Today was Pi day. To join in the festivities, here in Marseille, I took my kid to the Pi-day exhibit at MuCEM, the new fancy museum they built in 2013 here in Marseille. It was packed. The room was on the top floor, and it was packed with people (sorry for the poor quality of the photo, my cell phone doesn’t handle the sun pouring in the windows well!). It was full of tables with various activities all having to do with mathematics. Puzzles and games that ranged from logic to group theory. It was very well done, and the students were enthusiastic and very helpful. They really wanted nothing more than to be here on a Saturday with this huge crowd of people. For the 45 minutes we were exploring everyone seemed to be having a good time.
And when I say packed, I really do mean packed. When we left the fire marshals had arrived, and were carefully counting people. The folks (all students from nearby universities) were carefully making sure that only one person went in for everyone that went out.
Each time I go to one of these things or participate in one of these things I’m reminded how much the public likes it. The Particle Fever movie is an obvious recent really big example. It was shown over here in Marseille in a theater for the first time about 6 months ago. The theater sold out! This was not uncommon back in the USA (though sometimes smaller audiences happened as well!). The staging was genius: the creator of the movie is a fellow physicist and each time a town would do a showing, he would get in contact with some of his friends to do Q&A after the movie.
Another big one I helped put together was the Higgs announcement on July 3, 2012, in Seattle. There were some 6 of us. It started at midnight and went on till 2 am (closing time). At midnight, on a Tuesday night, there were close to 200 people there! We’d basically packed the bar. The bar had to kick us out as people were peppering us with questions as we were trying to leave before closing. It was a lot of fun for us, and it looked like a lot of fun for everyone else that attended.
I remember the planning stages for that clearly. We had contingency plans in case no one showed up. Or how to alter our presentation if there were only 5 people. I think we were opening for about 40 or so. And almost 200 showed up. I think most of us did not think the public was interested. This attitude is pretty common – why would they care about the work we do is a common theme in conversations about outreach. And it is demonstrably wrong.
The lesson for people in these fields: people want to know about this stuff! And we should figure out how to do these public outreach events more often. Some cost a lot and are years in the making (e.g. the movie Particle Fever), but others are easy. For example – Science Café’s around the USA.
And in more different ways. For example, some friends of mine have come up with a neat way of looking for cosmic rays – using your cell phones (most interesting conversation on this project can be found on twitter). What a great way to get everyone involved!
And there are selfish reasons for us to do these things! A lot of funding for science comes from various governments agencies in the USA and around the world (be it local or federal), and the more of the public knows what is being done with their tax dollars, and what interesting results are being produced, the better. Sure, there are people who will never be convinced, but there are also a lot that will become even more enthusiastic.
So… what are your next plans for an outreach project?