Space, the Brain, and Natural Disasters: Surprises and challenges in communicating science and faith

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Eleanor Puttock

Eleanor Puttock has spent the last few years building up a successful podcast series on science and faith. It’s time to turn the tables and ask her a few questions about her own views on science and faith. Eleanor is the Faraday External Communications Officer, and came from a background of education and marketing. So what has been her experience of being immersed in the world of science and religion?

 

To begin with, how did you come to be working at the Faraday Institute?

Well, I didn’t plan to come to the Faraday Institute. I don’t think you always plan your life, it does a little meandering. I was previously an academic in communication. I was teaching at various colleges and Universities and I was just about to approach doing my PhD in virtual learning environments, because I am really passionate about knowledge acquisition for everybody. Somehow this advert appeared, I put in my application, and here I am almost three years later.

 

We are really glad you came.

I am too!

 

So you’ve had a bit of a baptism of fire into science and religion – being chucked in the deep end meeting people and hearing lots of talks. Can you tell us what have been some of the highlights of working here so far?

I think actually just the opportunity that the Faraday brings, not only us as a team, but to a wider audience. Meeting such a vast range of people, from eminent scientists (who are also sometimes ordained, or interested in religion, or theologians), to even people on our courses. We meet people from all around the world, and no day is the same. I think that is the most special thing, as well as learning from everybody – which I love.

 

Have there been any surprises along the way so far?

I am actually surprised by how much of an issue people can see within science and faith. That has surprised me. When you talk about baptisms of fire, it was almost two years ago this week that I did my first Christian Resources Exhibition, and I think I’d been quite naïve as to where people were in their theological understandings. To see the vast range of ways the bible is interpreted, and how there are so many sticking points for people, I think that was a surprise. On the other flipside I get very surprised because, being a science and religion communicator, I’ll be at events with science communicators who – when I mention that we look at religion and science together – are shocked. I’m actually quite shocked that people who work in science are so scared of religion. I think they would be the most shocking things.

 

Of all the topics you’ve been involved in communicating to the general public, what has really caught your own imagination?

I think the possibilities of people further than this world, so outer space. I love looking at the stars, I think they’re beautiful. Having grown up in southern Brittany we used to lie and watch shooting stars, and that was beautiful, but I’d never really thought about the possibilities of extra-terrestrial life. That is, until I witnessed a conversation with John Polkinghorne and David Wilkinson where they were actually talking about if there were, what they called, ‘little green men’. Would they suffer the fall? What are the theological implications if God created us and then he created other people? Would they have the same rules? I’d never actually thought about even the possibilities of this. I suppose it has made me think about space differently. Maybe I should be thinking about that, not just that it’s beautiful out there. I suppose that is one topic that I never thought I would get really into.

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Mars the Mysterious (NASA, 1997) by NASA’sMarshall Space Flight Center. Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

It’s quite extraordinary.

It is, and actually it’s a lot more immediate than I had ever thought growing up. Okay, we can go up in a spaceship. Well, now we’re talking about the possibilities of being tourists in space or people living on Mars. It is all happening so fast that maybe I should really stop and think about it. John Polkinghorne and David Wilkinson made me realise how serious it is as a topic that we should be thinking about. So I suppose that is something that really caught my imagination that I didn’t think would.

 

And is there anything else that’s really interested you and caught your imagination?   

Yes, I’m really fascinated about the brain. The human body in general fascinates me, specifically the brain because it is such an amazing organ. I went to the Edinburgh science festival in 2014 and I listened to an amazing lecture about the ear and going deaf. It was the first time I really thought about how a hearing aid is never going to cut it. We never replicate those signals that go back to the brain. We can learn how to use a special implant but it will never, never be able to replicate or understand it. So I suppose the brain. We are really lucky we work with one of the most fascinating neurologists here too, so yes, the brain is a topic I’m fascinated about.

 

In working with particular audiences, have there been any topics that have been just incredibly popular? Or maybe that you thought would be incredibly popular and they went down like a lead balloon and you were really surprised?

Yes, so last year I did a podcast with Denis Alexander on mitochondrial donation. I think it was also because it was a personal interest, I thought this was fascinating and read all the papers, and actually it didn’t have as many hits as I thought. It’s part of the playlist ‘Reponses to the News’ and he explains it really well. So I thought, because it is quite a complicated topic and it was new, people would want to listen to it. So that was quite a surprise. I mean we still had quite a good few hits, in the six hundreds or something, but it wasn’t as big as I had expected. On the flipside are the natural disaster podcasts. We did one podcast with Bob White which was in response to the Nepal earthquake last year, so we’ve just done a year’s anniversary, and also a podcast with Jamie Aten where he talks about being in New Orleans – and they had huge hits. I suppose it just highlights how people want to find out about real stuff, how it really affects other people. Maybe the natural disaster in Nepal is having a huge effect, whereas mitochondrial donation maybe hasn’t had an impact on people yet. I don’t know, that’s just me thinking.

It hasn’t impacted anyone they know or it’s a bit more of an obscure topic. That’s really interesting.

Yes and with the Nepal one, because with our stats we can look, we were able to find out that there were quite a few hits from Nepal. I was really happy about that because I could say to Bob, ‘you know we talked about natural disasters? People in Nepal listened to this.’ That really made it important, that what we were communicating was getting to an audience that wants to know.

 

When it comes to people in the future, thinking about younger audiences, where do you think the science and faith conversation might be going in the future, with your broader perspective of everything that’s out there?

I don’t feel like I’m young anymore so I don’t know if I could get it right! But I think artificial intelligence and the fascination with technology will be a big topic. Whether they’ll be interested or not, I’m not sure. Personally, I think it’s an important topic that we look at because of the implications that it could have in the future. We already see the huge effect that social media has had on the younger generations, good and bad. So I think that area. Sadly Ruth, I think that maybe with science and faith (I hate that ‘and’ in the middle because it almost separates them) the gap is going to become larger. Only because we compartmentalise subjects in schools and life isn’t like that. So in schools science is separated from religion. Unfortunately I believe religious literacy is on the downfall, I don’t think even lots of the general public understand it, they’re fearful of it, so I think sadly, maybe, it might be seen more in opposition – unless something else happens. You know, part of our role is to make sure that doesn’t happen, but I come into contact with more and more young people who might not have had experience, or positive experience, with religion. Because of course the media gives us the ends of the scales, and what’s news is normally bad, so they hear horrible things. Although I do believe we have some fantastic young academics and communicators out there, I don’t know. Let’s see what the young get interested in. Technology moves so fast, you don’t know do you?

Yes, there’s going to be a lot of work for us all to do!

Following a first degree in Modern Languages from Royal Holloway in 2004 Eleanor went on to work in the fast paced industry of fashion and beauty PR as well as an events manager for major historic venues in London. In addition she studied for a PGCE (with a special interest in 7-14 year olds and SEN) and later for a Master’s in Education. She has subsequently managed to juggle an academic life encompassing both teaching and research in various business related subjects including business communication, cross cultural management and marketing. Having a passion for knowledge acquisition and facilitating ‘education for all’ she has been involved in various research teams investigating the use of Virtual Learning Programmes in a global context. She is also a consultant for a number of education facilities and businesses whilst still finding time for country walks, cooking for friends and pursuing craft interests. She is now the External Communications Officer at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion.

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