I promised in my first post to talk about my experiences with the press (and I now promise to talk about something non-aliens related in my next post!). The controversial nature of the work in question (and the mention of aliens) attracts the media with ease. So here it is, a retrospective on a rather insane period of my life, which began somewhat inconspicuously…
It began with my idea for simulating the evolution of life and intelligence in the Galaxy, as I described last time. I sketched out an algorithm for how this could be done, and showed it to my PhD supervisor. Despite it being outside my research remit, it was a small coding task, and straightforward to analyse. My supervisor agreed it would be an interesting avenue to pursue. Having checked in the literature that I wasn’t reinventing the wheel, I set about the problem.
The whole project took less than 2 months to code, run, analyse and write up. The work was accepted for publication with minimal revision, and as every good student does, I posted it to the arXiv pre-print server (check it out for yourself here). What happened next was unexpected.
I discovered that the arXiv’s blog featured me in a “submission of the week” post. This was swiftly followed by a mention on the infamous “slashdot” forum. I started receiving emails from colleagues, saying “have you seen this?”, with a new link to a different blog every time. Type me into Google or Technorati and see for yourself! I would recommend Centauri Dreams for a balanced, well-researched post.
The University got wind of this, and the Press Office asked me to do an official press release. This seemed like a reasonable idea to me: a release would set the story straight. The blogosphere is often a badly played game of Chinese Whispers, and my work was being quite badly misrepresented (I won’t say where, but you don’t have to look far). While the more committed blogger reads the source responsible for the media attention (i.e. the paper itself), someone may come to the story third or fourth hand, and may not be able to identify the source (or is not interested). As a science topic, ET is extremely accessible (thanks to science fiction), so everyone has an opinion, informed or no. This point really hit home for me when I saw discussion groups talking about my work, and quoting Star Trek with the same authority that a scientist might quote a paper from a respected journal!
So we went ahead with the release: it went out about 4 months after my paper was accepted. I was a little better prepared for what happened next, but seemingly not enough. The release went live, and within 15 minutes of it doing so my office phone began to ring. Again. And again. Consistently, for the entire day. And the day after that. And the day after that.
I won’t list the UK newspapers that interviewed me, or carried my story, as it would get a little tedious (the press office collected cuttings for me: you can name a UK newspaper, and I’ll find it in the pile!). I conducted at least 50 interviews by phone, TV, radio, email, for agencies in the UK, USA, Europe, India and across the world. To illustrate: I was forced to turn down several radio and TV engagements due to a brimming schedule.
The coverage provoked a staggering response from the public: at last count, I have received somewhere between 500 and 1000 emails on the subject, of varying wit, repose and clarity. I’ve answered as many as I deemed answerable, and I still receive correspondence to this day (around 5 pieces a month). I receive manuscripts from budding science authors, requests to collaborate with other scientists, supervise undergraduate projects and give guest undergraduate lectures, and invitations to conferences thanks to the news coverage. Even the University’s Principal sent his praises to me on doing so well. All this, and I was only about 18 months into my PhD!
Probably the most rewarding outcome of this media frenzy has been the opportunities for doing public outreach, which I have enjoyed immensely. I’ve given many public talks at venues ranging from cinemas to primary schools, with audiences of all ages.
I’ll wrap this up with one last point. Common to every discussion I have with the media (or the public) is the preconceptions they have of astronomers. It comes as quite a surprise that “alien hunting” (astrobiology) can be a legitimate science in the right hands, and that young Scotsmen practice it. Aye, we do! After all: wha’s like us? Damn few, an’ they’re a’ deid!