Will the next Lord Winston please stand upBMJ 2005; 330 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.330.7497.971 (Published 21 April 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;330:971
The race is on to find the winner of science's answer to television's Pop Idol
Could you demonstrate how to make a refrigerator out of a punctured red balloon, or how to tell the temperature by the frequency of a cricket's chirping? Or would you be able to explain in lay terms how the most toxic substance on earth—Botox—can be used safely to remove wrinkles?
Those who thought they could took part in an all-day competition in London last week to find the best new talent at communicating complex scientific ideas to the general public. Known as Famelab, the contest, which was held at the Science Museum's Dana Centre, is the brainchild of the Cheltenham Science Festival. More than 130 contestants had three minutes each to convince the judges that they deserved a place in the finals, later the same day. The 15 who reached that stage then had five minutes each to win a place in the national finals in Cheltenham on 11 June, where the two who made it will join up with other regional qualifiers from Manchester, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, and Belfast. Whoever is eventually judged to be the next Lord Robert Winston or Baroness Susan Greenfield will win £2000 and an appearance as a guest presenter on Channel 4 television.
Judging by the talent on display in London last week, it will not be easy. The Dana Centre was packed with interesting, knowledgeable people who love science and are passionate about communicating it to the public. Many said that they were there because it was a unique opportunity to combine their love of science with the love of performing, and most agreed that there was much room for improvement in the way in which science is currently communicated.
Last week's competitors described T cells acting as army generals, bacteria talking among themselves, and genes called Ken and Barbie that make Drosophila flies lose external genitals. Potatoes acted as naked molerats—the most bizarre creatures on the planet—and the only freelance astronomer in the universe was remarkably calm and charmingly funny while explaining just how realistic it was to expect that a meteorite would destroy the Earth.
Two medical doctors were among those taking part. Talking about risk factors associated with heart attacks, Cardiologist D won a place in the regional finals by explaining that it did not matter that much whether people ate crisps and chips, as long they got their statins. In the finals he was going to talk about methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). However, the contestant right before him stole the topic and he switched to vaccination and MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella), making up in a matter of minutes an eloquent plea for people to vaccinate their children because of herd immunity. It was impressive how well he coped, and although he didn't make it to Cheltenham he received an honourable mention.
Although only one medical doctor made it to the finals, nine out of the 15 stories told by the finalists were on medical topics—MRSA and bird flu, MMR, extracorporeal liver-assisted devices, the human endogenous retrovirus (HERV), aspirin, ageing, the association of mental illness and creativity, DNA testing in forensics, and fertilisation.
The two regional winners were Rebecca Lloyd-Evans, a recent human sciences graduate from University College London, and Dr Matthew Wilkinson, a zoologist from Cambridge. Ms Lloyd-Evans's final presentation was on the association of bipolar disorder and creativity, the topic of her undergraduate dissertation. While she warned us that there was no evidence for connecting the two as closely as people often do, she also said that modern brain imaging techniques showed that in both bipolar disorder and creativity something important was going on in the frontal lobe, and that concept of delayed inhibition had also been noticed in both.
“I think all I did was pull strands of research together that hadn't previously been thought related,” she later told the BMJ. “Also I think the topic appealed to non-scientists and gets people interested in what science can help us understand. I want to appeal to the non-scientist—people who aren't already interested,” she said. “I feel that often science is communicated very patronisingly. This makes people switch off. My mission is to show that knowing about science doesn't have to be something that you have to do for any other reason than the excitement that can come from knowledge of the world around us. I want to be involved in science communication to allow it to enrich people's life like food, literature, or music can. We need to ‘re-trendify’ science.”
Dr Wilkinson, who explained why the whale's tail was not positioned in the same direction as that of the fish, agreed that there could be no better ambassadors for science than those who had dedicated their lives to it. “The subject of my talk was how evolution is constrained by the past, which is important for medicine as well,” he told the BMJ. One of his inspirations is the following quotation from the 19th century doctor and biologist Thomas Huxley, one of the first great science communicators: “To a person uninstructed in natural history, his country or sea-side stroll is a walk through a gallery filled with wonderful works of art, ninetenths of which have their faces turned to the wall. Teach him something of natural history, and you place in his hands a catalogue of those which are worth turning round. Surely our innocent pleasures are not so abundant in this life, that we can afford to despise this or any other source of them.”