Science Communication

What can science learn from advertising? – Sara Camnasio


For your Friday afternoon coffee. An oldie but a goodie…

This talk was given at a local TEDx event in New York, produced independently of the TED Conferences. For a long time, science has been made out to be dense, complex, and inaccessible. Sara explains how we can fix science's bad rap, and how to make the field more exciting and engaging to young people - especially students like her.

Over the past couple of years I’ve had the opportunity to design and develop a couple of astronomy research websites, including the first iteration of OzGrav. This talk reminded me of two of my favourite “what a mess” research websites that can only be described as disasters from a design perspective…

 Theoretical Particle Physics Group – University of Melbourne

Theoretical Particle Physics Group – University of Melbourne

 ARC Centre of Excellence for All-Sky Astrophysics in 3D

ARC Centre of Excellence for All-Sky Astrophysics in 3D

About Sara Camnasio

I met Sara a couple of years ago at Astro Hack Week 2016, held at the Berkeley Institute for Data Science and GitHub HQ in downtown San Francisco. With a strong interest in science communication and multi-media, I remember her website being really impressive and full of creative side projects. It definitely made me think more carefully about how I could present my own independent projects and experiences as part of broader career portfolio. Over the past few years she’s managed to make the successful transition from astronomy research assistant/graduate student at the American Museum of Natural History to designer; creating engaging user experiences at Designit.

Oh, did I mention she’s also a 2017 National Geographic Young Explorer (wow!)…

Machine learning: the power and promise of computers that learn by example

A few days ago the UK Royal Society published their two-year policy project on Machine learning: the power and promise of computers that learn by example.

The project began in November 2015 with the aim of  investigating the potential of machine learning over the next 5-10 years, and the barriers to realising that potential in the UK. As it carried out its investigation, the project engaged with key audiences – in policy communities, industry, academia, and the public – to raise awareness of machine learning, understand views held by the public and contribute to public debate about this technology, and identify the key social, ethical, scientific, and technical questions that machine learning presents.

The full report (PDF, 3.3Mb) published on the 25th April 2017, comes at a critical time in the rapid development and use of this technology, and the growing debate about how it will reshape the UK economy and people’s lives. 

IAU Working Group for Data–Driven Astronomy Education & Public Outreach (DAEPO)

With the development of many mega-science astronomical projects, for example CTA, DESI, EUCLID, FAST, GAIA, JWST, LAMOST, LSST, SDSS, SKA, and large scale simulations, astronomy has become a Big Data science. Astronomical data is not only necessary resource for scientific research, but also very valuable resource for education and public outreach (EPO), especially in the era of Internet and Cloud Computing.

The new Data Driven Astronomy Education and Public Outreach (DAEPO) Working Group was put together by Chenzhou Cui from National Astronomical Observatories, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC). Chenzhou is also the PI of Chinese Virtual Observatory, and an Organising Committee Member of Commission B2. Based on my experience in astronomy e-Research and my involvement in the .Astronomy community, I was invited to join the working group as a Founding Member and IAU Associate.

The working group has the major objectives to:

  • Act as a forum to discuss the value of astronomy data in EPO, the advantages and benefits of data driven EPO, and the challenges facing to data driven EPO.
  • Provide guidelines, curriculums, data resources, tools, and e-infrastructure for data driven EPO.
  • Provide best practices of data driven EPO.

This working group is hosted at the IAU Division B (Facilities, Technologies and Data Science) Commission B2 (Data and Documentation), and organized jointly with Commission C1 (Astronomy Education and Development), Commission C2 (Communicating Astronomy with the Public), Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD), Office for Astronomy Outreach (OAO) and several other non IAU communities, for example IVOA Education Interest Group, American Astronomical Society Worldwide Telescope Advisory Board, Zooniverse project.


Consulting for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discover (OzGrav)

I spent this week at Swinburne working with the new ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav). I must admit it was really nice to be back at Swinburne's Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing.  My time here will be short and sweet. I've been brought on board to develop OzGrav's new website and to write, what is likely to be a compelling grant application for a new gravitational wave citizen science project.

In February 2016, the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and the Virgo gravitational wave collaboration announced the first detection of gravitational waves. This historic detection by aLIGO, the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational‐Wave Observatory, marked the end of century-long quest to detect ripples in space-time and "listen" to the final signal from two merging black holes. Needless to say there was a flurry of excitement from astronomers around the world. In May 2016 I was approached by OzGrav's director, to help prepare for the final interview with the Australian Research Council (ARC) that would secure $31.3 million in funding later that year. The recent appointment of OzGrav's Chief Operating Officer, means the centre is now up and running, albeit with a small leadership team and a core group of leading astronomers. 

