Interview | Brian Koberlein One Universe At A Time

We talked to Brian Koberlein of One Universe at a Time about the ins and outs of science communication and what type of food and exercise it takes to keep the mind of a scientist going! Here’s what he said!

HeadStuff: Growing up was there a particular person or moment you remember that brought science alive for you?

Brian: I grew up in a very rural area, so I always had plenty of access to dark skies. I often went out at night to look at stars. When I was about 12 I was given a book called Our Universe, which had vivid illustrations of astrophysical phenomena, and that got me very excited about space.

What’s the most important element for you in science communication?

Brian: Honesty. I think it’s important that one is clear about what they know and don’t know, and also about where the evidence is. In order for science communication to be effective there needs to be a certain amount of trust that we’re being honest about results. Beyond that it’s a matter of being clear and striving to show how science is relevant to people’s lives.

How did you take the step from being a science communicator in the classroom to a popular science communicator?

Brian: Several years ago I was writing a textbook on astrophysics, and I started posting short overviews of topics on Google+ as a way to break out of the academic headspace after hours of text writing. Once the book was finished I had a block of free time in my day, so I kept writing blog posts. I’ve been writing a post a day ever since.

Is there a way for science writers to come up with titles that are catchy and attractive to readers without scientists dismissing them as sensationalist?

Brian: That’s something I’m still trying to work out. When I first started writing blog posts I made the titles puns or in-jokes rather than real headlines. I’m starting to use headlines in posts, but I worry about over-hyping things.

I think there will always be a tension between being attractive and being sensationalist, and any journalist is likely to cross that line for some scientists.

For me the biggest sin is a wilfully inaccurate title.

For example an article on a connection between dark matter and meteor impacts becomes “Did Dark Matter Kill the Dinosaurs?” or one on solar cycles becomes “Earth May Enter Mini Ice Age!” Those are the most damaging because many people don’t read beyond the headlines.

Who is your favourite scientist and why?

Brian: I don’t think I have one favourite scientist. There are lots of scientists I admire, such as Hubble, Swan, Noether and Feynman, but every scientist has strengths and weaknesses.

What are the key differences between communicating an advanced scientific idea to a university classroom and the general public?

Brian: The only real difference is background knowledge. When I’m in the classroom, I know what topics they’ve covered. When I introduce a topic like quasars, for example, I have a good idea of what they already know about them, and can gauge the level I should present things at. With the general public you don’t know their background, and it could range from knowing almost nothing to being quite familiar.

One of the big challenges is trying to keep things clear and basic but also raising the bar of understanding.

It’s a challenge I’m still trying to master.

Do you have a favourite science-themed YouTube channel or video (other than your own)?

Brian: I don’t actually watch a lot of YouTube. I’m partial to the Deep Sky Videos because it’s my field. In terms of general science I think VSauce and Physics Girl have some very nice videos that explain topics quite well.

How can science communication be introduced into the science curriculum at a university level? i.e. How can we teach new scientists to communicate their ideas to the general public?

Brian: I think it’s two-fold. The first is to overcome the idea that science communication is somehow separate from science. Science isn’t just about discovery, but the communication of ideas. The second is to get students to present their ideas to the general public, either through public talks or through blogs/videos. Increasingly science communication is becoming a part of a scientist’s training, but one of the challenges is that many of us working scientists are still learning how to do it ourselves.

What should science communicators not do?


 I think it’s important to avoid the kind of confrontational approach where those who don’t believe in a particular scientific theory are delusional/stupid/evil.

Yes, there is plenty of evidence to support the big bang/evolution/global warming. Yes, it is deeply frustrating to deal with deniers who attack you. But it’s hard to get people to listen to you when your approach is “Hey, Idiot, let me explain why you’re wrong.”

What foods do you normally eat?

Brian: I’m basically an omnivore. I tend to like spicy foods, but coffee remains its own food group.

What did you want to grow up to be when you were young?

Brian: When I was young I wanted to be one of the first people on Mars. But after the delays and setbacks for such a mission, that ship has sailed.

How do you look after your mental health, physical health and brain?

Brian: I run. I’m not a fast runner, but I try to run 5 – 6 times a week. For me, running isn’t just exercise, but it’s a way of clearing my mind. If I’m not running regularly I tend to get cranky.

What do you think the biggest areas and focus of science research will be for the next 50 years?

Brian: I think the biggest change will be a shift toward public access science. In astronomy, for example, there is an ongoing shift toward large data collection that gets immediately into the public domain rather than being held as private data. The LSST currently under construction won’t have dedicated telescope time for astronomers. Instead it will post all data publicly, and anyone can access the data they want. Science is going to become very, very public, and I think that’s a good thing.