Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Guest Blog Post: Nick Riddle Makes Friends With Science

I'm delighted to welcome Nick Riddle to the blog! Nick is a writer and editor in the University's Public Relations Office. Take it away, Nick:
As a child I had a fear of dogs. There was no very good reason - they just seemed intimidating. When, as an adult, I overcame this phobia, I started taking an extravagant pleasure in making the acquaintance of certain dogs. I’d make a fuss of them and let them lick my face, which occasioned a few concerned remarks from friends: ‘You know, you really don’t have to let him do that...’

It’s been a bit like that with science. I was your classic science-averse kid who resisted the advances of biology and chemistry, neither of which gained a purchase on my imagination. At home I was captivated by TV science - James Burke’s Connections, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos - but by then I’d dropped the science subjects and was grinding my way miserably through O-level Maths.

But years (and two arts degrees) later, as a writer working at Indiana University, I started interviewing academics about their work. One such subject was a particle physicist who tested laptops and other electronic devices for their resistance to radiation. Even now, when I read the resulting article, I can sense the relish of the younger me trying out his facility for language on a new subject. It was partly the challenge of tackling something new, but there was also a thrill involved in feeling at ease (relatively speaking) with something I used to think of as intimidating.
A neuroscientist could probably tell me which chemicals are sloshing about when this happens (dopamine? You see, I get a little kick just out of throwing the word in there), but I’m willing to bet that they’re the same chemicals at work when I’m saying hello to my friend’s beagle.

These days, as co-editor of Bristol’s Subtext magazine, I get to meet and interview a goodly number of the University’s scientists: astrophysicists, chemists, neuroscientists, biologists, mathematicians - the full range of academic breeds. I don’t imagine for one moment that I’ve understood more than a fraction of their work, and I’d like to do an awful lot better, but just getting to grips with a topic and finding words to describe it can still hit the spot.

So when I knock on the office door of the next scientist - audio recorder in hand, web printout of their research summary in pocket - chances are that I’m silently repeating my mantra: Go ahead, science - lick my face.
Thanks so much, Nick, a lovely image to end on! If you'd like to contribute a guest blog post, please email me at tania.hershman@bris.ac.uk. All contributions welcome!


Jana Wilson said...

As a communications director at a university in the U.S., I know how hard it can be to get information on science research out there. It's easy to misunderstand them, but so important to know what their findings are and how it affects our ordinary lives. So great post, Nick, at helping everyone understand what goes through a writer's head when he/she talks to a scientist. NOW..I wonder what goes through the scientist's head???

Tania Hershman said...

Hi Jana,
thanks so much for commenting, great to meet you! Ah now, what goes through a scientist's head? That's what I'm trying to find out as writer-in-residence in the Science Faculty. Will keep you posted!

Nick Riddle said...

Hi Jana - yes, I wonder what goes through a scientist's head when we talk. Of course, it's probably what goes through anyone's head. It's easy to mythologise... One question I always used to ask scientists was whether they dreamed about their work, imagining they must have wild visions of being pursued by foaming bacteria and what have you. But no. Not really. So I stopped asking.

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