What’s in a name?

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Many names over the centuries have become synonymous with scientific achievement and discovery, etched in our collective understanding for the ages. Like famous explorers – famous scientists leave their names in the footprints of history with phenomena, units, models and formulae named after them. The most famous scientists tend to be those who not only make great discoveries that advance mankind, but also manage to communicate their work and the importance of their work to the world outside their lab. They are also great science communicators.

Yesterday, Stephen Hawking passed away. Arguably one of the most well known physicists of our time. Hawking radiation, just one of his many theoretical accomplishments carries his name. Hawking wasn’t just a theorist though, he made the transition from academic to popular culture with his books aimed at children and adults as well as appearances in popular media such as the Simpsons, Star Trek and the Big Bang Theory. Stephen Hawking was a passionate Science Communicator in whose honour the prestigious Stephen Hawking medal for Science Communication was named. This is awarded annually at Starmus festival to recognise excellence in Science Communication at an international level.

The story of Starmus festival in itself is a great story of Science Communication. In 2007 Brian May, founding guitarist of the rock band Queen, completed his PhD dissertation on zodiacal dust in the solar system. Along with one of his co-supervisors who also happened to be a musician, they founded the festival as a way to “celebrate science and the arts with the goal of bringing an understanding and appreciation of science to the public at large.”

In a world where we are exposed to and consuming more information than ever before, it is vital that Scientists are able to convey their work to the public in a way that the public will understand. Scientists like Stephen Hawking attempted to bridge the gap between academia and the public through writing, speaking and films aimed at explaining their very complicated research to a public audience. This trend of scientist as communicator carries on with many leading scientists today writing, filming and speaking about their work to the public. (Including our very own budding scientists, the OUASSA students, who are presenting their work to the public on the 13th of July at the Otago Museum). After all, as our own Ernest Rutherford is quoted as saying “It should be possible to explain the laws of physics to a barmaid”.

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