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‘The sun is dying out’ as a wake-up call for better science communication

‘Take science communication more seriously.’ This is the message that Ivo van Vulpen, professor by special appointment in Science Communication in Physics, wants to convey during his inaugural lecture. At the moment, a lot of researchers look down their noses at this while it is extremely important for the public and for science itself.

‘The sun will die out one day.’  Van Vulpen’s neighbour could hardly believe her ears when he told her this at a party. She came back the next day wanting a good explanation. ‘Although the dying out of the sun will take billions of years, it seemed to be a kind of existential issue for my neighbour.’  All these kinds of conversations with people outside physics were an eye-opener for the professor: many people seem to find physics interesting. But also: right now physics is explained either in too simple or too complex terms. And that while our society is founded on physics. It is used for such purposes as making electricity, cameras and equipment in hospitals.

Particle physicist

Ivo van Vulpen works one day a week as professor by special appointment in Science Communication. He is also a particle physicist at the University of Amsterdam. He studies the small building blocks that make up nature. He does his research at CERN in Geneva, where he was involved in the discovery of the Higgs particle. This particle explains why other particles have mass.

Science communication is also science

Even before he became a professor, Van Vulpen was involved in science communication because he believes it is important and fun to share his passion for physics. At the time, he was actually just doing things in a very spontaneous way. That realisation came when he spoke to Professor of Science Communication Ionica Smeets. She asked him: ‘Why are you doing the things you do?’ Van Vulpen: ‘I was speechless. It was embarrassing. I had never thought that you could approach communication scientifically. What works and what doesn’t?’

From that time on, Van Vulpen started to look at science communication more strategically. In his role as professor, he studies how he can organise science communication, how he can get the importance of it across to the physics community and how more attention can be paid to it.

Taking it more seriously

Van Vulpen hopes other people will also take science communication more seriously. He thinks that people within the physics community often look down on science communication. They seem to think that you get involved in science communication if you’re no good at research. That image has to change, Van Vulpen believes. Think, for example, about how important it can be to explain to politicians and policymakers how electricity works when they are drawing up policies for the energy transition.

‘Science communication is an essential task of researchers,’ he says. It isn’t only important to share knowledge with the general public, but better communication will also benefit science itself.  ‘You are forced to look at your own research from an outside perspective and think about it in a different way.’

More and more initiatives

Van Vulpen is happy to be seeing more and more initiatives. Together with Margriet van der Heijden (who has the same position at the TU/e in Delft), he has started a summer school for PhD candidates and post docs, he is one of the originators of the wall formulae in Leiden and with Leiden colleagues he wants to set up a minor in physics for non-scientists.  Physics also has a lot of value for many other specialist fields.  This kind of minor is already a success in Groningen. Van Vulpen: ‘My chair is an important signal to the community to make more space for science communication. I’m happy that I can bridge the gap between physics and science communication.’

Text: Dagmar Aarts
Photo: A Leiden wall formula. Danique ter Horst

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