Science communication

Imagining alternative futures | new book from Tim Corballis

Our Future is in the Air is the latest novel by Wellington author and Science in Society lecturer Dr Tim Corballis. The novel explores an alternative history of the 1970s, triggered by time-travel technology.  Lorraine Taylor talked to Tim about about his new book, his work and the ability of science fiction to ask the questions science can’t.

Set in the past, your book Our Future is in the Air explores an alternative past (or is it a present?) where a certain form of technology that we are all quite attached to (no spoilers!) has been rejected by society to protect its citizens. What were you trying to invite reader to think about?

This book, like a lot of science fiction (sci-fi) has an element of social thinking about science. There’s often a fictional theory or gadget or technology at the heart of sci-fi, which then builds a fictional world around the social consequences of that technology. It gives you a lot of resources to think about how technology works in the world, what effects it has, and how it might work differently, how life would be different if we had or didn’t have a certain technology and so on. And this works not just at the nerdy technical level but at the level of meaning. It can be a way to think about how technology alters the meaning of our lives. In Our Future is in the Air there are technological changes that effect how people think of their geographical place in the world and their relationship to the future – these are profound existential questions that science and technology influences.

Thinking of this alternative past or present – how much of this vision was hope and how much caution?

What the book imagines most clearly is an alternative past. The present, which is the future of the book’s past (confused?) is actually very vaguely evoked. I’m not sure this is about either hope or caution. It’s more about where we look for the seeds of the future, and how we face a future that’s unknown. I don’t think the book provides easy answers either way, though I would like readers to get a sense of openness from the ending – the positive side of that future vagueness or unknowness perhaps.

The work explores a number of social societal constructs as well, beyond science and technology.  How much of Tim Corballis is in this novel?

I’ve said this in other fora too, but I’m a bit of a fan of Ursula LeGuin’s ‘Carrier Bag’ theory of fiction: more or less, that a book is a nice handy bag that you can put a whole lot of stuff into, rather than a neat plot line from start to finish.  So if I’m in the book, it’s because I put in a lot of what I was interested in, what I came across, while I was writing it. For example, the Russian Biocosmists, who believed in the revolutionary necessity of a scientific programme to bring back the dead – and who really existed I should add – they’re in there, largely because I was interested in them at the time and wanted to build something around them.

You have one of the most diverse academic backgrounds I know.  Tell me about your academic whakapapa, and what led you to such variety?

Should I mention carrier bags again? I was a maths and physics geek as a kid, but after studying it a little at university my interest drifted. I think I was excited by the imagination of the world and the universe in those fields, but it just wasn’t there after a few years. Not for me anyway.  I crossed into philosophy via logic, which provides a bit of a bridge from maths. There I discovered versions of aesthetics and existentialism. Writing seemed like an obvious thing at some point, partly out of a sort of embarrassing young man’s existential desire to do something with my life, and partly again chasing that imagination of the world and other worlds. I’ve sort of wavered between writing and academic work ever since, but I’ve been interested in all kinds of subjects and ways of seeing things. My doctorate had elements of sociology, cultural studies, history, environmental humanities, architecture… I think it probably followed on from my philosophy studies, but broader (philosophy can be frustratingly narrow).

You teach within the Science in Society group at VUW.  How does your humanities work influence your understanding of science and how does your obvious scientific obsessions influence your work in the humanities?

I think the humanities, and the social sciences too, offer very good ways to think about how things might appear from other perspectives. They offer ways to think about what science might mean to people, and to put things in terms of the rituals and meanings they accrue around themselves. So, what kind of ritual is science (or the sciences, since I don’t really think there is a singular thing called science)?

I’m also really interested in new sciences – the forefronts of computing, biological sciences and climate sciences are really having profound social impacts, and aesthetic impacts too. So much of our culture obsesses over them, it’s hard not to be interested. So, I think you miss a lot by seeing them just as technical phenomena, or as new knowledge. They’re cultural phenomena too, full of undreamed of ways to imagine ourselves and the universe. I think they offer us amazing visions and stories.

Do you think fiction or literature or even the humanities have a particular way of doing this that science does not?

Literature and the humanities are both hugely diverse, obviously, but I think of them as doing quite particular things. They are both focused on things that science finds hard to measure, even qualitatively: meaning, interpretation, the imagination. And literature of course is free to make things up. Writers of fiction especially aren’t constrained by the need to get anything right. I think it’s really important to keep that sense of imagination unconstrained by boundaries and methodologies. It’s important politically – it allows us to think about how the world might be different. I happen to think it’s also important for science. This might not make me a lot of friends, but I’m a cautious follower of Paul Feyerabend, who argues against the idea of methodology in science too.

 

Tim Corballis at the launch of Our Future is in the Air at Unity Books. Image by John Duke

 

Lorraine Taylor is the Centre Manager for the Science in Society group at VUW 

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Welcome back to Café Scientifique

After a year’s break the Wellington meeting of Café Scientifique has started with two successful events in July and August.

Jesse Bering, a Dunedin based American evolutionary psychologist, in Wellington to talk to students of CREW352: Creative Science Writing, packed out VK’s Comedy Bar in Dixon Street with his favourite research topics: sex, death and religion.

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Jesse at WORD Christchurch 2015

Bering has had enormous success with his honest and humorous style. He writes a regular column, Bering in Mind, for Scientific American online, and his books include The Belief Instinct, about the psychological origins of our desire to believe in something bigger than ourselves, and PERV, which explores the range of human sexual desire and experience. Bering told students in the CREW352 that like many of us his academic interests have followed what he is naturally curious about, and he hopes talking about it is helpful to people struggling with these issues.

