“Communication is not something you add on to science; it is of the essence of science.” – Alan Alda
I consider science communication to be an important part of what I do as a scientist. Science and humanity derive the greatest benefit from research when scientists go beyond the cloistered environment of their fields and explain their work to the public, what it is they are doing, and why they are doing it.
I have tried to communicate in as many and varied ways as I can. Through blogs and articles on this website and elsewhere on the internet, and in print; through radio and podcasts; school visits and public talks; public events; and, most recently, through YouTube. But despite trying to aim as broadly as possible, and having a history of hearing difficulty myself, I had not given any thought to sign language, or hadn’t until I took part in Pint of Science.
Since 2013, Pint of Science has been bringing science to the people, in an accessible format, in pubs around the world. And they are conscientious about being accessible. When I stood up on stage to give my talk, I was accompanied by an Auslan (Australian sign language) interpreter.
Not only did I learn the signs for many of the things I talk about almost daily (radio telescopes, galaxies, etc), it also forced me to consider the language I was using. While radios and telescopes are common enough in everyday parlance that they have standard Auslan signs, I’m pretty sure something like “dipole antenna” or “signal coherence” doesn’t. Having an Auslan interpreter standing next to me kept me aware of what I was saying and made me try harder than usual to avoid unnecessary jargon.
I wasn’t entirely successful. On one occasion I saw the interpreter shrug, indicating there was no way she could quickly translate what I had just said. But she did an awesome job, and I’ll be better prepared for next time.
Here are some of the signs I managed to learn while I was giving my talk.
Science or scientist, in a move that will surprise no one, is signed by miming the mixing of chemicals in flasks. While it could be argued that it is a somewhat narrow idea of what science involves, it’s pretty clear. Though if the deaf community got to know me and my chemistry prowess better, they would also sign “explosion” after mixing the chemicals.
Videos are from www.auslan.org.au
I expected that star would be signed by making something like a star shape with the hands (and in Spanish sign language, I would be right), but in Auslan, star is signed by flicking your finger from your thumb near your head, indicating a twinkling object in the sky.
Telescope is also unsurprising. It’s the first thing anyone would do if they were miming or playing charades.
But I was surprised by how it was modified to radio telescope. When I used phrases that did not have their own sign, the interpreter would finger-spell it the first time, followed by a gesture, to define the new term. I had assumed that radio telescope would be the sign for radio followed by the sign for telescope. Instead, the interpreter signed r-a-d-i-o + telescope, and then for the rest of my talk the telescope sign referred to radio telescopes.
There is no sign for galaxy in standard Auslan, so the interpreter had to define it. She spelled out g-a-l-a-x-y and then made a sweeping circular gesture with her arms, as though she was tracing the circumference of a round table, indicating the disk-shape of a spiral galaxy. For the rest of the night, this was the sign for galaxy.
So one thing that I will do in future, if I have a sign language interpreter, is to take a few seconds to define some terms, like galaxy or laser, at the start of my talk. Hopefully this will make the interpreter’s job easier, my talks clearer, and the science more accessible.
Though the need to define signs for words like galaxy every time might soon be a thing of the past. A team from the International Astronomical Union has compiled a list of 47 astronomical terms, from asteroid to zenith, that have signs in various sign languages from around the world. The aim is to make it easier for hearing-impaired people to discuss and learn about the cosmos.
But now I have a new problem. I always make sure to use plenty of images in my talks. But if people are looking at the interpreter, they can’t look at my slides. I guess I’ll have to work on keeping my images clear and simple, as well as keeping my language free of jargon.