Astronomy Outreach – questions I’m asked versus questions I want to be asked

Within academia, and the sciences in particular, outreach describes some sort of opportunity where we, the scientists, get to teach, demonstrate and share science with the general public. It can help inspire younger generations and improve the general science literacy of the public. Overall, outreach is a very good thing, from a public talk about a project with the goal of informing non-scientists about the exciting things we’re working on, to a demonstration of some kind of concept that is fun to watch and easy to explain, to a booth at a fair with fun activities for children (or adults) and where the scientists volunteer their time to answer questions from the public. Even so, most people have mixed feelings about outreach.

In some ways, it can be great. It can be really fun to get to help someone learn something new, spark a child’s interest in a new topic or share publicly what you’re working on. In other ways, outreach can be a pain. It takes extra preparation of material, it’s usually somewhere out of the way and there’s always the worry that no one will show up or care about what you have to share. (Though honestly, despite having this worry myself, I’ve never had that problem)

However, what really makes the outreach successful and rewarding are the questions we get from the public. Even one enthusiastic visitor or investigative question can make the whole event worth it. So what kinds of questions do people ask? What is a good question? What is a bad question?

As for the bad questions; for astronomy in particular there are four that immediately come to mind;

  1. What happens when you go through a black hole?
  2. Do you believe in aliens?
  3. So, astrophysics, you must be really smart, huh?
  4. So, what are you going to do with that? (or alternatively, There’s not much of a market for that, is there?)

These questions make me cringe internally when they get asked

  1. As fun as this can be to answer, I get it a lot. You’d think the answer would be general knowledge by now! It is also incredibly difficult to answer in a scientifically accurate way that doesn’t go over people’s heads. The easy answer is “You’re turned into spaghetti” which I believe was originally said by Stephen Hawking when a young boy asked him the question. To go beyond that, or to elaborate on what that means, you have to start talking about space-time and special relativity, which is a whole new bag of worms.
  2. As for aliens – I really dislike this one. Mostly because it’s not a scientific question, it’s a philosophical question (as well as the fact that most people aren’t excited by my answer). Yes, my answer to whether or not I ‘believe’ in aliens will be more informed, given my background in astronomy, but it still comes down to just that, my belief. It’s a personal subjective answer, and by answering it I don’t teach or share anything new about science with the person that asked. [If you do still want to know; my answer is that I think aliens exist but there is no chance we will ever interact with them. Detect them, maybe. But talk to/meet/fight against/[some other sci-fi plot here], no. ]
  3. As for the ‘you’re smart’ “question”, that’s not even about science! What am I even supposed to say to it?! I mean, I’m volunteering my time to help you learn something new or to put a face to what a scientist looks like and all you have to say is that I must be smart? It’s like meeting a basketball player and saying, “You play basketball? You must be tall.” It mostly just stalls the conversation, because there’s no where to go from there. I wonder what would happen if my response to that was “No, I’ve just been faking it the whole time”… [side note: actually feeling like you’ve been faking it is a common thing – it’s called imposter syndrome and probably worth it’s own blog post] Instead of stating an observation (or assumption), ask me something!
  4. Finally, this one is a tricky one. It’s very similar to the ‘you’re smart’ question in that it is usually follows the initial introduction and focuses on me – not the science. It feels a bit invasive or judgmental. While my plans for my PhD and onward may be interesting and I may be excited about it – I’m not volunteering to sit at a table to have strangers ask me about my life choices or to evaluate the productiveness of my chosen career path. If someone is asking me what opportunities are open to me, given what I’ve studied, I’m happy to discuss them all. But for a stranger to ask about what I specifically plan to do with my future, it’s weird. Those are the types of questions extended family members ask you, not people you met two minutes ago.

So, next time you are at an outreach event, try really hard to not be that person. Ask something engaging. When we’re doing outreach, it’s because we want to be relatable, approachable and even just to show off the enthusiastic nerds we are! So what about the questions that are the most fun to answer?

  1. What are you working on?
  2. How could I get involved in something like this?
  3. How does this work?
  4. What’s your favorite bit of science trivia?

These are the questions that make me feel like the outreach event was productive.

  1. I’m always happy for an opportunity to tell someone about what I’m researching, and it’s an important skill for scientists to be able to explain their work at multiple levels (see elevator speeches here!). I’ve committed to study something specific for five years straight, and others have built a whole career around it – it’s something we’re passionate about and who doesn’t want to talk about their passions?
  2. One of my favorite outreach memories is when someone tracked me down at a panel Comicon to ask about a talk I had given the previous day. (I wrote about it here.) What made that experience so great was that it both acknowledged that I had some expertise and expressed interest in the things I’m doing. It gave me an opportunity to share some advice and made me feel like I could make a difference.
  3. For this – we’re there to help you learn stuff! We put out demonstrations on purpose! Sometimes, in preparation for an outreach event I will look over the activities or material ahead of time to be sure I have the best, easiest to understand explanation of how it works. Some of the concepts I understand the best are the ones I’ve given demonstrations of. I’ve put effort into having a fun, relatable and engaging demonstration, please ask me about it.
  4. And finally, we’re all nerds. Science is our jam and we all have bits of trivia that we find fascinating. Maybe it’s the fact that got us interested in science in the first place, maybe it’s something we just learned, or maybe it’s a fact that has stuck with us forever because it’s just so mind-blowing. Either way, you’ll always leave that conversation having learned something new. [My go-to favorite trivia is: Of all the things about the sun that could kill you if you were at the surface – the temperature, the radiation, the pressure – I am most amazed by the fact even the sound waves could kill you (the sound of all the nuclear explosions happening inside the star). ]

Hopefully with this bit of insight you’ll be even more engaged in the next outreach event you attend! (I mean, if you happen to go to those sorts of things 🙂   ) Maybe next I’ll follow up with a post about the best and worst people who come to the outreach table… maybe. (Spoilers: the enthusiastic kids that just learned that space is a thing are my favorite)

3 thoughts on “Astronomy Outreach – questions I’m asked versus questions I want to be asked

  1. These are great suggestions for us, not only to help us show appreciation and interest to the scientist who has volunteered their time, but for us to easily ask simple questions to learn something new. I think some people arrive at a table and are awed or befuddled by what is presented and just don’t even know what to ask. Or they are afraid if they ask a simple question, they’ll look stupid. But you’ve shown us that simple, inquisitive questions are easy and preferred. 🙂 I don’t think I’ve ever asked any of the first set of questions, but now that I know about the second set, I’ll do much better at the next SESE open house!!

  2. So…… aside from the killer sound waves (that’s pretty interesting)…. what is your favorite bit of science trivia this week?! 🙂

  3. Good information. Yes What is your favorite bit of science trivia this week?

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