The closing ceremony for the International Astronomical Union (IAU) General Assembly marks not only the culmination of a two week science conference, but also the official change of the Executive Committee. This did not go well.Read More
Today, twitter exploded with the hashtag #GirlsWithToys , showing a plethora of pictures of female scientists standing next to the tools of their trade.Read More
I had just begun to give my lecture (Waves & Fluids: a masterfully prepared presentation) when I felt something hit my skin just inside the neck of my top.Read More
This week, I walked into a hotel and was handed an envelope of cash and an empty tube.Read More
There are two events that send my delicately balanced work schedule into the realms of chaos.
The first is a deadline. The end of the semester is an excellent choice but an upcoming conference also makes a great substitute if the date isn't working with you.
The second is a brand new seminar. Preparing slides to lecture on a new topic (that is, one for which it's not possible to cannibalise previous talks) is immensely time consuming. An unkind person might suggest here that I tend towards perfectionism, but I rebuke this by pointing out pictures take on a whole new level of importance when your audience is pretending really hard not to speak English.
Also, I have an artistic vision and you're not allowed to mess with that, yo!
It is also a sad fact that people take pleasure, nay DELIGHT, in combining these events into one large chaos bomb.
[Note to self: must remind my students that their extended essay is due three days before their final exam.]
Such it was that the world found me awake at 2 am on the last day of my 33rd lap around the sun, putting together the last of my slides for that morning's seminar. The semester end loomed large at the end of the month which meant it was a golden moment for someone to suggest a guest lecture would be perfection in a 90 minute time slot.
But, not to worry! The slides were now drawn and all that was left to do was sort their order and animation flow. I went to bed.
For some entirely unexpected reason, getting up the next morning was a struggle. I was supposed to be in my Japanese class by 8:45 am, but with the homework undone, the test unrevised and my slides still requiring final touches, I took a management decision to cut my losses. And the class.
Even with this guilty concession, I found myself running late for the seminar. I sprinted across campus, tumbled into the lecture room and wished I'd had the foresight to tuck a bottle of water in my bag.
Two minutes later, I would have switched the bottle of water for remembering my laptop's power supply.
I had a spare plug in my office, but that was on the 9th floor of the building, whereas the seminar room was on the 4th. With a single elevator servicing all 11 floors, such excursions had to be carefully timetabled events.
But, not to worry! My battery was fully charged and would probably last through a presentation. Probably.
My first slide flashed up on the screen and I attempted to look like someone who had their life in order. I began to describe the use of computer simulations in astrophysics, relieved that my slides at least looked the part, even if the speaker looked as if she had a hedge as a close cousin.
I was on slide 3 when the next thought struck me:
My period had started.
But … not … to … worry… I focussed on the talk while I tried to plot a course of action.
"There are three main groups of astrophysicists: observers, instrument builders and theorists."
Could I apologise and run to the bathroom? No… I've not got any sanitary pads in my bag…
"One of the problems observers face is they can only see the Universe from one position; the Earth."
Maybe I could run upstairs to my office? No, it would take too long and I don't remember if I have anything there either….
"In reality, we cannot turn-off different physics. But in simulations, physics is like a giant toy box."
Definitely no time to go to the campus store… I'm wearing black trousers... that'll have to do.
This was the scientific equivalent of the thespian phrase: 'The show must go on'. And on it did go while I silently admitted the irony of such a pubescent mistake occurring the day before my 33rd birthday. To anyone who has had 'Young at Heart ' on replay around their birthdays, remember an eternally youthful mind comes at a price.
The seminar ended. Everyone applauded. I answered questions, calmly took my leave and … sprinted back to my apartment to throw myself, work bag and the cat who had appeared under my feet, into the bathroom.
"Why don't YOU get periods?" I demanded to the yellow-green eyes staring up at me.
You've gone mad. Will this affect my food supply?
Freshly clothed (the damage had been mercifully minimal but the day required a new front), I returned to campus and met with my graduate student. Cool, calm and collected; that's me.
"So, what mass are you finding for the star forming clouds?"
