I felt privileged to be one of three speakers at last week’s Science in the Pub. Held monthly on Friday evenings, the aim is to promote understanding of and enthusiasm for science. Science in the Pub Adelaide celebrated their second birthday with their first maths-focused event: ‘SciPub Math: I got 99 problems but math ain’t one’.
The format is intentionally informal; people leave their seat at any time for another drink, or simply mill at the bar while the three panellists give short 10-15 minute presentations, followed by a 30-minute Q+A. The aim of holding it in a pub is to encourage attendance by people who may be intimidated by the traditional academic setting. This was going to be my first Science in the Pub. (The Youtube clip of my talk is at the end of this post.)
The invitation asked me to talk about current work with my colleagues in the Scheduling and Control Group at UniSA: ‘… we thought your research in efficient transport and railway operations would be a great demonstration of some of the ways in which maths can be applied to solve real-world problems‘. I was delighted to discover that my co-panellists were my good friend Jono Tuke (The University of Adelaide), and my collaborator Jerzy Filar (Flinders University).
I’ve given many talks about my research in the past, and to a wide range of audiences, so I was surprised to find myself quite apprehensive about this one. I thought the problem was that I couldn’t carve out the time to prepare the talk well in advance. I spent the month beforehand with ideas rattling around in my head, while dealing with a whole bunch of other work and illness. I wanted the first maths-focused night to be a resounding success, so that the organisers would include more in their regular program.
When I finally sat down the afternoon before (!) to properly prepare, I realised that I was mainly anxious about these people. The audience.
These people were choosing to come to a Friday night event, likely at the end of a busy week. They were looking to unwind and be entertained, and I was the one who was meant to provide it by talking about two topics that can be fairly dry to others: maths and trains. Some of them would be mathematicians, or research scientists. Some would be interested members of the ‘general public’. I know how to give a short non-technical talk about my research, and I can give a highly technical conference-style presentation. But I wasn’t confident I could give a moderately substantial, 15-minute talk to a diverse audience that was also appropriate for a Friday night at the pub.
I spent the first couple of hours of preparation by crafting an analogy and creating an elaborate title slide that I thought would be a hook. From there, I roughly knew how the talk would pan out. (After all, I’ve given versions of it plenty of times.) That night, I tried the start and the end of the talk on my partner. He told me what I needed to hear; he hated it. The analogy was too forced. Start again.
I decided to focus on the basics, and what I knew to be true.
- Substance. It’s ‘Science in the Pub’ not ‘Science Jokes in the Pub’. The aim is to give people an insight into scientific research; to do that we might need to dig into the big ideas which can get a little technical. As a side note, it is important to me for female mathematicians — particularly when there is only one on a panel — to show ‘mathematical muscle’ (as my colleague Lesley Ward calls it). I know that there is no difference between the work done by female and male mathematicians, but not everyone subconsciously or consciously holds that view.
- Be myself. I can’t script entertaining, but I can script engaging. I know how to tell a good story about my research, it just might not be intentionally funny. (I can do unintentionally funny.) Luckily, I knew that my talk was going to be the second of three, and that my co-panellists are both entertaining presenters who would give good opening and closing talks.
- I mostly give good talks. Whenever I prepare a talk (from keynotes to weekly classes), I try to incorporate the six principles from Chip and Dan Heath’s ‘Made to Stick’ SUCCESs model: Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotion, Story. My aim was to give the audience an intuitive insight into the mathematical ideas that help save energy on trains. So I tried to tell them a simple story. I used a concrete experience for most people (riding a bike) to help tell my story. There was an unexpected (for them) moment in my talk, too.
I finished putting my talk together on the day, in between teaching a two-hour class and having a research meeting. I managed to run through it a couple of times beforehand. I’m pleased with how it went, although I can recall plenty of places to improve. You can judge for yourself below. (I haven’t watched it all the way through.) Many thanks to Matt Skoss for filming on his iPhone.
The whole night was absolutely fabulous and very enjoyable. The three talks complemented each other beautifully. It was especially fun to co-present with two people I know very well; we were joking around for much of the evening. The Q+A was stimulating and particularly in my corner, with much discussion about how best to engage students with mathematics. I was pleased to make a few points around the importance of playing with maths, the value of making mistakes, respecting students’ ideas and previous mathematical experiences, and displaying maths visually. And I’ve been delighting in the feedback, like this:
My 14 year old son, in particular, was so interested to hear of your work. He loves science and maths, so learning of the work you are involved with helped him see his high school maths in perspective – ‘real life’ practical application!! Plus a real mathematician!
No dead white male mathematicians here :).