As well as conferences and other similar peer-networking type events, the best refreshment of the researcher brain, for me, is an outreach event. Not only do you get to wrangle your ridiculous level of knowledge of one tiny thing into something resembling information that people not quite so into it as you will enjoy, it also generally gets you into a team of like-minded and all round fun people.
Half of the Science Tent Crew, Day One. Mud not up to knees yet, give it time…
This year, I went to the Glastonbury festival with the Southampton University’s Roadshow crew, who pitched their science tent to bring outreach to the partying masses. It was, notably, a “mud year”, so we were a bit soggy and very squelchy, but it was absolutely excellent. The days tended to start with rain and finish with glorious sunsets, interspersed with brave trips to the toilets, hours of enthusiasm about my work to an incredibly receptive public, and listening to the constant hum of good music from the neighbouring folk and world music tent.
My little stand had one purpose: to talk about colour. As well as a small scale reproduction of the original Berlin and Kay colour category experiment, I was crowdsourcing my red/white/black survey, with some – interesting – answers.
I spoke to people about colour, and let them speak to me about what it stirred in them. I tried not to lead – I simply asked what came to mind when they thought of black, white, and red (I didn’t specify “the colour black” etc; that distinction was up to them). People wondered if they should choose a concept, a feeling, or a physical item to link the colours to – I told them it was there choice. Children seemed to think longer and give more creative answers, while adults went with their first instinct and produced more uniform replies. I’ll not break it down statistically here (forthcoming in combination with the online survey here), but results began to show an interesting trend that saw red as a highly contentious category. Was it love, roses, passion, the human female reproductive system? Or was it war, murder, or “a bloody machete” (thanks to one 8 year old for that worrying sentiment).
People had so many stories to tell about colour, and I would be remiss not to communicate those I noted down:
- I was told many times the story of the Robin’s red breast actually being orange, only when they first described the colour orange was not yet a separate category from red, hence the Robin Red Breast;
- Of the colours red, white, and black being common features during the taking of psychoactive substances – yellow/purple as a combination also popular
- Of a tribe where objects were described as “sticky”, leading anthropologists to search for fruits that were covered in an adhesive sap or hooked burrs, when actually the tribes people meant that they meant the colour of the things “stuck” in their minds (I have come up blank searching for references on this so far, so if anyone has any leads that would be AMAZING).
It was a vast community of people who all, to varying degrees, wanted to share how colour effected them. They came into that tent and learnt about pollination and bees thanks to a huge “bumblearium” display. They learnt about brain cells thanks to a marble-run style table that ran on a thrillingly tactile series of wheels and levers. They learnt about isotope analysis as indicator of climate change thanks to a really innovative talk using coloured marbles. They learnt about nostalgia and the effects on the brain. They learnt about how exciting it is to be in research and to be constantly questioning, challenging, and learning.
Then Brexit happened and overnight a despondency fell over both festival goers and the crew. We thought of our many valued and loved international colleagues and friends. We thought of the huge financial benefit from EU grants to scientific research in the UK. We thought of a nation divided by fear and prejudice. That night the set by Billy Bragg was special and emotional, calling us together with the mantra repeated with heartbreaking power after the murder of MP Jo Cox; “We have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” We sang together and we were together, as one. There were many tears in the audience.
Outreach can have such a powerful effect – on researcher and public. You never know when an incredible idea will come from a child with an insatiable curiosity that has thought things through in a way you never would. Your academic ideals are challenged whole new ways. Your peers support and are supported by you in delivering your drive and passion to as many people as possible. In a world that decries expertise as unnecessary and somehow anti-social or harmful, outreach is vital to letting the public know what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and where they fit into it. If we fail to engage we create a huge academic echo chamber that continues to isolate and alienate itself. We as researchers do some incredible things. We need to shout about them.