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The science of slam

Scientists solve problems - but communicating science is a problem they’ve grappled with for years without finding an effective solution. Could the Science Slam be a Eureka moment for science communication?

In Vienna's 17th Century Hall of Sciences a crowd of more than 600 people has gathered for the 2015 European Science Slam. Eight scientists from eight different European countries will each spend eight minutes on stage explaining their specialist area of science to the audience. The audience is the judge and jury and on this night they will have to choose between astrophysics, analytical biochemistry, neural engineering, bioprocess engineering, neural science and computational social science.

"My research is on the sound of stars and I will use the cello to explain how sound works and how there are many parallels between the instrument that we play and the instrument that is a star," says Katrien Kohlenberg from the University of Leuven in Belgium.

Kohlenberg's task is to slam out some secrets of the universe and impress the audience. On stage with her she has a cello and an audio visual presentation. "Louder" she tells the sound engineer as images of distant galaxies appear on the screen.

"Stars are very loud but in my talk I will explain why we don't hear them but I will make them audible for the public," says Kohlenberg as she bends forward dragging her bow across the cello; a virtuoso performance by an astrophysicist in a red cocktail dress. Will she win over the audience?

Blasting old scientific stereotypes into outer space

Österreich Science Slam in Wien Publikum (Photo: Copyright: BMWFW/Martin Lusser)

The audience comprises a mix of ages and professions

The Science Slam sets out to abolish the scientist stereotype of white coats, grey beards and impossible-to-explain concepts. The contestants at these European championships are mostly young and obviously competent with modern communication tools.

"Usually the majority are young scientists but there are always one or two senior scientists as well," says organiser Bernhard Weingartner, himself a scientist, who believes seeing "different career stages" on stage is interesting for audience and scientists alike.

The event is being held in Vienna because the Austrian scientist, Martin Moder, won last year's European championship in Copenhagen. Each participating country holds its own national Science Slams to choose their contestant at the European level. Weingartner says the Science Slam is mostly a European concept with, so far, no world championship.

The contestants are not only confronting the scientist stereotype on stage, but in their private lives as well.

"If I tell people at a cocktail party that I study physics then I'll have a nice time by myself," says Kohlenberg, adding that most people find astrophysics more interesting "because everyone likes to look at a star."

Per Andersen, a Danish astrophysicist and science slammer agrees. "If you tell people that you do physics they sort of stop talking to you but if you tell them you do astrophysics or astronomy then they suddenly get very curious," he says.

"The world around you, when you fall in love, all of this is science"

The Science Slam contestants agree that their greatest challenge is not the science but the communication of it to an audience which might not be interested, especially when it comes to topics like cognitive neuroscience, the specialist subject of Fiona McGruer from Glasgow University.

She's titled her slam "Your Brain Predicts the World" - a topic which she describes as "very precise". People find it very difficult to understand how they can apply it to their own lives. To help them she gives examples.

"It defines the world around you, like, when you drop something, the weather, when you fall in love, all of this is science in its own way and I think Science Slams really communicate that to our public," says McGruer who's keen for the audience to understand what their brain is doing alongside what they are experiencing. The audience seems to enjoy it. t. But is the audience getting the science or just enjoying the entertainment?

The young slammers are convinced most scientists lose the plot when trying to communicate their ideas to a broader audience.

"The thing I found most difficult was I found myself using lab jargon, words that only people in neuroscience know," says the neuroscientist who has learnt that it's scientific terminology which is often "shutting everyone out."

Österreich Science Slam in Wien

And the winner is ...

Can astrophysics make your milk cheaper?

Per Andersen, the astrophysicist from Copenhagen University, promises to explain how astrophysics can make your milk cheaper. There are clever visuals of distant galaxies and a few diagrams but barely a formula or large number in sight.

"I avoid that at all costs," says Anderson. "I think as soon as you have formulae or complicated graphs people just shut down, they don't even listen to the words, even if the words make sense because they might feel a bit intimidated."

That a broad section of the general public actually fears science, as well as failing to understand it, is driving at least some of these scientists to overcome their stage-fright.

"People easily think that physics, chemistry, the exact sciences are all very complex because of the way they are taught in school," says Kathrien Kohlenberg who notes that many people are actually scared of the topics.

The slam titles resemble headlines or book titles. "Silent Lucidity", "Comforting Connecting Touch" and "Pimp My Bioplast" give only a hint of the complex concepts the scientists grapple with in their everyday work.

Who comes to see scientists on stage on a Friday night in downtown Vienna when the city is full of distractions like bars and live bands? The audience comprises a mix of ages and includes teachers and students as well as science practitioners. Medical student Maria told Deutsche Welle the Science Slam "makes it more interesting." Her friend Lavinia likes the concept but has "never been very interested in science."

And the winner was? Simon McGowan, a bioprocess engineer from Hanover, Germany with his slam, Pimp my Bioplast – a glimpse into the potential of bio and biodegradable plastics.

The European Science Slam was supported by the Austrian Ministry of Science.

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