Why is the sky blue?

As scientists, have you ever been asked the question: “what do you do?”

And get a blank stare of complete incomprehension back when you answer it?

I have, and I haven’t even done any seriously complicated science.

The thing is, and it is a beautiful as well as flawed thing, is that scientists become so excited and enthralled about their subject. This quite often means that when they are asked about it, they forget who the questioner is. They (mostly unconsciously) slip into technical jargon mode, explaining fine details that, frankly, no one but their supervisor could understand.

At this weeks Toastmasters meeting I was given the role of Table Topics Master, where I had the opportunity to set six lucky people a question they had to answer in one and a half minutes, without any prior preparation.

The room full of potential targets were all Imperial College students: highly intelligent scientists and engineers, all wanting to improve their communication skills.

I wanted to set them a challenge. I wanted them to think about their audience, about who was asking the question. This is, I think, a skill that is vital for scientists to have. They need to be able to suss out what level of knowledge the questioner has on their subject, and reply at a suitable level. This is key to communicating your work. If you want someone to come away with an idea of what you do, why you do it, and why it is important (this is key when writing grant applications) you need to be able to get them to engage with you and your ideas. It’s is very difficult if they don’t understand what you are saying.

I also wanted them to realise that it is very difficult to simplify a complex idea like your own research, if you cannot explain some of the most fundamental concepts of science. These will probably be buried deep into the science that you are doing, but they are important, because without them, you wouldn’t have a project. By having a good understanding of these basics, scientists would be able to draw on these to help explain their research in different ways.

So, I wanted them to pretend I was a five year old girl. As a five year old, I may not have had a clue about the majority of their research, but I would have had an immense curiosity for learning new things. I wanted them to use their scientific knowledge and background to explain some very simple scientific concepts.

My selection of questions were:
What is gravity?
Why, if we cant see a magnetic field, do we represent it with lines?
Is a plant alive?
Why is the sky blue?
But my favourite question was “why is my image reversed horizontally (left-to-right) when I look in a mirror, but not vertically (top-to-bottom)?” Which I will venture to answer in a following post!

Some of these questions stumped those I chose to answer them, which is unfortunate, but they did give it a go. Not many were able to use their imagination and creativity to come up with something a five year old would understand. “What is gravity?” Was answered with terms such as heliocentric model, two massive bodies, radius, forces. The young lady who answered “are plants alive?” was able to relate to the children by explaining life cycles of plants in relation to humans to which, I believe, a five year old would be able to relate. My favourite answer, however, came from the Vice President of the club, Julius Heyne. He answered the question “why is the sky blue?” By asking the audience what life would be like if it was purple.

A patron of the club came to listen to the talks this evening, and he said something that really hit home with me whilst talking to him after the meeting. “A good measure of a good speech is how many people remember what you said afterwards.” People tend to forget things very quickly when they don’t understand what you are saying. So, if you want your questioner or audience to remember, and understand what you have to say, find out what they know, and pitch your answer accordingly.

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One Response to Why is the sky blue?

  1. Sam says:

    Nice article, Julie. It sounds like you did a really fun and interesting talk.

    As a teacher, I think you’ve identified one of the two essential things in explaining a difficult topic. That is identifying the prior knowledge of your audience. It is often less than they will claim, so asking them what they know won’t necessarily give you the answer you need. It’s best to discover their knowledge or lack of it by asking them a few questions.

    The second most important thing is to get them to listen to you. This is a lot harder, but again a skill that can be learned.

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