For the second year we made the pilgramage down to Atlanta for DragonCon, the East coast’s largest SciFi, fantasy, gaming, and pop culture convention. In addition to the fictional aspects of the con, and the general craziness of a huge costume party, the con also has a skeptic track and a track for science and space. There was also a separate star party that we went to prior to the con. All of these provided me with a first hand example of “being such a scientist” — and the opposite.
I wrote about the issues that engineers have in communicating their message here, but it was really brought to a realization during one presentation in the Space track. The title of the session was Tug of War and it was a look at the issues between engineers and scientists at NASA, particularly on the Cassini probe mission. I want to say, first off, that the presentation was not bad, and the NASA engineer and scientist were able to throw a little humor into the mix, but despite this there was a whole lot of room for improvement.
For one thing, there wasn’t too much involvement of the audience. Granted, they were all nerds of the first order and probably didn’t notice the deficit, but it was a small room without a dais and most of us could not even see the presenters. Just standing up would have helped engage the audience. Second, instead of talking about the generalities of the scientist/engineer struggle, they jumped right into what they knew, the Cassini program, complete with NASA acronyms and jargon. This was probably fine for some of the audience, but others were lost and subsequently lost interest. Going into this kind of detail also, naturally, prompts in-the-weeds questions from some of the audience which further bogs down the presentation. This would have been fine if the presentation was titled, Cassini Program Science and Engineering. But it was supposed to be a look at the roles of the scientist and the engineer in general, and it didn’t really do that.
And finally, it didn’t do what I really think these presentations must do, especially at a venue like DragonCon, and that is to inspire. It was interesting, and good for space enthusiasts, but I’m not sure it inspired anybody in the audience to pursue a career in space science or engineering.
On the other hand, the presentations given at the star party, a comic book release party, and at a live podcast — all by Dr. Pamela Gay — were geared to a similar nerd audience, but managed to be both educational and inspiring.
Okay, I know it isn’t fair to compare people like this. Some people have the talent and some don’t. And it says nothing about their respective professional chops. But I think if you are presenting science or engineering to the public you must pull back a little on the details and, unfortunately for those of us who don’t have the talent, turn up the rhetoric.
This is what Dr. Gay did and it was inspiring. I doubt the audience left any of those presentations without taking with them some of her passion for the cosmos. She presents well, immediately engages with the audience, presents complicated concepts in memorable analogies, and isn’t afraid to show her passion, or her nerd flag.
This is what we need in science and engineering. Both to inspire the young to enter these fields and to communicate science and engineering to the lay public in such a way that is unthreatening and digestible. And entertaining. There is a lot of competition out there for the interest of the public and I think when we aren’t talking to our colleagues we have to rein in on the jargonized nerd talk and instead try to tell an interesting, entertaining story. And if we can be inspiring too, well, so much the better.