Event reflection – ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’

As science communicators, when we write about scientific discoveries for public consumption, we often search for the ‘so what?’ in the story – what are the implications for human kind and how will this discovery improve our lives for the better? But for discoveries in pure mathematics, there is often no application at all. Or at least an application may not be known right away.

This month, ASC Victoria continued its series of science movie nights in Melbourne with the screening of ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’ – a bio pic based on the short but incredible life of self-educated genius mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887- 1920).  It’s a story that explores the art and divinity of pure mathematics, as well as Ramanujan’s own struggle against British superiority and the rules of ‘empiricism’ or having to prove his mathematical theorems.

Dr Kevin Ormann-Rossiter – physicist, science historian and writer – primed us before the screening, giving some insights into Ramanujan’s world.  Ramanujan, he explained, was revolutionary not only for his mathematical discoveries but because he led the way for Indian academics to travel to England for study and to gain recognition on the world-stage. Much of what’s  known about Ramanujan’s journey from clerk in Madras to fellow of both Trinity College, Cambridge and The Royal Society, is through the accounts of Cambridge Mathematician GH Hardy – the man who brought Ramanujan to Cambridge, helped publish his work, and formed with him a kind of  ‘odd couple’ partnership.  Spoiler alert though:  Ramanujan’s life was cut unfortunately short when he succumbed to illness at only 32.

As someone who’s never been gifted in mathematics, I’m fascinated and awed by people with mathematical minds. The first time I ever heard about Ramanujan was actually via The Simpsons. At Simon Singh’s public lecture in Melbourne a few years ago ‘The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets’, Singh talked about the number 1729 and why it is slipped into the odd Simpsons episode by the show’s writers. It’s called the Hardy–Ramanujan number and the story behind it gives a small but compelling insight into the brilliance of Ramanujan’s mind. Hardy one recounted a visit to Ramanujan in a nursing home:

‘I remember once going to see him when he was lying ill at Putney. I had ridden in taxi cab number 1729 and remarked that the number seemed to me rather a dull one and that I hoped it was not an unfavourable omen. ‘No,’ he replied. ‘It is a very interesting number. It is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.’

It’s a key scene featured in the film that fans will likely anticipate.

For mathematicians and math fans such as those behind the Simpsons, using the number 1729 is a silent homage to Ramanujan and a symbol of love for his work. But for the rest of us, The Man Who Knew Infinity offers an accessible inroad through which we can gain a greater appreciation for the beauty of pure mathematics and the freakishly talented humans who are able to play with it.

By Victorian Committee Member – Laura Boland

Book Review: Houston, We Have a Narrative by Randy Olson

Houston, we have a problem.” This line from Ron Howard’s fiction film about the Apollo 13 space accident needs no introduction. In reality, however, astronaut Jim Lovell made a slightly different report to NASA Mission Control on April 13, 1970: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

So did Hollywood get it wrong? The line in the film is not a verbatim copy of the historical record, but the film version is punchier and more immediate. It’s also the version everyone seems to remember. From the communication perspective, Hollywood got it very right.

Hollywood’s insight into science communication is the subject of Randy Olson’s latest book, Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story. We’ve all been encouraged to tell better stories, but it can be hard to know where to start. Olson might just be the storytelling guide that you’ve been looking for.

Narrative structure is at the core of Olson’s approach to science communication. Many narratives conform to a structure where there is an initial state and things are proceeding as normal, but then there is a problem. Therefore, the protagonist must find a solution. In other words, Houston, only when you have a problem do you have a narrative.

Olson distils this familiar narrative structure into an indispensable three word template: And, But, and Therefore (ABT). The strategy of increasing narrativity by replacing “ands” with “buts” and “therefores” is not Olson’s invention—Olson traces the principle from South Park co-creator Trey Parker back to screenwriting instructor Frank Daniel—but Olson gives the idea new life by reformulating it as an elegant communication tool.