Adulthood: Same mistakes. More practised cover-up.
I had my brief:
"Give a 20 minute talk to the general public about your research. They probably do not know any science. Or English."
The Sapporo 'Science Cafe' is a short lecture series run every other month in a big bookstore near Sapporo Station. It is organised by the science communication department at Hokkaido University who invite researchers in different areas to talk about their work in an accessible manner.
Normally, however, they are allowed to use words.
The 'Science Cafe' session I would speak at would be the first offered in English, rather than Japanese. This made everyone very nervous.
The chief organiser of the event requested to see my slides a full month in advance. As someone who typically writes their talk the night before the presentation date, this required a sudden reshuffle of my schedule. He also wanted two practice run throughs, again several weeks before the talk.
Meanwhile, I responded by inviting all my foreign friends with the idea being this crazy scheme would only work if everyone in the audience was secretly an English speaker.
There were debates about the best way to handle the language barrier. The first idea was that I should stop after each slide and allow someone to translate. The problem with this is that I had designed my talk so that each slide presented a single idea, mainly using pictures. This meant there would be times when I would only say a single sentence, or pause on a science-y academy-award-winning cliff-hanger ready for the next slide. Stopping for a translation would therefore make the flow very unnatural.
My solution ran more along the lines of: "Trust me. I got this." My slides were 90% pictures, there were several slides per key point and of the few words I did use, I added in Japanese if the word was complicated (e.g. laboratory) or particular shiny (e.g. gravity). Plus, it included movies and a picture of a cake. What was there not to like?
Sadly, no one believed I was competent. I wondered if they'd been talking to my students. Or my mother.
The compromise reached was that I would talk, but a second projector would be used to display a rough Japanese translation of what I was saying. This translation was taken from the second practice run I did in front of a video camera.
… did I mention this was done several weeks in advance? And I didn't have a copy of the video to check what I'd said the first time?
Still, so long as everyone picked a single language and didn't try to mix n' match, we'd be good! (And if some audience members could understand both Japanese and English, I was jealous and they deserved to get a headache).
About a week after my practice run, I received an envelope containing fliers advertising the talk in Japanese. I emailed the organiser to suggest an English version also be prepared, since the talk itself would in fact be in English (and I had done my best to fill the audience with people who did not speak Japanese; I didn't mention this, his stress levels might have exploded). To my pleasure, I received a pretty good English translation and was asked to smooth it out.
That was when I realised that the flier description didn't match my talk content at all.
I was talking about star formation and the use of numerical simulations in astrophysics. The flier described a talk on cosmology and the fate of the universe. It sounded pretty cool, but it wasn't in my presentation. In fact, it wasn't even close.
I sent my polished translation back and added the postscript, "This is a little different from my talk … is that a problem?" That this flier is ALL LIES? Maybe the general public were considered commoners of the lowest order and their complaints were unimportant. As a physicist, I was rather impressed with that view, but it rather flew in the face of putting on these lectures to begin with. Shortly afterwards, I got a reply:
"In truth, I wrote the flier before I had talked to you."
In which case, I suppose I should be glad it was at least on astronomy. The saving grace in the situation was that there were to be two speakers for this event, with the second speaker also being from my department and talking about a topic much closer to the flier contents. Rather typically for my work in Japan, this was the first I had heard about there being two speakers. I had long ago stopped being surprised by such twists.
The day of the talk dawned dazzlingly sunny. Light poured through the floor to ceiling windows of the book shop's foyer...
… right onto the projector screen, rendering it near invisible.
May I just say that a physicist setting up that screen would not have made this mistake? I was up for rotating the whole set-up around, but I was told to go away and get a cup of coffee. It was a Big Bang Theory, Sheldon-esque moment.
So invisible slides and no words allowed. Interpretive dance it would be! Actually, I did speculate whether I could demonstrate my main points with audience participants. My friend was expecting a baby, so she could have been the star-forming cloud. There was a small boy in the front row who could have been a protostar, any adult would fill-in for the main star and … I sipped my coffee and wondered if I asked my boss to be a dying-star supernovae he would think I was after his job.