Core management and administrative staff are yet to be appointed. Shortly, the position of Education & Public Outreach Coordinator and Media & Digital Marketing Manager will be advertised. Several postdoctoral fellows will also be appointed for research positions at the University of Melbourne, the University of Western Australia, and the University of Adelaide.

In November last year the Turnbull Government announced a $4 million boost for Australia's growing citizen science movement, to open a door for the general public to participate in, and make real contributions to, Australian research. The Citizen Science Grants  programme is part of a four-year, $29.8 million, Inspiring Australia - Science Engagement Programme. Grants are awarded on a competitive basis to support community participation in scientific research projects that have a national impact. So in addition to applying for new funding, the centre needs a website, especially if it wants to attract subsequent funding for research and citizen science projects, and industry partners to support its core instrumentation projects. 

I spent the week working at Swinburne at Inspire9 in Richmond. Inspire9 is such a fantastic place to be for this type of work. You're constantly surrounded by creative people, and expertise to draw on. 

Since OzGrav won't have a dedicated website administrator, the site needed to to be easily developed, deployed and managed. Although I prefer Squarespace, we decided to go with Weebly. The management team were already familiar with it and a bare bones structure was already in palce, it's versatile with many different page layourts, responsible enough for what OzGrav needs (one aspect where Squarespace excels) and it supports an intranet with multiple levels of access for multiple user groups, something that Squarespace doesn't do well. Of course this means a lot more customisation, a lot more tinkering with HTML and CSS, and more browser cross-browser and responsiveness issues than I would like. Aside from the overall design and site structure, I'm also creating the scientific content – translating the hardcore science from the original ARC grant, and the obscure terminology that comes with it – to stories that both public and research astronomers from other fields can understand.



convergence science network

Earlier this I attended the Convergence Science Network's May Event – Trust in the TIme of Skepticism. This was hands down my favourite @ConverSci event yet.  A visual feast of science communication and storytelling by Emmy Award winning and four-time winner of the Eureka Award for Science Journalism, Sonya Pemberton. Needless to say it was a packed house and it was fantastic. If you haven't yet discovered GENE(POOL) Productions  check out their 2016 showreel. An incredibly impressive and talented team of film makers. 

Based in Melbourne Australia, Genepool Productions specialises in creating quality science documentaries for international audiences. Sonya Pemberton, 2012 Emmy award winner and record breaking four-time winner of the prestigious Eureka Award for Science Journalism, leads the company. 

Sonya began by talking about her own experiences from film making, the processes of finding a compelling story that's also newsworthy, the challenges along the way, both logistical and financial and often political and scientific intricacies of pos-production and final release. What I found most interesting was the pre-screening feedback and review process. This is far more involved and important process than you might think and it can have a significant impact on final editing and subsequently the essence of a film. The event gave us a fantastic insight into how controversial science is communicated and the effect is has on communities. 

Convergence Science Network event - Trust in the time of Skepticism.  Sonya Pemberton, Emmy Award  (bottom left) winning science communicatory and documentarian.  Creative Director of GENE(POOL) Productions


Some things I learned from her talk: 

  • The average lifespan of a film is 10 years, after which time the sciences becomes outdated.
  • How we move beyond preaching to the choir is a challenge. Engaging with the well-educated yet undecided is a good strategy. Regardless of their position, this audience is likely to see your film and engage in lively debate.
  • Pre-screenings are  incredibly important for gauging audience reaction and for helping to maintain an unbiased view.
  • Acknowledging uncertainty makes you are more credible journalist. You need to question what you think you know.
  • More information is not the key to changing perspectives. It only hardens people's position.
  • Complicated terminology and jargon acts like a brick wall. 
  • In making the Jabbed – Love, Fear, and Vaccines, those against vaccines fell into three general categories; the skeptics, the hesitant, and those fervently against vaccines. Surprisingly, different communities and countries fear vaccine use for very different reasons. Americans are primarily fearful about suspected links to autism.  
  • Nuances are different in different countries, as are the forums for discussion debate. For example PBS Nova, the long-running, award-winning documentary series (inspired by the BBC documentary program Horizons) is pro-science. Often issues may arise during the pre-screening and editing process that will affect release agreements.
  • Highlighting anecdotal evidence throughout history can break down barriers and initiate dialogue with anti-vaxers. For example, in India the notion of popular resistance to smallpox was practised, via inoculation, by the Brahmans over 100 years ago.
  • Caching Cancer played on audience fear, mystery and controversy. These are some of the elements that make such documentaries compelling. It's also the most illegally downloaded show in the history of PBS Nova. 
  • Harry Panagiotidis, Genepool's Associate Producer and Director of Photography, is utterly brilliant.. 

Sonja's five "take homes" for science communicators

  1. Embrace complexity
  2. Acknowledge uncertainty
  3. Check for bias especially your own
  4. Try and discover the gist or essence to the story
  5. Be useful, the public needs clarity and care; stories and sources and science that can be trusted.