Houston is filled with examples of how the ABT structure and other forms of screenwriting wisdom can be used to enhance your science communication. What’s more, Olson isn’t just talking about communication with the public. Professional communication between scientists is the focus of this book. Not even journal abstracts escape the scrutiny of Olson’s storytelling microscope.

Houston re-treads much of the same territory as Olson’s previous books, Don’t be Such a Scientist and Connection. Indeed, many of the strengths and limitations of Olson’s previous work are also on display here. What distinguishes Houston from Olson’s earlier writing is its explicit focus on science communication. Olson takes care to anticipate and rebut the criticisms that some scientists raise about his approach. In case you’re wondering, using narrative structure doesn’t mean “dumbing down” or misrepresenting your science.

Olson has never been one to pull his punches. Consistent with his previous work, Olson writes in a conversational and irreverent style. The problem is that some of his remarks about academia are so scathing that Olson risks alienating a large part of his target audience.

Olson’s enthusiasm for narrative may also go too far for some readers. Despite stating that narrative is not a panacea, Olson argues that achieving an intuitive understanding of narrative is “the only long term hope for combatting the problems facing scientific research and science communication.” At times, Olson seems to conflate good communication and good narrative structure. Other aspects of communication, such as an awareness of audience, receive limited attention in this book.

Fortunately you don’t need to share Olson’s singular focus on narrative structure to enjoy Houston or benefit from Olson’s storytelling insights. Narrative might not be a panacea, but Olson’s storytelling templates deserve a place in every science communicator’s toolkit.

Event review: The Laborastory

Thanks to George Aranda for the event review!

“I had the good fortune of being part of a special edition of “The Laborastory” for National Science Week. The organisers of this local monthly staple of science storytelling stepped up and convened the event at St Michael’s Uniting Church in Melbourne’s CBD. Some 600 people turned up on the wintery evening to listen to science communicators such as myself, Chris Lassig, Katie Mack, Clare Hampson, and Teresa MacDonald. We talked about some of our favourite scientists in front of the church’s massive pipe organ, with projection artwork and a science choir (The Gaussian Ensemble). Great to be part of such a creative night of science communication, which was recorded, and the audio can be found at http://thelaborastory.com and video on Youtube.”

The Laborastroy, at St Michael’s Uniting Church in Melbourne’s CBD.

The Laborastroy, at St Michael’s Uniting Church in Melbourne’s CBD.

Some 600 people attended the event.

Some 600 people attended the event.


The lab rat amongst the journalists

A month ago, I suddenly realised that I did not have an online presence as a scientist! Shortly after this revelation hit me, the microscopist was born on a variety of social platforms. Through social media I hoped to create a visual online portfolio, which not only showcased my abilities as a microscopist but also provided a medium for other scientists to share their work with the public.

To my delight, shortly after beginning my adventure online I was selected to attend the Walkley Freelance Focus Conference 2015. Personally, I felt that the sessions entitled ‘twitter for journalists’ and ‘your brand online’ held the most promise for providing guidance to my latest adventure. However, it was three points raised by the key note speaker Noah Rosenberg (founder/editor/CEO of Narratively) which resonated the strongest with me.

Noah takes a holistic approach to writing an article. It may seem obvious, but he strongly encourages you to start with a plan before scripting your next article. First you must consider your intent. Ask yourself, who is your audience? How will they access your material? Will it be via computer, tablet or phone? Furthermore, how will your audience experience your content? Will your article be accompanied by visual or audio aids? Finally and perhaps the most important question, how will your content reach your audience? The web is big! On the web it is far easier to produce content than to circulate it.

Where traditionally a journalist may have been able to rest easy after the publication of their work in printed media, Noah stated that in the online world this is not true. Narratively is active in promoting content published on their site; however it is also part of the company’s ethos to encourage authors to promote their own content. In a very frank manner, Noah expressed that as journalists publishing content online we should not feel ashamed to share our content with our friends and to enlist them to share with their friends.

