This third episode of our new podcast You’re Up Next features Shane Bergin, a physicist who works in education at University College Dublin and a public engagement expert, with our host Jessamyn Fairfield. Listen here or read through the transcript below.

Jessamyn Fairfield: One of the things I love about good public engagement is that it’s about bringing things together and breaking down the hierarchies you so often find around knowledge, the status hierarchies where people try to say, oh this is a ‘prestigious’ field and this is an ‘easy’ field. I hate that because it’s narrow-minded, and it’s wrong.

Physics is kind of the worst for that, actually. Physicists will act like science underlies everything and physics underlies the other sciences, who was it that said everything is either physics or stamp collecting? Some asshole. I remember in my physics graduate department, they had an even more elitist version of that joke, that everyone who wasn’t doing particle physics was ‘just an engineer’. I mean firstly, engineering is super interesting and creates the world around us, so just fuck off. But secondly, I mean really, are you serious? I mean, I know why people do this. They do it because they want to feel that their field, their job, is important and one way to do that is by putting other people down. But that’s like keeping people behind you by slamming a door in their face – you separate yourself from everything you could have learned from that person, that field. It makes your world smaller. Who would want that?

This gets to why I think comedy is the perfect format for challenging elitism – comedy is about upending hierarchies – about punching up, challenging the status quo. Done correctly, comedy should be subversive. People ask me about ‘edgy’ or ‘offensive’ comedy – to me, most of the time when someone is doing ‘offensive’ comedy they are actually just being lazy. They are saying stereotypes, and hoping that people will laugh out of familiarity with the stereotype rather than because it’s surprising or a new take or funny. If you’re reinforcing the status quo, I’m not interested and I’m not sure it’s comedy. And, if your science joke relies on knowing sciencey terms or has some tired nonsense where an overworked graduate student is the butt of the joke, I’m not interested.

But if you are seeing your field in a new way, telling people stories that shed light on not just a part of human knowledge, but the people who create it, now that’s interesting. I love this about running Bright Club. Speakers are so fascinating and they have so many things to say, and to hear someone get up and talk about solar physics, and then someone else talk about engineering challenges in the developing world, and someone else talk about philosophy and the basis of our understanding of that world, and to hear this all done outside the formal learning environments with no one taking themselves too seriously – now that is something I would go to every night. I didn’t invent the Bright Club format, but I brought it to Ireland because I wanted to be able to go to an event like that. And it’s a constant delight to me that other people feel the same way. 

I also really like having people from all different career stages speak at Bright Club: undergraduate to professor. We’ve had non-academics speak too, because they are still part of the picture of how research is done – a couple academic administrators have come and done hilarious sets just skewering university bureaucracy and how hierarchical and ridiculous it is. That’s part of the story, whether we highlight it or not.

But it’s funny, because universities are supposed to be equalizers – they’re supposed to give anyone a chance to work hard and better themselves. It’s the whole ‘lift yourself up by your bootstraps’ thing, and while the idealistic view of universities is that they reward those who are clever and hardworking, the reality is that people who have money or come from an educated background are just more likely to succeed there. And then these are the people then doing research or creating new knowledge, with this filter already applied. Education is partly learning but it’s also partly inculturation, and if you are already part of the culture you will just have an easier time of it. So how do we flip that on its head, and make sure that everyone gets to be a part of research, to have their voice heard?

Shane Bergin: Hi, my name is Shane Bergin. I’m a physicist that works in UCD. But I work in the School of Education. I work with people who want to become science teachers or people who are interested in how we learn science, in particular how we learn physics. So as well as working with people who want to become teachers, my research is primarily in this area of informal learning, this idea of learning outside of the classroom. 

I’m really interested in it for lots of reasons. One of which is that I think the informal space gives people the opportunity to explore what it might be like to be a scientist or a physicist in a way that other parts of their education system may not. I started thinking about this a long time ago when I was talking with undergraduate students and remembering my own experience as a student. I asked them, “Do you feel like a physicist?”. Most of them said no. Indeed, when I look back to my own education, I don’t think that I really felt that I was a physicist until I finished my PhD. And even then I wasn’t so sure. And I wondered, why was that the case? It’s incredible. After so many years of studying, I wasn’t confident to call myself a physicist, I had learned and done really well in a lot of exams, like lots of my friends had, but I didn’t feel like it was part of my identity. I thought, that’s really strange. Like I’ve learned all this science, so am I not a scientist? So it made me think about what do scientists do? And how do we call ourselves scientists? 

