Close encounter with A Naked Scientist

DR Chris Smith really needs to clone himself. Everyone wants a piece of his time. This morning he was up before the sun to do an interview with someone in Australia to promote his new book.

DR Chris Smith really needs to clone himself. Everyone wants a piece of his time. This morning he was up before the sun to do an interview with someone in Australia to promote his new book. The publicity's nice, but you can't help thinking sleep's better.

Such is the price to pay for establishing yourself as a user-friendly non-geek who speaks like a regular guy.

Except, of course, Dr Chris is not really a regular guy.

His day job - clinical lecturer in virology at Cambridge University - would be enough for most of us. But he's also the prime mover behind a live radio show called The Naked Scientists that goes out weekly across the east of England. It strips science to its bare essentials, so it makes sense to the layman.

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He takes part, too, in a half-hour questions-and-answers radio session on Thursday nights, does a science segment for Australian radio, something similar for BBC Radio Five Live here in the UK, and is also responsible for Nature magazine's podcast.

It means putting in the hours at night after he's done his 9-5 clinical work - sifting through scientific papers to find potential radio material, and recording interviews with experts - and devoting virtually all of Sunday to writing, editing and presenting.

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He must be shattered. “Totally. I feel perpetually exhausted. I never used to be, but then the output has gone up enormously.”

To cap it all, Chris should be a father by the time this feature appears. He and wife Sarah, a Cambridge GP, are due to welcome a daughter into the world: their first child.

“It will be my last at this rate!” he half-jokes.

The motivation is that he and the team are producing something valuable.

Here's a barometer. Each Sunday's show is turned into a podcast. “By the end of the week 20,000 copies of that fresh programme will have been downloaded and a total of 50,000 or 60,000 copies of the programme and back catalogue will have been downloaded by the end of the week,” says Chris.

The Sunday evening show, in particular, has become such a Frankenstein's monster - in a positive way, of course - that it really needs an injection of added oomph to push it on to the next level.

At the moment The Naked Scientists' work is supported by a three-year grant from The Wellcome Trust charity, for which Chris is thankful. Along with the airtime, there's £40 a week from the BBC that helps towards travelling expenses, for which he's also grateful. The experts who take part in the show - media-savvy physicians and researchers mostly from Cambridge University - give their time for nothing but the satisfaction of spreading the joy of science to the general public.

The first show of this month included, for example, a discussion about why blood is red, the size of the ozone hole, how to make magnets and the best way to get rid of excess mucus.

Delivering quality content on a low budget is a hard trick to pull off week after week, though, as Chris points out.

About 10 people currently contribute to The Naked Scientists, but the core is a producer, another full-timer, and Chris “as the over-arching figure trying to keep it going”.

He's not going to bite the hand that feeds him a little bit of money and valuable airtime, but he does cast Cinderella-like glances at more prosperous members of the broadcasting family.

A fraction of the kind of money going on sports coverage could, for instance, make a big difference to a content-rich, specialized, factual show like his.

Wouldn't it be wonderful, he suggests, if the Beeb put some greater muscle behind the radio show and rolled it out across a wider area?

“Graham Norton had his contract renewed for five-million quid. He's presented three programmes in the last year; that's not very good value for money, is it?”

Certainly there's a more than solid base, judging by the (slightly techy) figures.

Apparently, all those downloads amount to four terabytes of data a month (approximately equal to 4,000 gigabytes, according to my encyclopedia) - “which is enough to have had me thrown off two web-hosts. I've finally found a company in Manchester willing to stomach the bandwidth, although they were forced to turn us off one day when we started to pull more bandwidth than Tesco, Waitrose and the BBC put together. So it's a victim of its own success in that respect.”

Happily, web-host ukfast is providing free services in exchange for a few adverts “because they like the show”.

In recent years there have been scare stories about a decline in UK science. What's his take?

“People overlook the reason why Britain has this incredible standing on the world stage. It's because we've always been at the forefront of science and technology. Science makes technology; technology makes money.

“In the 1950s science was way up on our academic agenda; we produced some great scientists and we're surfing the wave of that legacy. But we're not putting the same emphasis on it now.

“Teachers are not able to bring science to life in the classroom in the way they were. There's no role models; there's no Johnny Ball on kids' TV.”

The trouble lies in the fact that broadcast executives are almost exclusively from an arts background - good at creating the “verbal theatre” on which their industry thrives. Scientists, on the other hand, “get good writing skills, good sentence structure and varied vocabulary ground out of them early on in the name of scientific clarity”.