Bering’s Café Scientifique event followed a fantastic evening with Alom Shaha, a teacher, science communicator and author, who recently visited New Zealand to be the keynote speaker at SciCon 2016, the annual conference for secondary science teachers.  Shaha has become a teacher of teachers and points out that he does not consider himself to be a scientist, but rather an expert in pedagogy.  We took advantage of his visit to invite him to address students of SCIE311: Science Communication. “The world needs teachers,” says Shaha, “as we are the ones who make the scientists”.   Shaha disagrees with the common expression that children are born scientists. “Science is a range of methods and tools, for a particular way of looking at the world.  It takes years to practice these tools in the way that scientists do,” he said to our SCIE 311 students.

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Courtesy alomshaha.com

As this was Shaha’s first time in New Zealand, he was keen to understand the religious, cultural and educational landscape of our country.  His book The Young Atheist’s Handbook is part memoir, part philosophy, and part permission for others to wrestle with doubts about their faith.  “Religion is passed on from parents to children at a time when they are not able to think critically for themselves.  Sometimes young people find that it’s just easier to go along with it,” he told his Café Scientifique audience.

Shaha has a new book due to be released in 2017 about science teaching, and we hope to see him back in New Zealand next year.  In the meantime you can check out his Demo: The Movie  a half hour movie encouraging science teachers to use demonstrations to inspire their students look closely at the world.

Café Scientifique is jointly hosted by the Wellington Branch of the Royal Society and Science in Society Group at Victoria University.  Find us on Facebook to hear about our upcoming events

Want to be a science writer?

Ashleigh Young and Rebecca Priestley are teaching CREW352: Creative Science Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters again this year. Past students have included undergraduate science and humanities students, experienced writers and journalists, environmental advocates and practising scientists. Students on the course have written engaging non-fiction stories about science and had these stories published in literary journals such as Sport, Overland and Landfall, in the student magazine Salient, and in industry journals such as Organic New Zealand magazine and books such as Tell You What: Great NZ Fiction 2014. Other students have used the course to kickstart a book-length project.

Here are some links to some online stories you can read that were written and workshopped as part of CREW352.

The albatross in the cupboard by Nina Powles on Te Papa blogs

Four circles by Sarah Bainbridge in Landfall

Simply air vibrating by Simon Gennard in Overland

Is it getting hot in here? By Bronte Ammundsen in Salient

Applications for this year’s workshop close this 21 June. You can find out more about how to apply here: http://www.victoria.ac.nz/modernletters/study/how-to-apply

 

New ‘Antarctica Online’ Course

Cliff interviews Nick Golledge, from the Antarctic Research Centre, while Rebecca hides inside her extreme cold weather gear.

Cliff interviews Nick Golledge, from the Antarctic Research Centre, while Rebecca hides inside her extreme cold weather gear.

Following Rebecca and Cliff’s successful trip to Antarctica in December 2014, the Science in Society team have been working hard to put together a new fully online course called ‘Antarctica Online’.

The course features lectures that were filmed on the ice and examines contemporary Antarctic scientific research, placing it in a wider scientific, historical, social and cultural context. Rebecca and Cliff gathered material over 10 days around Scott Base, McMurdo Station, and the Ross Island historic huts and three days at an Antarctic Research Centre field camp in the Transantarctic Mountains.

As well as filming lectures for their own modules—on Antarctic science history, and Geology and paleoclimate—they also filmed material for a third module, Constructing Antarctica, which will be led by Rhian, and Leon Gurevitch from the School of Design.

Most of us will never get to visit Antarctica, but this course hopes to offer the next best thing.

The course runs from Monday 28 September to Friday 6 November 2015 (6 weeks)

Fee: $120  (There are no prerequisites for this course)  ENROL HERE

 

 

We’re looking for a special someone to join our Science in Society team

For the last two years we (Rhian and Rebecca) have been getting by on a lot of adrenalin and with the support of an army of awesome tutors: but now we have new courses to launch and new plans to hatch and we need someone else to join our small, dynamic team. This is an 18-month full time teaching position, with full details below. This job could suit someone who’s been working as a high-school science teacher, or someone with a science PhD and a real interest in and commitment to teaching, or someone with a science degree and experience in online education.

Here are the details on the job ad:

Senior Tutor in Science in Society, Faculty of Science (18 month fixed term position)

Our small dynamic team seeks a senior tutor with a background in science, interest and/or experience in digital learning technologies, project management skills, and confidence in delivering online courses. The appointee will have excellent organisational, communication and interpersonal skills, a demonstrated understanding of science and its role in society, and experience working with students and academics.

The appointee will coordinate an innovative and flexible online general science course that will be delivered to first year university students, teachers, and high school students and will utilize the latest online technologies and pedagogies. The appointee will be at the forefront of strategic development and delivery of large, online courses (including MOOCs) at Victoria University and will be expected to engage with a range of internal and external stakeholders representing educational technology, instructional design, and secondary and tertiary education. In addition, the appointee will support existing initiatives of the Science in Context teaching programme, including supporting online courses and related outreach.

Depending on the appointee’s background, opportunities exist to develop and teach online modules on Antarctic science, environmental science, and other contemporary issues in science and society.

We encourage applications from a range of candidates including, for example, science teachers, people with a higher degree in science and demonstrated interest in teaching, and educational technologists/ instructional designers with a demonstrated science literacy.

The position is for a fixed term of 18 months with an immediate start date.

Contact Details for Vacancy: Rhian Salmon, Programme Director for Science in Context, Faculty of Science

Applications close 5 June 2015 Reference 634

Full details on how to apply are here http://www.victoria.ac.nz/about/careers/current-vacancies