I suppose it led me to think about being brought into a community. And that for us to identify with any group, we need to feel like we’re accepted. We need to have practices and norms that we’d associate with that group, and physics is no different. And I’ve always felt that so-called ‘outreach’ or ‘informal learning’ is a space that gives me the opportunity to do those things, and so I hoped it would give my students the opportunities to think about what it might be like to be a physicist, through doing things like outreach, public engagement, informal learning. And having done that for quite a number of years, and having had a lot of fun setting up some unusual programs, I have three values that I associate with informal learning, and they helped me think about my identity as a physicist. So the first one is that, you know, any program that’s out there needs to recognize that people are complex. So I like physics, but if I weren’t a physicist, I probably – well I’d like to be a musician. So, you know, I can be perhaps a physicist and a musician. So this idea of dual identity or multiple identities is something that an informal program can do, perhaps in a way that a regular degree can’t do. 

So I set up a program called Quavers to Quadratics with the National Concert Hall. And it sees children play with ideas that are common to physics and to music. The children, primary school children, they’re led in their play by undergraduate students from music and from science, particularly physics. And so they have to work together, they have to do something called co-teaching. And we can see firstly, it’s very positive, they have a real strong sense of collective ownership over Quavers to Quadratics. We also see that it facilitates them having multiple identities, that they feel I can be a physicist and a musician or a musician and a physicist. 

I think another thing that’s very important is that when you’re working with any outreach team or public engagements team, that a diverse team will lead to diverse outcomes. And I think that’s very important when we think about science. Scientists in general, we have a very narrow sense of who scientists are. It’s well known from the ‘draw a scientist’ experiment that’s run for 50 years that people will draw a very sort of stereotype scientist, somebody with crazy hair, glasses, lab coats, explosions, all of that sort of thing – an Einstein-like character. Yet, even scientists will do that, by the way, but yet even even though we have like, tried so hard to increase the visibility of other types of scientists – so called ‘real scientists’ into schools and into real life – It hasn’t really made a huge dent. And I started to think about, well, what are they doing that for? 

Is it just to get more people into science? And if that’s the case, I sort of have a problem with that, because science is not being asked to consider how it treats people who come into it. I want science to be a welcoming place for all sorts of people. Because I think that by bringing in or welcoming in, rather, a diverse group of people and making that diversity core to science, it will lead to diverse outcomes. And I think this logic too can be applied to informal learning. If I can work with diverse groups of people be they artists, be they other types of scientists, be they students, be they people who have nothing to do with science at all, then diverse outcomes will occur. 

So my last thing I think is very important is that our scientific views of ourselves, I think that like, this is very pertinent at the moment with the rise of so-called ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’. In that sort of world scientists are I think, positioning themselves as having the facts, that we’re the people who know things. And that’s what we’re saying about ourselves. And whilst we do know stuff. I think positioning ourselves as the final arbiters of truth is a very dangerous position. I think we do know stuff, but we don’t know everything and science is not the only way to understand the world. 

Science is a process and I think that if we, as scientists can recognize that then we have strength in defining our expertise in a way that goes beyond just being about the facts. And I think that has impact for outreach and for Public Engagement. Public Engagement needs to be more than just press releases of ‘this is the latest thing we found’. People grow tired of that. People also confuse then science for technology. People are told continuously about the latest new thing. And then when you look at it over like a period of years, you’re like, “well, I’ve been told about the latest new thing forever, but my life hasn’t really changed”, people think. So I think it’s more important that we we talk about the reality of how science works and talk about its power, rather than just say, “Hey, we’re the boffins, we have the facts, we know best”. And so I’m going to to end with that point, that I think we scientists needs to be very mindful about who we are and how we collectively work. Perhaps we could do a little bit of talking with our colleagues in the social sciences and the humanities, to make that sort of idea of mine more of a reality. 

Jessamyn Fairfield: Shane’s last point there really resonates with me, as someone who has an arts degree in math and physics. I think that scientists have so much to gain by embedding themselves with other disciplines, and vice versa. In the Irish context, I would love to see more of a liberal arts approach in universities – that students are choosing their main field of study, but still have to explore other options. My own undergrad required classes in arts, history, philosophy, social science, biological and physical sciences, and international studies. For everyone! Imagine if we took that approach, valuing each of these lenses on knowledge and understanding and culture rather than pretending that one has any primacy over the others. It would make for better scientists, better citizens, and better people.