In Conversation: Jay Ingram

Jay Ingram is a science writer and broadcaster. He has written thirteen books, and was a long-time host of the television program Daily Planet, featured on the Discovery Channel. In 2015, he was awarded the Walter C. Alvarez award for medical writing. He is also one of the founders of Beakerhead - a weeklong event in Calgary, Alberta, which focuses on combining technical and creative efforts to encourage interaction between the arts and sciences. Several weeks ago,  I had the chance to speak to Mr. Ingram about the relationship between narrative and science. He was gracious enough make time for me on the eve of the third annual Beakerhead festival, which began on September 16, 2015. 

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Is science media more about trying to get an objective truth or is it more about story telling?

I think traditionally it’s been an effort to report the facts. Although I also don’t think that anybody doing that really thought that it was an unquestionable fact. Science is about what we know right now. I think traditionally yes that it tends to be quite explanatory in how it works. This is why this virus is a threat; this is why medication might stop that virus. 

But I think there’s been a movement in the last three or four years towards story telling - focusing a little bit more on the people who are doing a research. I think that this is starting to happen. In the past this generally not encouraged because the people doing this weren't trained, and as a result they weren't very good at it. And So people didn’t often find these stories very interesting. I think the trick in the future as we move ahead it’s going to require you to be good story teller.

I would really like to encourage people to see themselves as storytellers doing more science stories and see what they can do with that material. 

So do you think the storytelling aspect of science media is a benefit? 

It can be.  There’s been a little bit of a debate for some journalists. There are somearguing that science really doesn’t lend itself to storytelling, and I think that view is partially correct. You can’t change the data and make up a story about it. The data is the data.  But if in telling how that data was derived, or showcasing particular experiments, then I think you really can tell story. If you try to extrapolate or build an artificial narrative around it you are not being true to it.

Do you think that the public desire for science media is connected to the actual science, or is it just another expression of our desire for stories?

You know I’m not sure. I’m not sure the public has a great desire for Science media. People make various claims that scientific literacy has gone up or down.  I honestly really haven’t noticed a difference from year to year. 

I think that as a Science writer you do have to recognize that you are serving a minority audience. You know it’s not like writing about hockey. As far as it goes for those people who are interested I think there’s a diversity of audiences some of them really want to know the science and they don’t really care about story telling. And then there are others who really want the kind of romantic part of it, the scientists, field trips. Some people want that so I can’t really say that it’s one or the other. I think there are diverse audiences and that’s part of the difficulty because you want to capture them all. 

How does Beakerhead relate to the divide between science and the arts?

The way we tell stories - if that’s the right term - with Beaker head is to present people with ideas. We encourage them  to interact with those ideas, and anything that we display or present or any workshop that we schedule. What we’re trying to show is that if you combine technical or technological skills with artistic skills, and technological thinking with artistic thinking, then you can arrive at a unique form of creativity. And rarely have those things been combined before in the same purposeful way. That is really what we are trying to do.

Is that something you think a lot of people are mistaken about - the idea that you have to choose between those two kinds of outlets or more Scientific or more creative? 

I think schools encourage it. I think mentors and parents sometimes encourage it.  A kid shows an extraordinary skill and it’s our natural tendency to train up that skill and work it because who knows - that kid might be world class in that particular area. I think what often happens is that there are a lot of kids who are quite skilled technically, and artistic as well and it’s hard for them. We tend not to encourage them to work in both.

I know people that went to Engineering schoolat university and hadgreat ideas when they came in first year. But they never got a chance to exercise that idea because they were just channeled into the traditional engineering courses. What we like to see is those first year Engineers today that have artistic sensibilities , we want them to have a chance to work on that; to express that. 

So is the goal to change the conversation then?

Yeah. Only I’ll go further than changing the conversation because there has been lots of conversation about interesting kids. Let’s say more generally interesting students in Science in Technology, Engineering and Math - STEM. There is constant conversation but it never goes anywhere. So rather than changing the conversation, it’s actually about changing people’s way of interacting or getting involved. It’s about going from conversation to actual making, building, creating that’s what we love to do. 

In the beginning it was very difficult to convince people. We're just about to launch our third annual event. We actually started talking about it and planning it five or seven years ago. It was almost impossible to find people who were going to give some money to try to make something like this because they had no idea what it’s going to look like. Even we didn’t have a really good idea of what it was going to look like. We were just selling an idea. So it’s hard but some companies and some government sources of funding came through and we we’re able to kick it off. It’s been easier because now we have a story that we can tell.

Is the story or idea around Beakerhead the most valuable tool for getting funding or grants? Or is it the people and exhibits that you feature?

I think when we try to persuade people of the value of this, we point to the specific exhibits that have caught people’s attention. But we link it to what we think is the more fundamental and ultimately more important idea: breaking down some of this barriers between the Arts and the Sciences. And turning that collaboration into concrete things, things that actually exist - not just ideas. It’s our job to try and bring those things to Calgary, or have them built in Calgary.

We are active year round in the education system and with the Board of Education around Calgary, sponsoring programs and initiatives. Beakerhead will be a year round presence eventually. In a sense it already is, but it will be more obviously a year round activity. I think you’ll see a Beakerhead approach to science at the local Universities, in the local schools. That’s kind of where you have to start.

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You can find Jay Ingram at  www.jayingram.ca and on twitter: @jayingram. You can learn more about Beakerhead at www.beakerhead.com