Noah is serious about data and he thinks you should be too! Narratively monitors the flow of traffic on their website in order to understand from where and how readers are being directed to their website. Statistical analysis of this information provides insights into which promotional strategies are working and how the organisation could become more efficient.

Through following Noah’s advice, I have been able to grow my Facebook audience whilst writing this article. This morning only 117 people had liked my page. I am pleased to report that after a little self-promotion I have been able to gain an additional 75 likes, which equates to an ~64% increase in my audience.

Event Review: inaugural Australian Citizen Science Conference

Thanks to Vicki Martin for the event review.


Review of the inaugural Australian Citizen Science Conference

Canberra, 23-25 July 2015


The chilly winter Canberra morning couldn’t slow down the enthusiasm of attendees at the inaugural Australian Citizen Science Conference on 23rd July this year. Seats were as rare as hens teeth at this over-subscribed event, with more than 200 attendees registered from all over Australia and far flung corners of the globe.

After a warm welcome to country from Aunty Agnes Shea, elder of the Ngunnawal people, welcoming remarks were made by Professor Suzanne Miller (Queensland Museum), and Simon France (Inspiring Australia). Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb opened up the conference with a rousing pep talk about the importance of engaging the public in citizen science. The event coincided with the release of an Occasional Paper, Building Australia through Citizen Science, by the Office of the Chief Scientist. The paper can be accessed through bit.ly/CitizenSciencePaper.

We were very fortunate to have two passionate speakers from Cornell University in the USA. Keynote speaker and singing ornithologist, Rick Bonney, shared his vast experience in the world of citizen science and public engagement in research. His singing was pretty good, too! (On the second day he sang us out to lunch – how many keynotes do that?)

The first of a series of speed talks and workshop sessions followed Rick’s keynote address, led by his colleague, Jennifer Shirk. Jennifer is well known for her contributions to the theory of public participation in scientific research (PPSR). Throughout the two days, the speed talks opened our eyes to the incredible array and diversity of citizen science projects across the planet and in our own backyard. The conference organisers allowed plenty of time for poster and networking sessions, during which the Shine Dome buzzed with conversation and connections, information and good food. Day two saw more speed talks and a panel discussion on the many forms of citizen science. The full program and book of abstracts are available for download at bit.ly/ACSA2015.

An additional day was added to the conference for groups wanting to discuss specific issues in citizen science, including Bio Blitzes, the usability of technology, and citizen science and its influence on policy. These sessions were great for attendees to cement the lessons learned from practitioners in these areas, and allowed for more focussed discussion on these topics.

The feedback from people was overwhelmingly positive. Not only did attendees learn a lot, and have a lot of fun, it gave many a strong sense of community which will only help to strengthen the practice of citizen science in Australia. With the newly formed management committee, chaired by Philip Roetman, the potential for citizen science to build stronger partnerships between Australian scientists and the community looks very promising indeed. I’m looking forward to the next conference already.

Event Review: A quiet Wednesday dinner

Thank you to Amy Nisselle for her reflections on the dinner.

On Tuesday 22nd July I had the pleasure of attending a dinner hosted by ASC Vic Branch President George Aranda for visiting science communicator, Núria Elías at Artusi, Southbank. Núria was in Melbourne for the ASC’s Science Storytelling Workshop and we had a great time swapping stories about our areas of study, research and practice, plus the best places to spot Australian fauna (who knew there was a world-famous koala colony on the Great Ocean Road?!).

Núria told us about the NeuroEnhancement Responsible Research and Innovation (NERRI) program she coordinates for the Science, Communication and Society Studies Centre (SCS-UPF) at Universitate Pompeu Fabra (UPF), in her native Barcelona. I had no idea of the variety of neuroenhancements available, from pharmacological to physical to magnetic and electric, having relied solely on caffeine when writing my thesis. The NERRI program is asking Europeans their opinion about neuroenhancements – would they use them? If so, what type, under what circumstances? Our party was split. Some fervently said they’d never use anything, while others thought if they were going to use something then they’d trust magnetic stimulation in a medical setting over tablets, which is currently an unregulated industry.

