Humour as a way of communicating science would seem to be the philosophy of the Naked Scientists. On radio stations across the east of England, via their internet site and by holding meetings in science cafés, these researchers and journalists communicate their enthusiasm.
The Naked Scientists team are true to their word.
The aim was to strip science bare and make it accessible to all, using radio as the principal medium. The adventure of the Naked Scientists began in 1999 with a series of broadcasts on commercial stations. The driving force behind it was Chris Smith, at the time a doctoral student and today a specialist in virology at Cambridge University and still very much involved in the project. Thanks to a grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) it was not long before the team was able to broadcast a more ambitious programme, soon followed by an accompanying internet site. It was in 2001 that they adopted The Naked Scientists as their name. “We wanted a title that was rather daring and unusual so as to spark a reaction and get listeners and internauts thinking, immediately defining science as a subject open to all.”
The one-hour programme, during which researchers speak of their work and answer listeners’ questions, goes out weekly on local BBC Radio stations in the east of England and is streamed worldwide. It covers just about any subject, from flying saucers to antibiotics and including avian flu and heart operations on gorillas.
Fact or fiction? Science news, flavoured with a distinctively British sense of humour, forms the programme’s essential ingredient. The playful note is sounded by ‘Science Fact or Science Fiction’ which presents statements such as, "an ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain”, or “smoke detectors are radioactive”. It is for listeners to decide whether these are true or false, with science books and kits as prizes for the quickest and the brightest. It provides for some truly entertaining radio, as regular listener Sonia explains: “I was never very interested in science at school but thanks to the Naked Scientists I find I can now answer my children’s questions.”
“Science’s bad image is largely due to the television programmes of the 1960s, inhabited by terrifying individuals with their hair standing on end and spectacles more powerful than the Hubble telescope,” jokes Chris Smith. “In the Naked Scientists, the humour puts the listeners at ease and encourages them to phone in. This approach enables us to hold their attention, which is not easy in a medium where the visual component is absent.”
Naked Science cafés Since 2002, Naked Science ‘scientific cafés’ have also been held every month and have met with a success to match the radio broadcasts and internet site. During these 90-minute events, attended by a maximum of 100 people, a scientist first presents a subject and then opens it up for discussion. They are held in the cosy surroundings of the second floor of a Cambridge bookshop and the subjects are always very specific. The first Naked Science scientific café was a debate with Dr Adrian Pini with the intriguing title: ‘Will Superman walk again?’. The discussion centred on regeneration of the spinal cord and brain tissue which happens spontaneously in fish and frogs but not in humans.
As the team explains, "science and technology concern a number of fields in our day-to-day lives. It is important for the public to understand their role. It is for us to get science out of the lecture theatres and classrooms and into more friendly places.”
"After presenting science programmes on Italian radio for 12 years, I realised that I knew nothing about what was happening in Europe,” explains Matteo Merzagora. “For her part, Elisabetta Tola, who was studying communication sciences, was aware of the lack of literature on the subject. ...
"After presenting science programmes on Italian radio for 12 years, I realised that I knew nothing about what was happening in Europe,” explains Matteo Merzagora. “For her part, Elisabetta Tola, who was studying communication sciences, was aware of the lack of literature on the subject. So we decided to launch the Scirab project.”
Financed by the EU, Scirab (Science in radio broadcasting) aims to strengthen links between radio scientific journalists, via exchanges of information, good practices, etc., and to establish closer links between radio broadcasters and journalists. Debates are organised on subjects such as the different approaches adopted by European radio stations and the specific role radio can play in communicating science. Matteo Merzagora believes that “radio is without doubt the medium in which scientists can express themselves most freely and naturally”. Their voice is not relayed through the pen of a journalist, with all the misinterpretations to which that can give rise, and they are not confined to the strict framework of a TV programme or studio.”