What Makes a Good Science Communicator?

Guest post by Chris Bryant

I have been pondering this question for a long time and it is especially apposite now, when we are surrounded by science communicators of all levels of competence.  The best and most effective one I ever encountered in my discipline was Sidnie Milana Manton FRS (the photo was taken towards the end of her life).

I met her in my first week in the Zoology Department at  King’s College London in 1955. She was a tall, spare, distant woman with greying hair and steel-rimmed glasses, and a high-pitched raspy voice that tended to become querulous with rage. It was not until I was assigned to her tutorial group in second year that I overcame the sense of awe I felt towards her and began to appreciate the outstanding quality of her mind.

She was an invertebrate biologist of great intellectual breadth. A major influence in her own career was a Royal Society expedition to the Barrier Reef in the 1920s. The collections she made then filled half the College museum and a good proportion of the London Natural History one as well. The less important material was trotted out for undergraduates to mishandle. In our final exam we had to dissect sea hares that she had collected on the Reef, more than thirty years previously. Most of their innards were, by then, liquid but she made no concessions. She remarked, of the finished work of one student, that it looked as if he had done it with his teeth.

Stories accumulated around her, some true, some apocryphal. One true story is that she was a communist fellow traveler, a pinko, after the WWII. Such people could not be entrusted with senior posts in universities for fear they might corrupt the students. As a result, she had not risen above the rank of Demonstrator. Then, in 1948, she was elected to the Royal Society. The next day she was appointed Reader.  It was particularly embarrassing for the Head of Department, who was not yet a Fellow.  It is said that Sidnie displayed a mischievous streak and contrived to block his election for several years. When, however, she went off on an extended field trip, an electoral committee was convened and elected him. Ever after she referred to him as ‘that stupid man’!

She was a terrible lecturer. If she had been at the Australian National University in 2010 she probably would have been sent for remedial work and had her promotion held up. She wasn’t organised, spoke very fast, assumed heaps of prior knowledge, drew huge numbers of diagrams on the blackboard so fast that you couldn’t keep up with her, and used no other visual aids. She had a great fondness for dark blue chalk, which you couldn’t see, even from the front row.

In spite of this, she was the finest teacher and communicator of science whom I ever encountered. You had to work at your full potential to follow her leaps of intellect and it usually required three of us in the library in the evening to make sense of her morning lecture. But her insights were great, as was the sense of satisfaction we experienced when we finally understood what she was getting at.

Her great qualities were passion and enthusiasm coupled with a supreme mastery of her subject.   And it was the passion and enthusiasm for the subject that, by some magic, she managed to impart.  It was up to us to get on with mastery by ourselves.  I recall still, with a clarity that belies both her idiosyncratic style and my fading memory, most of what she taught me. I still have the notes I took in her lectures. Occasionally, rummaging around for something in my filing cabinet, I come across these carefully preserved files and I am immediately transported to the second year laboratory and the smell of chalk and formalin. I see again that formidable presence and that pitying, steel-rimmed stare when I proved once more that I was slightly more obtuse than she had originally thought.

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