As a fledgling science communicator, the British Science Festival was a chance to see the experts at work. Science communication is a tricky business. How do you convey to your audience concepts that took you years to grasp yourself? How much detail is too much detail? Most importantly, how do you create an engaging, understandable and entertaining event? There are, of course, no hard and fast rules here. Having said that, this is what I've taken away from the UK's largest public showcase of science communication:
1. It doesn't have to be "relevant". It just has to be fascinating.
Some science is obviously and directly relevant to our lives - for example the science of climate change or advances in medical research. Discussing that link is brilliant. The science of star formation is not directly relevant to, well, anyone. But it is fascinating (and comes with some very good pictures), and people still want to hear about it.
2. Science is full of stories.
People like stories, and science is full of them. The stories of scientistis developing and testing hypotheses. The bigger stories of many generations of scientists figuring out what we know as science today. The many false starts, the countless mistakes and the crucial breakthroughs. These stories aren't a cute human interest tangent to the science. These stories are the science.
3. Science is also full of data (i.e. pictures)
People also like pictures - pictures of the night sky, pictures of animals and pictures of atoms. These pictures are examples of the raw materials of science - the observations and data we use to create scientific theories. In fact, I'd be rather suspicious of a science talk that wasn't mainly pictures.
4. Build suspense
This goes along with using stories - good stories have suspense. This might be the big reveal of the results of a crucial experiment. Or the talk might pivot around an unexpected discovery. Not only does this engage the audience, it also mimics the experience of discovery and the scientific method.
5. Discuss what we don't know
Science is about what we don't know as much as it is about what we do know. The open questions can be as inspiring as the accepted theories, however beautiful. Discuss the questions that are yet to be answered, the problems with the current theory and what we are doing or planning to address these. After all, that's the exciting bit.
The common theme here is that science is not just a set of facts - it's a process. It's making observations, creating theories and building experiments to test these. In the best talks I saw, whether they were about primates or particles, the process of science took centre stage.