January 22, 2013, by Brigitte Nerlich
Bringing science to life: Brady Haran’s approach to science communication
I have been following Brady Haran’s work as a science video journalist here at the University of Nottingham since its beginning in 2008. We have had many chats about his ethos and his practice of communicating science. Today I went to a talk by Brady that brought this ethos to life for me, an ethos that underpins his ambition to bring science to life. The talk was part of Acritas, a Marie Curie Initial Training workshop whose primary focus is advanced training and research in scanning probe-based nanoscience at the single bond limit.
The talk took place in the School of Physics (here is a photo tweeted by @julianonions), with many of the protagonists present who are involved in making the videos I’ll talk about below. Professor Phil Moriarty, one of the busiest contributors, and, as we learned, commenters, sat just in front of me (he also features in my ‘Making Science Songs’ blog post!)
The talk told the story of the journey that led Brady from ‘Test Tube’ to ‘Numberphile’ (and the journey metaphor is also important in the context of science communication, as you’ll see below). Brady began the talk by introducing himself and thanking the audience, which he enjoyed, as he had recently experienced how difficult it is not to do so – when he had to give a talk at the Royal Institution, where on Friday evenings a gong rings out, you go in and you are supposed to start your talk without any such niceties. He also showed us a certificate from the Chemistry Society of Ethiopia which made him an honorary member – and this is the only scientific ‘qualification’ he got.
Brady started out as a reporter on a newspaper in Adelaide in Australia, then worked for the BBC, on their website, then as a TV video journalists, which was quite novel in those day. The interesting thing is that as a video journalist you do it ALL. There is no division of labour as in traditional TV and traditional journalism. This is important. How important this is became clear when Brady told us how science is/was normally covered on television.
Anatomy of a traditional science story
The story Brady told is similar to the one recently told in Jorge Cham’s TED talk about the ‘science gap’. It goes like this:
A researcher has a breakthrough. He or she gets it published in an important journal. The institution he or she works for puts out a press release and distributes it to the media. This arrives as a fax or something similar in a newsroom and on a news desk. Most of these press releases get binned, but some stick. They catch the eye of a journalist who thinks they are ‘worth a story’. What happens from now on is a matter of TIME. The journalist who wants to cover the story needs to get hold of an available cameraman. These are like gold dust, as they are also used to cover football, politics and so on. Anyway, the journalist might be lucky and can grab one for a short time. Journalist and camera crew then converge on the scientist who is a bit like a rabbit caught in the headlights. The journalists asks the scientist to talk about their research over the last ten years or so, then goes on to do a quick interview which is based on simplifying something complex. The scientist is told to fiddle with a machine or other lab equipment in front of the camera, to talk to a person (which is randomly sourced), to walk around in a pensive way and so on. Then, perhaps, the scientist is put in the context of a supermarket or other ordinary life context, to make science seem relevant to the people. Time is still an issue. There is a DEADLINE. The journalist takes the interview and footage to the editing suit where it is seen by an editor who knows nothing about it. The boss looks in and tells people how SHORT the piece should be…. And then if the journalist is lucky, the piece makes it onto TV.
This might be a caricature, but this is not far off from what really happens (especially the walking about or looking pensive with some implement in ones hand, which in my case once was, of course, a book!)
Telling the story of science better
Now Brady said something important: Imagine football was covered in this way… and I won’t talk you through that. Just imagine it. The essential thing to remember is that football is covered in very fine detail not in this one-off, abstract, time limited way described above. Every indiscretion, every glorious moment, every goal, every heartache is covered. Football fans go on a JOURNEY with the people who are involved in football; they get invested in it and in them. They care! This is not what normally happens in science coverage, and this is what Brady set out to do differently.
The good thing is that new video technologies make this novel coverage of science possible. Cameras are cheaper, editing software is less expensive, the technology is easier to use, people can learn to film for themselves, there is no longer just an exclusive club of cameramen, camerapeople or is it camerapersons…?
