I’m a Scientist Get Me Out of Here!

A week or so ago I was a contestant on the inaugural Australian version of I’m a Scientist Get me Out of Here! Scientists were gathered in an online area – 5 in each zone – and peppered with science questions by school kids. The questions could be on anything, and came in directly via the website, or during frantic real-time chat sessions where we’re really interacting with the kids. The event was recently piloted in the UK, but this was the first time it was run elsewhere.

Naturally kids have access to people with science backgrounds – their teachers, first and foremost. They can also read stuff and watch stuff on TV and read things online. But this competition gives them a chance to interact directly with practicing scientists, and that doesn’t normally happen.

After a week or so of asking questions the students start voting for which scientist they’d like to stay, and the one with the least votes is evicted. One eviction per day until the winner is declared and awarded $1000 to help fund a science outreach activity. The evictions were pretty brutal. It was interesting that many of us spent a lot of the week describing good evolutionary arguments for various things, but when you’re actually part of a survival of the fittest exercise, suddenly it’s not so great. I lasted till the final two in the Hydrogen Zone, and was pipped to the post by Aimee Parker, a Monash Honours student and budding science communicator with a flair for explaining science of all kinds. Congratulations Aimee, well deserved.

So how was it? It was a total blast. Any scientists reading this – sign up to get involved next time round.

The questions would sometimes come in late at night – one batch were released around 11 pm, and I found myself typing away for a couple of hours like some sci-junkie. The addictiveness comes from the fact that it’s a competition, sure, and you want to answer questions first so that you can get your answer in first. But it’s much more the kinds of questions you get (which are on a broad range of things) and partly because you feel that the kids actually want to know the answers. You can also wax lyrical about what science is and what you do in your work. Then you can switch to talking about relativity and GM foods.

Some highlights included an excellent question on what are the 5 commonest molecules (see how the ambiguity necessitates a long answer), a question on predicting when we’ll be eating synthetic meat, various questions about lightning, a truly awesome question about what happens if you’re in a car going at the speed of light and you switch on the headlights (needed several goes at that one)  and another priceless one that generated a lot of analysis about what it’s like at the centre of the Earth if you dug a hole there.

There were also lots of solid, sensible questions that it felt good to answer. A lot of questions were Googlable/Wikipediable, but were still asked, which may say something about children’s healthy skepticism of answers on the web, or their over-faith in the authority of scientists to talk on any subject. Interestingly there were quite a few questions (both on the website and in the furious chat sessions) about a) whether the world would end in 2012, and b) evolution/big bang/origin of life. On the first of those, it was interesting that the kids were all asking about the supposed 2012 apocalypse, but that hardly any of them believed it. So the idiotic meme was successful but did not stand up to much thought. On the other hand the questions about evolution and related things indicated that a lot of kids were wrestling with the contrast between religion and science and it wasn’t clear in many cases which way they were going. The questions were often phrased with a hint of disbelief that things could just have “arisen” or “happened” which perhaps suggested that the kids weren’t so happy with all the uncertainties of the current state of scientific origin theories. I was at pains to point out that uncertainty is good, because it makes us ask questions, and that science is about probabilities rather than absolutes. But it’s still a challenge, and it was great to be able to lay those challenges out.

Thanks to the wonderful team behind the event (Kristin, James, Sarah) for making everything work so well and adeptly fielding the hilarious curveballs that would crop up in the chats, and thank you to all the school children who asked stuff (particularly the ones who voted for me – I love you guys…) The kids made it such a cool event by virtue of their most awesome weapon – curiosity. All power to them.