In the end, the talk went smoothly. The projector was inched close to the screen to provide a dim outline of each slide and I was given a pop-star hands-free microphone that allowed me to elaborately gesture every point I was making. Preparing for such an event is a fair amount of work, since the slides have to be carefully crafted and my words selected so as many people would understand as possible. However, the actual giving of the presentation is much more enjoyable. Mainly because for those 20 minutes, it's all about me.
And I love that.
The hardest part of the time was the questions after the event. Even though they were translated into English, they tended to rove all over astronomy. Crafting a suitable response for a non-scientist and then phrasing the English into a concise, simply sentence left me with at least a minute of making goldfish faces at the crowd before I could construct a mediocre response.
The crowd consisted of about 100 people. Some of them probably learnt something about galaxies. Others learnt that fliers lie. Still more took away that British people look like fish when under pressure.
My aim was to speak well enough that everyone understood the general gist of what I was saying, enjoyed the talk as an experience but COULD NOT WAIT to return to the Japanese-only version in two months time. This hope was blown out the window when a friend I'd stashed in the crowd told me that around her, people were requesting via the questionnaire for more talks in English.
I am simultaneously deeply gratified and dismayed.
On Friday afternoons, I take the role of Simon Cowell.
The British television personality came to fame through his notoriously harsh criticism of talent show contestants. His ability to slam anyone and everyone's attempts on stage got him both a talking wax work model at Madam Tussaud's (where visitors could enjoy being insulted themselves) and a spot on every future talent show on both sides of the Atlantic pond.
Fun fact: Before appearing on 'American idol', Simon Cowell had his teeth veneered to give him the showbiz white smile. This move was ridiculed in the UK, where cosmetic dentistry is frequently viewed as excessive vanity. As a side note, the view that Brits actually have bad teeth is not correct (at least, not my generation and below) but having work done for pure aesthetics is still relatively uncommon.
The afternoon on the last day of the week is the time for our research group meeting. In this hour, a hapless student is made to do a presentation in English on a research paper they have recently read. Bearing in mind that such publications are frequently jargon-heavy, excessively long turgid reads that often refer back to a string of previously published works by the same authors, this is not an easy task.
This week one of my own students was on the podium and he was doing an admirable job. While still struggling with speaking English fluidly, he had put together a comprehensive review of the paper, pulled out the relevant highlights from past related works and added helpful diagrams to demonstrate some of the newer concepts.
None of this stopped me tearing him apart limb from limb.
Really, he loved it. If he shows up again on Monday.
The main issue was that --in common with most of his peers-- my student tended to copy out relevant sentences of the paper word by word, rather than using his own terms. The reason is quite understandable: if you're concerned about the quality of your own English, why not use someone else's that's already made the point? However, such a tactic has three problems:
The first is that paper writing isn't designed for presentations. Sentences tend to be long and heavy with technical terms than may (if you're lucky) have been defined in an earlier section. A presentation, on the other hand, needs to have short pithy comments that people can quickly glance at while you're speaking.
The second problem is that --since the sentences are long and technical-- I knew my student would never have written them. This leaves me wondering if he has truly understood the underlying concept.
Finally, since I am the only native English speaker in a group that consists of many 4th year undergraduates and Masters students, using such constructs doesn't help the audience understand the presentation.
This led to each slide presented being dissected and re-explained. Sadly for me, the answers left little to insult. I wasn't able to use any of the lines I had planned. Not even "You're like a singing candle. You just stand there and melt." or "I won't remember you in 15 minutes." or "Did you really believe you could become an American Idol? Well, then you're deaf.". I couldn't even slide in Shut up and start singing.".
… Although admittedly if I had we would still be in the seminar room now while I attempted to explain why I had compared my student to a candle, demonstrated serious memory problems, promptly forgotten we were in Japan and then suggested he set his thesis work to music.
At the end, I just had one final question: "On your 4th slide, what is the difference between the data given by the black line and that by the blue?"
My student explained and then looked at me expectantly. "I actually don't know," I admitted. "It was a genuine question."