Science Chats @Grassmarket: Guest Blog

The Grassmarket project aims to help vulnerable adults integrate into the community, so while anyone can become a member, a lot of those who attend activities may have experienced homelessness, may have mental or physical disabilities or mental health issues. Many members are looking to develop new or strengthen existing skills.

We started our weekly ‘Science Chats @Grassmarket’ to re-engage those who had lost touch with science, or perhaps spark a new interest. Amelia had looked at the Grassmarket schedule and thought that a science discussion group could be a great addition to their activities. I got involved when we met, thousands of miles from Edinburgh, at a science communications summer school in Malta in July last year. We realised not only our shared passion of list-making but our mutual interest in adult education and the desire to work with unreached audiences. Once we were back in Scotland, we put together the Science Chats @Grassmarket and found them so rewarding. We decided on a two-part session, with half an hour on a piece of science in the news and half an hour focusing on the research of an invited scientist.They have been running for twelve weeks now and we have been so pleased with the community’s response. One of our members says they really enjoy the opportunity to have a different type of interaction saying “it’s so great to have interesting conversations like this!”

The goal for the project was to start an interesting conversation, to allow people to ask questions of a scientist and maybe continue asking those questions outside the session too.

To start our first series, we recruited some fellow PhD students as speakers, but then asked for suggestions for the next topics from our returning members. This was a really popular idea and also gave us a chance to hear about science in Edinburgh that we didn’t know was happening.

We’ve been lucky to have scientists come along to talk about a range of topics, from Parkinson’s disease to liver transplantations to dark energy. Our regular member Laurence, who shares his experience of the sessions below, engaged with our astronomy topics in particular, but everyone had a chance to hear something they were interested in (we hope!).

Leading the discussions has taught us both about the importance of tailoring your talk to the audience, and how this is even more challenging when they have a wide range of expertise and experiences of science. We’ve also realised it’s essential to be able to adapt what you’re saying to match everyone’s needs – backtrack, fast-forward, repeat. Don’t just stay the course and hope everyone has followed! Plus fielding unexpected questions has put us and our speakers in good stead for future conference presentations.

The best thing about doing Grassmarket was seeing how much people engaged with the topics, stimulating discussion and opening questions. We tried to create a space that allows people to ask questions openly and honestly, allowing the audience to find what they want about the topic and how it may impact their day-to-day life. When we finished our last session we were surprised and a little humbled at the response, with all members asking us to come back sooner, not later! So much so that we moved our start date from September… to next month!

The reaction was so encouraging and if one person is more likely to read a scientific news article, to understand it a little better, and perhaps even spot a misleading headline, then we will be thrilled.

If you’d like to be a part of our next series of Science Chat @Grassmarket, why not register for our Researchers workshop to find out more.

Written by Sophie Quick


Laurence Errington: “A brief account of my hugely enjoyable personal experience of Science chats @ Grassmarket. We met with PhD and postdoctoral scientists to hear about their research in various fields of biology and astronomy/space (no chemistry or maths yet but anyone coming to the next series of events will get the chance to ask for their favourite topics). I myself was a researcher, I have maintained an interest and kept up to date with scientific developments by reading New Scientist or listening to various podcasts, but this was live action!

Each session was divided into two. In the first half we discussed a science topic that had cropped up in the news. For the second half, Amelia and Sophie had asked us what subjects we were interested in, and they then endeavoured to invite researchers in that field. I asked for two subjects which I was particularly interested in. The first was Exoplanets (planets in solar systems other than ours). My interest in this topic was sparked by the recent discovery of many exoplanets (over 4000 to date) out there in the cosmos which makes it make it much more likely that there could be life beyond our own planet Earth. Scientists have now identified some earth-like exoplanets that might have suitable temperatures for liquid water and enough UV light for the chemistry thought to have led to life on Earth.

This leads on to the second subject I’d requested –  Astrobiology defined as being `concerned with the origins, early evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe’. The subject of life outside our solar system fascinates me; Does life exist on other planets or are we alone? Is it rare or abundant and is there intelligent life? Are there civilisations? do they last for a long time or do they destroy themselves as we sadly appear to be doing to our own planet? During the event we learned about studies on Mars where liquid water (a requirement for carbon-based life) is likely to be present below the planet’s surface. This raised further questions such as; How would it impact on our minds to know we are not alone? And are these aliens themselves looking for life outside their planets (perhaps aliens have already classified us an exoplanet!).  Apparently Stephen Hawking thought aliens were almost certain to exist and could invade Earth! Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal also speculates on the subject, and thinks that alien contact is likely to come from machines living on other worlds outside of the solar system.

Well done Intersci Edinburgh – please come back as soon as possible.”

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