Bonus take home:

How do you keep politics out of the science? This can be tricky. 
Focus on the science. What is the story? What do we know? What don't we know?

cocktail reception 

Following the event I attended the cocktail reception at University House. I have Prof. Sally McArthur to thank for this opportunity. Sally is actively involved in the Convergence Science Network as the partner representative for Swinburne University of Technology and has invited me to several of these soirees. Representing Swinburne were Samara Neilson from Swinburne Research and Dr. Alan Duffy from the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing. It was a fantastic opportunity to meet researchers from other universities, and to meet Sonja and Harry and to hear some very entertaining behind the scenes tales. Of course the food and wine was lovely too. A thoroughly good night.









"The observatories" and Starmus Festival 2016

I've always loved this video, which used to feature on my old Wordpress blog. For those who my be unfamiliar with STARMUS, it's a festival that brings together science, art and music Created by Garik Israelian, researcher at the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands (IAC), the Starmus Festival (held annually In Tenerife) has featured presentations from Astronauts, Cosmonauts, Nobel Prize Winners and prominent figures from science, culture, the arts and music. 

Considered as one of the most ambitious contemporary science festivals, the next edition of Starmus will feature ten Nobel prizewinners in the fields of Physics, Chemistry and Medicine: Harold Kroto and Eric Betzig (Chemistry, 1996 and 2014, respectively); biologists Carol Greider and Elizabeth Blackburn (shared award for Medicine, 2009); Robert Wilson and David Gross (Physics, 1978 and 2004, respectively); Adam Riess and Brian Schmidt (shared award for Physics, 2011); and the couple Edvard Moser and May-Britt Moser (who shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2014).

The line up for this years festival, is quite frankly, ridiculously awesome. I've got to say t's damn tempting... Might have to review the finances.

Description by Alex Cherney:  "In June 2011 I was very lucky to attend the inaugural STARMUS festival on Tenerife and observe with the largest single-mirror optical telescope on the planet - 10-metre GranTeCan. After spending five days at STARMUS listening to and chatting with the great astrophysicists and space legends I decided to dedicate more time to astronomy science and film the observatories around the world. This video, which was selected as the winner of the 2014 STARMUS astrophotography competition (press announcement:, is the result of over three years of work and includes the images of the following observatories: * Roque De Los Muchachos Observatory, La Palma; * Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, Murchison, Australia; * Australia Telescope Compact Array, Narrarbri, Australia; * Parkes Radio Observatory, Australia; * Siding Spring Observatory, Australia; * Mount John Observatory, New Zealand Many thanks to Dermot Tutty for composing the original score for this video!"
Credit:  Alex Cherney – (

My week on @astrotweeps

Last week I was a the guest tweeter for Astrotweeps. I must admit this is a lot of fun and it seems to attract a lot of public interest. Most people following @astrotweeps asked me general questions about data science and wanted to know my thoughts about the most useful research tools that academics would need to enhance their research outputs, or the skills that would need to learn to make the transition into the tech industry.

Some background for the uninitiated. Astrotweeps started with the Hack Day at the 223rd American Astronomical Society meeting and is inspired by the AstroCanada Twitter account. Each week an astronomer or planetary scientist takes over the @astrotweeps account and tweets about their science, research, and interesting news in their field. You can follow the conversations on Twitter, Facebook, or on the Astrotweeps webpage. The schedule fills up pretty quickly - I submitted interest a few months in advance - and it's updated often. I recommend checking out the schedule in advance and adding your favourite astronomer to your calendar. If you follow as many people as I do tweets will get lost in the noise. At the end of the week tweets are collated in Storify. You can check out My week on Astrotweeps.

.astronomy6 director's lunch talk (slides)

Here are the slides from the .Astronomy6 wrap-up talk I recently gave at the Swinburne Astronomy group's, Director's Lunch talk series. The talk was based on my previous blog post and it generated quite a buzz among the younger researchers. Only about a quarter of the astronomy group were aware of .Astronomy community but hopefully we can change that by hosting the 2015 conference in Australia. I also advertised a new initiative - The Hacker Within: Swinburne  - that I hope to get up and running in a couple of weeks. The idea is to start build up software skills by working on .Astronomy hack projects throughout the year, rather than just relying on the online courses such as Coursera, Codecademy and Software and Data Carpentry. My gut feeling is that a project based approach will enable researchers to learn more quickly, actually have projects to showcase their efforts, potentially improve/complement their existing research projects, and better prepare them for .Astronomy7, and help build up the skills required for alternative career paths. Plus why should .Astronomy (fun, fun, fun!) be restricted to once a year? It's also a cunning way to give myself more time to work on new projects and ideas.

These slides can also be downloaded from Speaker Deck.