Monday, August 15, 2016

The Summer of Public Speaking


I won't deny it, I enjoy giving public talks about my science. Not only is it fun, but it also serves the cause of informing the public about exactly what it is that we do in planetary science and exploration and gives my research funders a good return on their investment. What more could a public servant such as myself want? I try to accomodate all the talks that are requested of me, but the summer is always easier to schedule than are other times of the year, so often you'll stand a better chance of hearing me when the weather is warm.


While this year has been fairly typical in terms of the number of talks (I've given three so far) the venues seem to be increasing in size and each has provided a new and different experience for me. In March, as classes drew to a close, I spoke to a packed house of several hundred at U of T during Earth Hour. In July I could be found at the Ontario Science Center. While it was my 4th (!) talk at the OSC, it was my first outdoor talk. I gave it under the stars on a perfectly calm, cool and clear night and I must have been audible for miles around, so booming was the microphone!

Most recently, I spoke to my largest audience yet at the North York Astronomy Association's Starfest. This is an annual star party that attracts about 1,000 telescopic enthusiasts each year to the relatively dark skies of Mt Forest, Ontario. If that seems like a lot of people to you, it will come as no surprise that it's one of the largest star parties on the continent.

Unlike my other talks, I can't just swoop in and speak and swoop out again after the Q&A. No, Starfest is an event! My compliments to the organizers who really took good care of me. In particular I've got to thank them and the good folks at the RASC's Niagara Center for taking me around on the night before my talk and sharing their passion for the sky with me. Sometimes here in Toronto we forget that there are more than ~6 stars in the night sky (most of which are planets, but I digress...).

I can only hope I did their hospitality justice on the next day. Certainly, I had a blast - I can't remember the last time I felt that I had an audience so engaged. That's really nice when it happens - to tell a joke and have it land, to show a particular slide and see the reaction. As a speaker these things fuel your performance and make your presentation that much better.

Over the years I've also made a point of keeping my presentations fresh. Most often, when I get requests to speak, I'm given free range on topics. However, this year, all my talks have had specific topics requested. The result has been two new slide decks prepared. Gone are the years when I was delivering 'The Golden Age of Planetary Exploration' hither and yon. I've now got a good half dozen talks ready to go with 'Planetary Habitability' and 'Our Solar System: The Local Laboratory' joining the stable.

As with all good talks, these channel what I've been thinking about in my professional life. In particular, the 'Local Laboratory' talk addresses the combination of Exoplanetary Science, Instrument Development and Planetary Science that was recently selected by NSERC for a CREATE grant. Called 'TEPS' for 'Technologies for Exo/Planetary Science' the principal investigator (Ray Jayawardhana) and I are working hard to get this initiative started. But that is a presentation for another day!

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