Brady started his experiment four or five years ago, with an ever-expanding series of videos called Test Tube – Behind the Science in the World of Science. His aim was not to just cover breakthroughs but every moment of science in real time. The exciting bits, the disappointing bits (when an experiment goes wrong, when a grant gets rejected), the boring bits… and to tell the story of science honestly.
Brady doesn’t work for the University of Nottingham or Google or any other institution. He is independent. He does not engage in marketing or branding, although the University of Nottingham as a brand has certainly benefited from what he does. He works with the scientists in a non-patronising, honest and open way. The videos are not reviewed by anybody other than himself and they are not sanitised. They are put up on youtube and the on the website as he sees fit. Over time, the scientists he works with learn to trust him and, more importantly, after a while, they learn to trust themselves!
The Periodic Table of Videos
Some of the Test Tube videos were watched by Professor Martyn Poliakoff who praised them in a short and pithy email to a marketing person at the University, who in turn told Martyn that this might be something that the School of Chemistry might want to do too. So Brady came up with the idea of the Periodic Table of Videos, where a video would represent every element on the periodic table. This has been done and Martyn and Brady and many others have now extended this ‘franchise’ to cover molecules, chemistry in the news and much more.
On 21 January, 2013 these videos had been viewed 35 million times, not only by individuals but also by whole schools and they are now also marketed for use in schools by Pearson. When somebody asked after the talk which video Brady liked best he spoke about Ytterby where they did videos about various elements that are named after it (Yttrium, Ytterbium, Erbium, Terbium). This involved a roadtrip to Sweden, a first of many roadtrips all over the world.
Of course the School of Physics then also got in on the act. However, physics has no periodic table – but they made one up anyway, so to speak, and the result was Sixty Symbols which covers all the symbols used in physics and astronomy and also contains symbols that were created to represent interesting phenomena in those fields.
What comes across really well in these videos is the hard work that goes into science. Viewers also get a real glimpse of the humanity of the researchers doing the science, from tatty lab books to getting things wrong when trying to write down the equation for entropy (Phil told us that this messing about with the Boltzmann equation was because he tried to write it like it was on the gravestone), from tears to laughter and joy – as when Professor Ed Copeland first saw the Large Hadron Collider for example. Here is a ‘nice’ comment illustrating this: “At my uni I’d get my bollocks chopped off for having a lab book in that state! They fucking lied! Real scientists are messier than me even on_ a bad day!”
The comments underneath the videos, like the above, are interesting. Many, of course, applaud the people involved in making the videos, but there is also real dialogue between people trying to puzzle things out together. The people who watch the videos are, like the football fans mentioned above, really invested in the scientists and the science they watch. They ‘interact’ with the Nottingham scientists off-line and online. The videos are not just background noise.
This, by the way, is the 200th of the ‘Sixty’ Symbols videos, on quantum mechanics out today (22 January, 2013) (so, as Brady said in a tweet, they overshot by 140 films!)
Apart from Test Tube and the Periodic Table of Videos and Sixty Symbols there are many more projects across a range natural and social science and humanities disciplines. I just want to mention one more: Numberphile, which was commissioned by Google, and which, to my surprise, as I am a numberphobe, attracted 22 million views in a year. It has become the most followed of all video channels produced by Brady.
Overall, in terms of numbers: 1,500 videos have been produced, that is 140 hours worth of videos; they have been watched 82.2 million times (as of 21 January), and people have left 422,784 comments. What Brady likes best though is getting pictures from people who watch the videos and to see people’s reactions. That is better than numbers.
I have told this story of Brady’s talk because I believe that it carries an important message about ‘science communication’. Science communication is neither abstract nor convoluted, or, at least it shouldn’t be. If done well, it blends in with the science that is done every day by scientists everywhere and it also blends the science in with the everyday life of those who want to know more about science. Scientists, people interested in science and science communicators share a journey, a journey based on time and care. That’s how it should be, I believe.
Image supplied by Brady Haran