Last night (Monday the 24th of August) I went to a public lecture about the Rosetta mission
at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. The lecture was given by Mark McCaughrean, who is senior science advisor at the European Space Agency (ESA) and, if I’m correct, also either heads up or is very senior in their public outreach efforts. It was one of the best public lectures I’ve ever attended, and in writing that statement I am trying to figure out how many public lectures I have actually attended. In addition to having given probably over 100 public lectures myself, I have probably attended some 150-200 public lectures given by others in the last 40-odd years.
In addition to learning a lot about the Rosetta mission (I will blog about some of what I learnt next week), the lecture got me thinking about what makes a good public lecture. I have also been thinking about this the last few days because my book on the Cosmic Microwave Background has been reviewed by Physics World (the magazine of the Institute of Physics), and that review will apparently appear in their October magazine. But, the reviewer shared with me some of her observations about the book, and one point she raised is that she felt I was inconsistent in my level of explanations in the book. What she meant was that there are some things I explain so that complete novices can follow my arguments, but other things where more of a physics/astronomy background would be necessary to follow that I am saying.
This is a valid point, and it shows the quandary I was in when trying to decide at what level to pitch the book. My primary audience was that I hoped the book will be used by undergraduates in the Disunited Kingdom and graduate students in the United States as a background text to any course they may be doing on the early Universe. But, in the back of my mind, I also had the interested lay-reader in mind, which is why I explained some things at a level for them. What I probably ended up doing was falling between two stools, and that is not always good in communicating science to the public.
Last night’s lecture by Mark did a wonderful job, as it seemed to me that he was able to keep it at a level that (hopefully) everyone could understand, but at the same time there was some specialist information in there for professional astronomers to give them (and me) the impression that we too had learnt something. This is a difficult tightrope to walk, but Mark did it very well.
This is what I try to do in my own public lectures, but I doubt I do it as well as Mark did last night. Whether I’m talking to school groups, astronomical societies, on the radio or TV or lecturing on a cruise, I always try to make sure that I don’t lose any of my audience in the first three quarters or so of the lecture by keeping things as simple as possible. At the same time, I always try to make sure that there is some information in the lecture (maybe some 25% of it) which will be news to even a professional in the field, as even in a public lecture you may have professionals in the audience. This was the case, for example, in lectures I gave on the cruise I did in South America in March – one of my regular attendees had worked at NASA JPL and he and I would have long chats after each lecture where he would quiz me further, or impart some information that I did not know about.
Last night, Mark had a perfect mixture of videos, cartoons, animations, humour and exciting information, and it was all delivered in a relaxed and humorous way. As I say, one of the best public lectures I have ever attended.