I like talking about my work and I find it hard to say ‘No’ to an invitation. I also think that talking to the public who pay for my work is a really important thing to do! Consequently, I was out-and-about quite a bit last week, giving talks to the public in Oxford, Kingston and Keele.
Why was it tough? Well normally my talks are accompanied by Powerpoint slides: at the click of a remote control I can summon up photographs, diagrams, animations, songs and words.
And I can have a graphic that reminds the audience what I have said already, and reminds me what I am about say next.
Just standing up in a bar and talking felt like being naked. So I used props as ‘fig-leaves’ – handing around a thermal camera, an infrared thermometer and showing people the how an acoustic thermometer works with 50 metres of yellow tubing.
And I tried to regularly re-cap, and remind the audience and myself what I was trying to say. Hopefully something made sense.
It was a lovely audience: there were university students, and parents and children studying GCSEs; there was Helen Sharman – who eschews celebrity – but who shook my hand and smiled at me which in itself made the evening worthwhile! And there were academics from Kingston university, including a neuro-physiologist who told me about TRPV1 and human perception of temperature.
There were questions about absolute zero and ultra-high temperatures. And basic questions about whether the argon gas I had used in my experiment was composed of molecules or atoms.
I had always thought that the word ‘molecule’ referred to the ‘smallest unit which combines chemically’, and that it could be monatomic, diatomic, triatomic or polyatomic. However, I was told that monatomic molecules were not molecules. Mmmm… I will have to think about this – but it is a reminder to me of the importance of using language clearly and precisely.
By chance my talk two days later was at Keele University in a building named for Sir John Lennard-Jones – who made seminal calculations about interactions between argon molecules (or should that be atoms?).
Sadly even the ghost of Sir John had left the building as I started my three-hour drive home. But I reflected on his work as I drove. Based on measurements of the properties of argon gas, he was able to predict the properties and crystal structure of solid argon, which even today is pretty cool.
P.S. On the off-chance that anyone will be interested, I will be giving a talk at the Brighton Cafe Scientifique on June 17th 2014.