The Scientist Storyteller: Interview with Dr. David Kipping, exomoonologist
“You just need to tell the world about what you’re doing, why it fascinates you and illuminate the process of finding things out”
Imagine sitting in bed watching the Science Channel with your daughter and you hear a great quote from the astronomy expert – exomoonologist, to be exact- being interviewed. It intrigues you so much you sketch it (as you tend to do with clever soundbites), and decide to share it on Twitter. Because you feel it’s imperative to provide as much attribution as you can, you actually – through the beauty of this democratizing social media platform – find Dr. David Kipping’s Twitter handle and include him in the tweet! What blows your daughter’s socks off is that he actually takes the time to respond. Witness the breaking of the Fourth Wall.
Dr. Kipping’s response really got me thinking about the link between art, creativity, and science, to be sure…but more importantly, I wondered what role did storytelling play in the field of astronomy or any other branch of Science, and what “storytelling tools” did the scientist (in this case astrophysicist!) need in his “bard belt”?
Several weeks later I chanced upon a few videos Dr. Kipping posted and lo and behold realized he was running an entire YouTube channel – called Cool Worlds – geared to the non-scientific community (started mid February, 2016). I now wondered in what ways have social media production and distribution platforms (such as YouTube), affected the sharing of science and other academic work (of course I already knew a bit about that from my History for Music Lovers days). I pondered if David, like me, had been accused of “popularizing” an academic discipline (even more so since he has a doctorate and is a researching scientist as well as university professor).
Well, there was only one way to find out, and that was to interview him. He graciously responded to most of my questions on a Google doc sent through Twitter and I’ve compiled them here. My plan is to make a little animated video with some of the key soundbites, but that will come later (I will affix it to this blog post when finished). In the meantime, I’ve done a few sketches.
AB: As a research scientist / scholar, how did you get into sharing stories on a wider basis, (e.g. appearance on a TV show, etc.)?
DK: I think most scientists have great stories and are willing to share but the audience these days is bombarded by news and updates on all sides. So to be heard you have to be saying something unique or be a very famous scientist already. Increasingly, the delivery is becoming critical since the audience is now accustomed to hearing from eloquent public figures with years of experience.
“Science is done by human beings”
AB: How do you feel about sharing the story of science…what about in real-time in the wake of discoveries?
DK: Science is done by human beings. That means it comes with this whole messy baggage of ego, passion, self-interest, joy, potential for error and determination, like any other walk of life. What makes science different is how it openly makes clear testable predictions, which guides us towards a pure product – the truth. Increasingly, we see these events playing out in real time on social media platforms and often those scientists who are later found to have made the wrong claim are being vilified.
I do not think we should burn scientists who made perfectly reasonable, justifiable predictions which ended up on the wrong side of the data. That’s how science works best, by people coming up with ideas we can test, it stimulates thinking and pushes the field forward. So I’m happy to see science go live but it’s important to me that the reactionary climate of, say, politics to any kind of mistake is not applied to scientists whose job it is to try, make mistakes, and improve our understanding as a result.
“Carl Sagan was a master at this, using poetic language to describe our place in the Universe”
AB: What about visual thinking? How do you use visuals in your storytelling? How do you use words to help the audience visualize concepts? What role does metaphor play in your storytelling?
DK: Visuals are very popular in astronomy storytelling, especially artist’s impressions of exploding stars, colliding planets, merging black holes, etc. I think astronomers use to rely on demonstrations and even showing the actual data more than we do now. My favourite visuals are the use of data and artist’s impressions together, for example the recent LIGO announcement had a video of a merging black hole and a cleaned up simulation of what the data looked like real-time. Whilst I’m always happy to use such imagery, we often don’t have it to hand and so have to improvise with our hands or our language. Carl Sagan was a master at this, using poetic language to describe our place in the Universe. I like to speak with my hands a lot too and it just feels natural to communicate that way.
“If even a few people came away learning something, becoming inspired and/or feeling more connected to science, then you’re a net positive”
AB: Do you get any criticism from the scientific community that you are popularizing science too much? What do you see are the tensions between academia and “experts” and the current media landscape?
DK: In many top tier research universities, outreach is not a priority on the same level as research and teaching. Engaging in outreach is something scientists have to do in our spare time and we know that it will not really benefit our resume as viewed by these top universities. In fact, a zero-sum game is somehow the best possible result for your career, because engaging in outreach is often viewed as egotistical, self-promoting and even narcissistic by your colleagues both within your university and your wider field. This has led to a situation where you have a small number full-time professional outreach scientists and then the vast majority of scientists not engaging in outreach at all, or very little. There is an outreach inequality fermented by these negative attitudes permeating academia.
My solution is to choose to try.
You don’t have to be perfect or a full-time professional outreach speaker. You just need to tell the world about what you’re doing, why it fascinates you and illuminate the process of finding things out. If even a few people came away learning something, becoming inspired and/or feeling more connected to science, then you’re a net positive. You have take a leap of faith in that – you’ll often feel isolated – but I don’t understand how speaking openly about making discoveries can ever be a negative thing and in fact it could be the start of something quite wonderful.
“Lectures have a place but they require a lot of attention meaning only the most interested subset will pay attention to the presentation”
AB: Who do you find is your most frequent audience? How do you adapt your storytelling to different audiences?
DK: I’ve done various outreach events throughout my career and mostly these take the form of school visits, public lectures, science festivals, etc. – events where you directly interact with anywhere from a dozen to a few hundred people. These events are usually in the lecture format, which also permeates to science documentaries on television. Lectures have a place but they require a lot of attention meaning only the most interested subset will pay attention to the presentation. Even then, those people will not really feel like they engaged or participated in science, they just received a data dump of information. Ultimately then, doing these events felt quite self-serving. I got a real buzz out of being on stage, getting an applause, being treated like a little celebrity for the day but if we’re being honest this is not the most effective means of doing science engagement. Moreover, your audience was at best a few hundred people and most of them switched off or it will be the same few hundred people coming back over and over again (in the case of observatory night events for example).
(The YouTube Channel) “changes outreach from a lecture to a conversation, that anyone can engage with us and become more connected to science”
AB: How did the YouTube channel come about and what are your plans for it?
DK: An outreach YouTube channel felt like it could solve many of these problems. For one, it accessible to billions of people, not just the privileged school that took a trip to an Ivy League school. Secondly, the videos can be designed to be regularly posted giving the most up to date news and just a few minutes long, accommodating people’s busy lives and schedules. Finally, and most importantly, YouTube is a community where people can comment and ask questions. Although we only setup the channel a couple of weeks back, we’ve already got some great questions this way and have shot Q&A videos where we directly respond to these comments. That changes outreach from a lecture to a conversation, that anyone can engage with us and become more connected to science.
(AB: this reminded me of what Socrates had to say about writing…he feared one could not converse with the author…)
The whole thing is a big experiment for me
We just shot some videos with my graduate students going live this week and next and plan to bring in more Columbia speakers in the future. The whole thing is a big experiment for me, I’ve never seen science videos on YouTube quite like what we’re doing – we deliberately imitate the sort of popular style seen on other non-science channels. My hope is to grow an audience who value what we’re doing and the channel becomes one of their regular 4 minute videos they watch in bed once a week.
Catch Dr. Kipping here:
Prof. Kipping’s Personal YouTube Channel
Columbia University’s Cool Worlds YouTube Channel
For fun! “The Science of Superman”, where Dr. Kipping breaks down the science behind the famous superhero