About two weeks ago I was involved in a public outreach programme, the Lange Nacht der Forschung (Long Night of Research). This was a series of events around Austria that had scientific organisations sharing their research with the public. I was one of the volunteers at the Gregor Mendel Institute‘s display at the Heldenplatz in Vienna. According to the head of public relations from the Austrian Academy of Science, about 12 000 people passed through the display tent!
I wasn’t there the whole night. The event went started at 17:00 and continued till 23:00 but I was there for the 17:00 to 19:00 shift, although we actually ended up starting at 16:00. Images of the event can be found both from the APA-Photoservice and the Federal Ministry for Science, Research and Economics.
Our group was providing some information on biotrophic pathogens, those organisms which infect and grow in living host tissue. Part of research involves the fungus Ustilago maydis which infects maize plants and causes tumour formation. We gave people the opportunity to infect their own maize plants, by injecting a suspension of fungal culture into the plant, and then take them home to watch the tumours develop! U. maydis only infects maize so poses no risk to other organisms and in fact the tumours can even be cooked and eaten, being a delicacy in Mexico called huitlacoche.
It was the second time I was presenting work to the Austrian public since I had also been involved in the GMI’s contribution the Fascination of Plants Day in 2015. That is global event but a summary of what happened in Vienna is available here. As always, I was worried about language issues. I am slowly learning German but I can certainly not communicate complicated ideas outside of English but to there always seem to be at least a few people who can understand English. This time there was one boy who looked quite young to me but who switched from German to English when I said I could only understand a small amount of German and who I later heard speaking an Asian language which I assume was his home language!
It calls to mind an occasion from Jule’s Verne’s A Journey to the Centre of the Earth which I always remember from my childhood (it was adapted version that I knew) where the professor is trying to communicate with someone and tries German, English, French and, finally, Italian. It was impressive to me then but perhaps not as unattainable as I might’ve once thought.