Astronomy Outreach 2007

As is obvious from the very existence of this blog, I have a particular interest in communicating astronomy. So last Friday I attended a meeting in London about public outreach in astronomy, particle physics and nuclear physics organised by the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) or Facilities Council UK as somebody jokingly referred to it.

The talks were mostly short and repeated things I had already heard of or knew about. If it had just been about the talks I would have felt as though the effort of getting there had not been quite worth it. The most enthusing and useful parts of events like this, however, often tend to be the opportunity to chat with people during the tea breaks, lunch and at the pub afterwards. This networking aspect, although a cliche, is a vital part of getting to know others, finding better ways to do things and getting new ideas off the ground. I certainly had a good time chatting with various astronomers from around the UK who were all brilliantly enthusiastic about communicating astronomy to the people who ultimately pay for it.

At a similar event back in 2005 I came away with an impression that although there were lots of exciting things happening around the UK, very few people knew what anyone else was up to. There was a distinct lack of coordination/communication amongst those communicating the science. Another of the problems in 2005 were the poor analogies that particle physicists had come up with to describe the upcoming Large Hadron Collider. Comparing a multi-billion euro project as equivalent to "the energy of a flying mosquito" is just not exciting enough even if it does seem to be an international standard of analogy for particle physicists. I'm glad to say that the bad analogies appear to have gone and the outreach folks seem a bit more aware of each other. Perhaps social networking on the web has helped in the past two years. In fact, Web 2.0 was one of the main impressions I got from the day. Many of the speakers dropped in references to social networking, Facebook, MySpace, podcasts or blogs at some point and I could probably have played Web 2.0 buzzword bingo.

Another recurring theme of the meeting was criticism of the European Space Agency's publicity arm. This was especially topical given the amazing lack of press coverage for the results from Venus Express last week. The fault here lies in ESA's publicity wing who have the hard task of translating press releases into around 17 languages. The result can be that press releases are not brilliantly written and can hide the exciting parts of the research. Another problem related to ESA is finding relevant information on their website. Just try to find the Venus Express homepage for instance. NASA, on the other hand, currently have a big picture link to an article about Venus Express on their homepage. Incidentally that link makes no mention of ESA until you follow it to the main story. The criticisms levelled at ESA were mostly meant to highlight how things could and should be improved especially given the exciting science coming out of its current missions and those of the next few years.

My time down in Westminster was well spent and a few plans for the future have come out of it. The only disconcerting thing was that I kept expecting an alien spaceship to crash into the Big Ben bell tower!

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 03rd Dec 2007 (19:21 GMT) | Permalink
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