Despite the rather portentous date of Friday the 13th, it was also the second time I was involved with the Lange Nacht der Forschung or Long Night of Research. My first was in May 2016. This is an event to bring science to the public that happens every two years.
Bringing science to the public is something that is important to me. Science is not just about what happens in a laboratory; it is a way of thinking, approaching problems and of finding the truth and the only one that has proved to be reliable. As someone who is of the opinion that our beliefs and policies should be based on evidence, I strongly supports efforts to spread a scientific way of thinking.
Now I know some people do not think most scientists should be involved in engaging the public. They say some people just aren’t good communicators and that might be true but here’s my thinking on the topic. The public’s views do not always reflect those of scientists when it goes to various technologies. This isn’t about any particular political view, all of them pick and choose. We see acceptance of alternative medicine, rejection of vaccines, denial of climate change, deliberate ignorance of gun control and fearmongering about GMOs. If scientists aren’t talking to the public about those topics then who is?
Furthermore, I think it has to be scientists that do this outreach. A recent essay by philosopher C. Thi Nguyen looked at polarisation in our current political discourse. He talks about two phenomena, epistemic bubbles which means that only hear from like-minded individuals. That’s fairly easy to overcome. The more problematic part is an echo chamber where people surround themselves with a specific view and no longer trust outside views. They become effectively immune to reason. The only way to get past an echo chamber is to build trust. I don’t think scientists can build trust with public without going out and actually interacting.
I still don’t speak more than a little German (I stopped learning for a bit but recently resumed a German course) so I’m usually a bit unsure how much help I will be with the Austrian public. There were only one or two people who seemed upset about it but many others were happy to speak English, especially those who were travelling through or had immigrated to Vienna. So I spoke to one who was in Vienna for a conference, one who had immigrated from Colombia and one from Georgia, among others. One of the people I spoke to had even visited Cape Town! The slightly disappointing thing was that those from outside Vienna were travelling and didn’t want to take part in the activity.
So what was our activity this year? We had a couple of small, edible plants that people could plant and take home. The interesting part though concerned whether or not they also planted a maize kernel. Because, when the other plants begin to flower, in about six weeks, the maize is supposed to secrete chemicals which will kill them off! This part of a phenomena known as allelopathy, where plants can influence other plants with chemical signals. Plants can’t move to find a better location but they don’t just sit passively, some will actively try to kill their competition.
I would say that is pretty cool just by itself but one economist who visited asked me if it was of any use to us. (That was part of a long science discussion which began with a question about the differences, if any, between chemically synthesised and naturally produced molecules.) First, I would stress that not everything needs to have an explicit benefit. There is value in just gaining an understanding of the world. We also can’t foresee what benefits such knowledge may offer in the future, so curiosity-driven research is always important. That said, allelopathy does have practical benefits. Apart from telling you not to waste your time trying to grow plants together that will kill each other, we can use plants that secrete those chemicals to prevent pests or weeds from getting into our crops. This can result in better growth and/or reduced use of pesticides and herbicides. For some basic ideas on how that can work, see here and here.
Our overall message, plants are awesome!
PS: I was a bit disappointed with Ce-M-M- though. They had a stand next to us with a gummy bear DNA helix but it was twisted to the left! DNA has a right-handed twist! I pointed this out to one of the volunteers there but they didn’t seem to care or change it to the correct rotation.