Throughout the conversation we feasted on Artusi’s delicious fare, tasting each others risotto, pappardelle and tagliatelle and splitting decadent desserts. On a personal note, I was really excited to introduce my younger cousin to the ASC. Benny was in the first cohort of students at Melbourne’s John Monash Science School and is now studying Law/Commerce at uni. He said afterwards it was incredible to have dinner with such informed people and he was in awe most of the time. It was a nice reminder of something I take for granted these days – being surrounded by such learned, experienced and inspiring folks in the ASC.


Event Review: Science Storytelling Workshop

Thank you to George Aranda for the event review.

On the 16th of July ASC Victoria was delighted to host NZ Science Communicator – Elizabeth Connor, Captain of The KinShip (http://www.thekinship.co.nz), a science communication organisation that “connects science with the human side of the equation.”

Elizabeth ran a Science Storytelling Workshop with about 20 guests who included science PhDs, scientists, science communicators and educators. She took us through her story of science communication, including some great original drawings that made the story all the more enjoyable. After a break for dinner which was provided by the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre, we broke into groups examining the ways that we could elicit stories from the scientists in the group. This included using metaphors to embody those things that help and hinder scientists as they do their work; ideas for questions; the different types of ‘why’ that one can ask; and creating a positive environment for interviews. She showed videos of presenters at the start of a series of workshops and their presenting afterwards, where they had found the story in the science and could more easily communicate to the public. Overall it was a great night with lots of learning opportunities.

Some feedback about what people enjoyed:
  • Really enjoyed the group answers to questions posed in the workshop. Hearing from a number of people made the various points easier to learn
  • The “why” session.
  • Great presenter! Very likeable, interesting presentation and great knowledge/experience
  • Fun, great drawings. Loo conveyed a lot of information through her own stories. Personality really came through

Event review: The science nation

Australia’s newest public events series, The Science Nation, kicked off in May by touring the event The Storytelling of Science, which was run as a one-off event at the 2014 ASC conference, through Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney. All three events were a big success with strong attendance, and much fun being had by both the audience and speakers.

The Science Nation series’ first event – The Storytelling of Science included the best in the nation telling their own story of science, and the stories behind the latest discoveries. From the origin of the universe to the exciting technologies that will change our future, the event was one story you definitely needed to hear.

The Science Nation is celebrating National Science Week by answering the question that has plagued mankind for centuries: which field of research is the weirdest of all? To find out coming along to The Science Nation’s second event, The Great Debate: My Research Rules, which sees eight researchers compete in a debate tournament each trying to convince the audience that they do the weirdest, wackiest, craziest research in the world. With additional rounds of improvised, audience-inspired, topics this Great Debate is 90 minutes of science & laughs that promises to be fun for people of all ages. The Great Debate: My Research Rules is being held during August in Brisbane (15th), Sydney (22nd) and Adelaide (26th).

These events grew out of a triple anniversary event held at ASC2014. The broadcast video of the event is available here.

Mt Burnett Observatory Visit

Thank you to Kathleen Hayes for sharing her experience.

Recently I was fortunate enough to be able to visit Mt Burnett observatory, located conveniently close to Melbourne, and learn about astronomy through hands on experience!
The  big 18 inch telescope, originally built for the Monash University physics department in 1972 was unfortunately out of action but we were able to go inside it and look around. There are plans to turn the observatory into a planetarium very soon, so even on cloudy nights visitors will still get to experience the stars.

After the tour we got to use the portable dobsonian telescopes set up outside. Some of the highlights were Mars, a beautiful cluster of stars aptly called ‘the jewel box’ and my favourite sight, Saturn! It was amazing to look through the telescopes and see the wonders of space, with my feet still on Earth.
This is a community run project and all the organizers were enthusiastic, friendly and very knowledgeable. Astronomy is rather a unreachable science topic for many, so it’s great to have a place where people can get involved with some hands on science without the hefty price tag. For those interested in attending the kids night is on every secondary Saturday and adult members meet weekly on Fridays.

