Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Move over J.Lo and Simon Cowell, scientists are the new American Idols

Image courtesty of DBFansite
Every week millions of people tune in to ‘American Idol’ to watch singers who have three minutes to impress Randy Jackson, Mariah Carey and the gang, and demonstrate that they have the talent to be a star. It’s tough, testing the performer’s ability to perform well in public, under pressure and still be able to connect with a big audience.

Imagine all that, but instead of songs it’s science that is on show. That was the premise behind an “America’s Science Idol” competition at the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston. Six contestants were given three minutes each to explain their work in an entertaining and meaningful way, using only language that the average person could understand.

The six all chose very different approaches. One talked about the ‘secret life of dust’, another used humor and sexual imagery (it was insect sex, the topic of her research though she did also throw in photos of Ryan Goslin who she confessed to having a crush on), another used rap (you try rhyming anything with “confocal microscopy”). But regardless of the approach, they all tried to be imaginative and creative in the way they talked about their work, trying to do it in a way that was not only engaging but also informative.

The room was packed to the rafters for the performance, a clear sign that other scientists were eager to learn how they could be more engaging in the way they talk about their work. That was a wonderfully encouraging sign, an indication that more and more scientists understood the importance of being able to talk about their work to the public,

The competition was sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Corey Powell, one of the judges wrote about it in Discover magazine recently, saying:
“It is a useful exercise for any working scientist to be able to articulate those things. In fact, it is a useful exercise for all of us, regardless of profession, to occasionally step back and ask what we do and why we do it."
This explanation--that scientists should be able to describe their work to the people who, for the most part, fund the science--is also what drove us to hold our own science explanation smack-down last month. Our Elevator Pitch Challenge videos are all here

The winning Science Idol performance was on a topic that sounds dryer than the dust storm that one of the other contestants talked about; the problems with predicting the weather. But with wit, charm, and clever use of images it became a wonderfully engaging glimpse into the problems meteorologists face. You’ll never watch TV weather reports the same again. Now that’s good science.

Videos of all the performances can be found here.

K.M.

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