03 January 2011

Make a difference for photonics: tell your story

Have you ever tried to explain your research to a non-scientist, and how the results could make a difference in everyday life?

Ted Maiman had that challenge 50 years ago with his ruby laser. The first successful demonstration of the now-ubiquitous technology was labeled at the time as “a solution in search of a problem.”

That characterization is profoundly ironic, these days. It is a rare person indeed who can go through even part of a day without using something that is either made by, run by, or otherwise touched by laser technology.

The point is, what is obvious to the scientist may not be so to others. Being able to explain the value of research to the non-scientist may require some imagination. But it is increasingly important for the future of R&D funding. Budgets everywhere are being tightened, and competition for available money is keen.

Some non-scientists are policy makers tasked with recommending how much money to invest in research or innovation programs, and what type of science to support.

Some of them are science writers for mainstream media, and some are their readers.

All of them potentially are voters, who might lend science their support if they understood it better, and many of them are students -- the future workforce -- looking for careers that will enable them to help make the world a better place.

The SPIE leadership, volunteers, and staff involved with activities celebrating the 50th anniversary of the laser last year have had a great time telling whoever will listen about the importance of that technology.

We followed a time-tested formula:

·         Engage the emotions.
·         Tell a story.
·         Offer a hands-on experience.
·         Show the relevance -- how can the technology be applied?

We started with fun: acrobats and a laser magician at the Cirque du Lasaire reception at Photonics West in San Francisco.

More importantly, we told dozens of stories, many via display panels paying tribute to numerous laser scientists and innovators. The panels have been shown at more than 50 conferences and other venues around the world, and in five languages.

More than 40 laser luminaries working in the field have told their own stories, in video interviews that are available on SPIE.TV and YouTube.

Hands-on learning has been enabled by dozens of outreach grants to student chapters and other volunteers around the world. Altogether, these optics and photonics researchers and developers have trained many thousands of students, including teachers who will go on to share their knowledge with others.

What potential does your work have to improve quality of life, enable sustainable energy, offer better security, or treat disease? Tell that story -- often. If you can, show how it works -- the simpler, the better, like demonstrating coherence with a laser pointer and a couple of mirrors.

You really don’t need acrobats or magic tricks, just enthusiasm; and you already have the story. A better understanding of science among non-scientists can be only good for the future of science R&D and for the future of life on the planet. Help that along by talking about your work.

Here's an archival interview with Ted Maiman, telling his story:







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