check out one of my particular favourites on the evolution of beauty.
However, the elitist entry criteria of the TED conferences means that access to these great minds stays firmly behind closed doors. What we really need to do is to leave the labs and the conference centres and get out among the people who our research is supposed to be helping; and we need to be able to communicate our ideas and discoveries in ways that you don’t need to have a doctorate to understand. Working on this theme, it is my pleasure to announce the Pint of Science Festival, which is being organised by a colleague of mine.
Taking place over a few days in May, scientists at the tops of their fields will be giving talks on all sorts of interesting topics in pubs around London, Oxford and Cambridge. Take a look at their lovely website for more info http://www.pintofscience.com/
So, if you ever fancied sharing a pint with a Professor, now’s your chance.