Unexpectedly awarded for the best popular scientific article of 2018 by the readers of Forskerzonen, Peter Laursen, the author of “The Big Bang – an eyewitness account”, reveals how scientists can compromise between research and public outreach, and get satisfaction.
Peter Laursen is a postdoc at the Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics, University of Oslo, often commuting to the Cosmic Dawn Center at the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, his other affiliation.
Laursen is interested in galaxies. In particular he writes computer programs to simulate the physical processes determining how galaxies look in order to compare with, and interpret, real observations.
In this way we can learn about galaxies; how they form and how they evolve, he explains.
The Big Bang on “human scale”
In his popular science article “The Big Bang – an eyewitness account”, Laursen takes the reader on an interactive journey back to the beginnings of the Universe.
"I was contacted by a journalist to write an article about the Big Bang, but with special emphasis on how a human being would perceive it", he says.
With the help of timeline, the code he made and now publicly available, everyone can witness the Big Bang.
"I describe temperature, pressure, etc. in terms of "human scales", and in particular I spent a loooot of time building a code that calculates the color (and other physical properties) of the Universe of different times".
The article was published in October last year on Videnskab.dk, the "main" site for science communication in Denmark, and on Science Nordic, the trusted English-language source for science news from the Nordic countries. Videnskab.dk has a subsite called “Forskerzonen”, where, like on the Norwegian counterpart Forskning.no, scientists themselves write popsci articles under the guidance of expert journalists. The prize is awarded by Forskerzonen/videnskab.dk for the best science outreach in 2018 based on the votes of the readers of that site.
Not only hardcore science
Laursen breaks the “postdoc routine” (data analysis, teaching, meetings, conferences) with public outreach. How?
"I've appeared several time on radio and TV, and from time to time I'm interviewed by journalists either for newspapers or popsci sites like Videnskab.dk", he tells us.
On his own website, he presents his research and records his outreach activities. But most importantly, he regularly answers questions about physics and astronomy either to people contacting him directly, or on the Q&A site Stack Exchange. On social media, Laursen is known as @anisotropela and on Twitter he actively shares and talks of “astronomy stuff” with the world.
The sweet and sour of science communication
Laursen has been giving regular talks to high school classes, astronomy associations, etc. since he was a master student.
"Giving talks is something that takes a long time to prepare in the beginning, but once you've done a few, you start reusing slides, so it becomes less work".
He encourages master and PhD students to seize any opportunity to give popular talks in their busy projects:
"It's also a good exercise for dealing with nervousness for scientific talks", he continues.
Sometimes researchers have a story to tell, but they do not know who “out there” is interested in it and how to “translate” it into easily digestible and engaging text for non-scientists. In this case Laursen suggests “carpe diem!”:
"You need to be a bit "known" by the science writers, before they start contacting you, so once you get the chance to be interviewed, don't say no".
Although he enjoys very much explaining astronomy to non-astronomers, the downside according to Laursen is:
"Outreach isn't really rewarded well by the universities. It's quite frustrating that this isn't really something you can put on your CV. It's just something you're supposed to do in your spare time".
As a consequence researchers often struggle with a sense of guiltiness.
"I combine it by doing it while at the same time feeling guilty for not doing what I'm supposed to do", he confesses.
Laursen is so happy and satisfied with the success of his first popular science article that he is already working on a new one. So, readers curious to know how galaxies receding faster than the speed of light is no hindrance for us to see them: Fasten your seatbelt and prepare for the next journey!