Last night, braving horrible traffic on the way there, and snow on the way back, I made my way to the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences for the Darwin Day shark lecture co-organized by NESCent and the sneak preview of the Megalodon exhibit which officially opens today.
I have to say that the trip was very much worth making – the exhibit is excellent! I like the way the exhibit is making good use of the space – so many exhibits feel cluttered and an all-out assault on all of one’s senses. Upon entering the room, it looks quite sparse. Yet, once I started going around I saw how much it actually covers, how well organized the exhibit layout is, how much information (including a lot of new-to-me information) is included and presented so very clearly and tastefully, and how much it has something for everyone independent of age, background or interest. And of course – the fossils! Absolutely amazing and stunning fossils! From the magnificent Megalodon jaws, to some of the strangest teeth arrangements one has ever seen in any jaw of any animal.
Then, exhausted and a little faintly from the lack of food yesterday (yes, it was a busy day), I entered the lecture hall afraid I’d fall asleep or pass out in the middle of the talk. I need not have worried – Adam Summers is an amazing speaker. I was able not just to pay attention throughout, I was excited throughout the talk. For a jaded biologist and blogger, when many public lectures tend to present stuff already well known to me, it was refreshing to keep learning new stuff every couple of minutes or so. And not just new factoids, but new questions and new ways of thinking about them – why are sharks larger than bony fish, why sharks have no bone, how do sharks swim, how do sharks and bony fish manage to swim very fast, etc. Questions I never asked myself before.
There were things in there that are outside my realm of expertise, for which I am essentially a layman: engineering principles, a formula I am unfamiliar with, a couple of graphs….yet all of that was made very clear on an intuitive level. How? Because Adam is really good at using analogies (“think of this as…”) and metaphors (snuck into the description without any warning). Be it water-filters, armor, stacks of coins, or houses made of sponges, it all becomes vivid and immediately makes sense.
It is also obvious that a lot of research went into this, yet very few actual data were shown – only the key data that are essential to make the point. This is a public lecture – there is no need to drown the audience in gazillions of graphs and discussions of statistics. The slides, including the images and brief video clips were both beautiful and essential for grasping the point he is making. And then there was quite a lot of humor, mainly of the self-deprecating kind making fun of himself and his students in the context of scientist stereotypes – how they look, talk, think and behave.
All in all – well done. Who ever said that scientists don’t know how to communicate to lay audience, eh?