Membership is $50 for an adult. Partners and children over 12 of full members join for $25 and children under 12 belonging to full members are free.

Book review: Connection – Hollywood storytelling meets critical thinking

Thank you to Jarrod Green for this book review.

Scientists are sometimes criticised for being poor storytellers AND there are calls for more storytelling in science communication, BUT concrete advice about how to actually tell a good story can be hard to find. THEREFORE, Randy Olson, Dorie Barton and Brian Palermo’s Connection is an invaluable read for any science communicator who wants to sharpen their “story sense.”

A focus on storytelling might be off-putting to some. However, this is not a book about creative writing, nor is it trying to transform you into the next Kubrick or the next Dickens. Connection is about using the basic principles of story structure to communicate simply and effectively. As Palermo states, it’s about rendering your “splendid esoteric obscurity” into something engaging for a broad audience.

One of Connection’s key messages is simplicity and it’s hard not to admire the elegance of the ideas on offer here. Connection provides simple and memorable templates for communicating your story in a Word, a Sentence or a Paragraph (the WSP model). Olson’s ABT (And, But and Therefore) template is a particularly noteworthy element of the model. Adapted from the wisdom of South Park co-creator Trey Parker, the ABT template is an indispensable formula for a punchy elevator pitch.

Connection is based on a three-part communication workshop developed by Olson, Barton and Palermo. True to the experience of a workshop, all three authors write in a conversational and accessible style, making Connection an effortless read that doesn’t simply espouse good communication principles but also enacts them.

In the book’s first chapter, Olson provides an overview of the WSP model, which he frequently (and fittingly) conveys through anecdotes and examples. Some utilitarian readers may find the abundance of anecdotes unnecessary, but to feel this way may also be missing the point of a book where story is the foundation of both form and content.

In Connection’s second chapter, Barton applies Joseph Campbell’s concept of the “hero’s journey” to craft stories at the length of a paragraph (or longer). While Barton is not the first to draw upon Campbell’s work, her clear and accessible template for applying the hero’s journey represents a valuable contribution.

Rounding out the trio, Palermo’s chapter discusses the importance of improvisation for communicating on a relatable and emotional level.  Of the three authors, Palermo possibly has the hardest task in translating an improvisation workshop into a book chapter. Nonetheless, Palermo’s section still succeeds as an entertaining demystification of “improv.”Palermo’s insights into listening and openness make improvisation relevant to everyone, not just the theatrically inclined.

There are times where Connection is at risk of overstating (or at least oversimplifying) the case for storytelling. For instance, Olson refers to a functional MRI study as evidence of story’s unique power to communicate. While it may be possible to quibble with such examples, it is really not the point of Connection. If you accept the basic proposition that storytelling is a powerful form of communication, Connection provides you with the tools to make it happen. If you are hoping for a detailed and nuanced account of the science of story, it is probably best to look elsewhere (Olson rightly points to Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal as a good place to start).

Similarly, Connection’s fixation on Hollywood as the epitome of storytelling may rankle some readers, but the intent is not to elevate Hollywood above other traditions of filmmaking or storytelling. As Olson and his co-authors state, it’s more about tapping a source of storytelling expertise. If you want to learn how to craft a compelling story you could do worse than consult an industry whose livelihood depends on spinning a good yarn.

If you have read Olson’s previous book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist, you will find some familiar ideas in Connection. However, for the most part, Connection breaks into new territory and is a more focussed and practical book. If you only have time to read one of Olson’s offerings, make it Connection.

Everything about Connection comes in threes. Connection has three authors and three main chapters. It is centrally concerned with three-act story structures and its main ideas are expressed as three letter acronyms (WSP and ABT). So in that spirit, I would like to offer three words of recommendation. If you need a basic toolkit for communicating through story: Read. This. Book.

*Don’t have time read the book? Try Olson’s TEDMED presentation.