Media decision-makers thus come at science from an arts perspective - “and that leads to an underestimation of the interest from a general audience, an underestimation of the level of understanding amongst the general audience, and therefore an under-representation of science globally across all media”.

Last year Chris timed two back-to-back items on Radio 4's Today programme. One, about the arrival of avian 'flu in Turkey, lasted a minute and 40 seconds, while a piece about a woman “who filled the Tate Modern Turbine Hall with a load of boxes” stretched to four-and-a-half minutes.

“Therein lies the problem. I think it should have been the other way round, with someone who could have explained the avian 'flu business. 'Should we panic?' No, of course not; but people are left panicking because the story isn't covered properly.”

Because executives have underestimated the power of science to engage the public, and therefore haven't done it justice, “reality TV has burgeoned out of control; and, actually, it's sh*t!

“Put a good science programme on and David Attenborough wins every time. Why? Because it's got high production values.”

Science crosses geographical, cultural, class, gender and religious divides. If someone discovers a cure for TB, it's of as much importance to a homeless person in East Anglia - at risk of suffering from the disease - as someone in India or Africa. “That's why science is powerful.”

Government direction is crucial, too. There are universities having to close their chemistry departments, Chris says.

“I think the Government needs to wake up and say 'Let's stop all this ridiculous bureaucracy in the classroom so teachers can actually teach interesting things again. Let's fund universities decency, so students can come, and let's fund scientists properly.”

Someone with a PhD behind them might earn about £20,000 in their first job - the same amount their graduate friends were getting three or four years ago. That's no incentive.

“So what do they do? They leave and become administrators or bankers. We had one of our PhD students become a management consultant.

“The number of Nobel prizes we (the UK) used to win - and Trinity College has got more Nobel prizes than the whole of France - is now dropping. Unless the Government puts more emphasis on science, more money into treating scientists well, we will end up as a nation of service providers and all the great discoveries will be handed on a plate to the Chinese, who work bloody hard and throw an army of people at problems.”

Chris doesn't believe children are nowadays less able, but is sure they're not being taught that well. It's not the teachers' fault but the politicians meddling in education.

“With a modular-based system, you never get forced to see the big picture - which is what you have to keep your eye on if you come into science. You have to see how your work relates to everything else.”

Ten or 15 years ago, 8% of pupils were getting A-grades at A-level. Now it's 25%, he says. If virtually everyone's getting a string of As, “no-one knows what they're good at anymore . . . Go back to a time when A-levels meant something; then, people will be better guided to make an informed choice about what they're good at. People will then be pushed into areas where they really will flourish.”

The stereotype of a boffin - immensely intelligent but socially inept - hasn't helped, he accepts, though most scientists are actually great at communicating their ideas, he insists.

“If we had more roles models that were sexy and funny, and clearly bright, and if we championed being intelligent rather than championing Jade Goody for being fat and mouthy . . .”

So where does he see his future?

“Not dropping dead by the age of 40!

“When I started all this, I was going to be a doctor, then I thought I was going to be a scientist, then I thought I was going to be an academic doctor. Now I think I kind of like journalism. I've obviously got a bit of flair in the science-journalisticv market.

“It would be quite nice, I think, to carry on doing all these things, because if I just eschewed one for the other, my life would be less rich.

“The Naked Scientists is undoubtedly successful because it draws on the credibility given to it by the fact that I am a clinical lecturer at Cambridge University and I therefore have credibility because I am an active doctor. I also have a position in a world-leading research department.

“If I just walked away and became nothing more than a journalist, yes, I'd have a lot more time to put into it, but I don't think I could say I was as credible and current as I am at the moment. That's what's giving it the edge. It's unique - there's no-one to match us at the moment - and when you've got something like that, it's worth championing and pushing forward.

“I just need to, somehow, come up with a happy medium!”

The Naked Scientists story

Early 1999: Chris Smith, halfway through his PhD, asked to help at Cambridge Science Festival

Set up demonstration showing how to extract DNA from an onion, using ingredients found at home

Local radio station interviewed him. He went with a friend. It went very well

Invited back the following week

They appeared as guests for nine months: as the “PhD Posse”

Grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council allowed Chris to buy airtime from Cambridge-based Red radio

February 2000: Launch of Sunday evening show ScienceWorld: a mix of science news, interviews and chart music!

2001: Dr Chris comes up with a sexier name and The Naked Scientists Radio Show is born

2002-3: BBC Cambridgeshire poaches the show

BBC Essex asks to take The Naked Scientists, too

Autumn 2003: The impressed managing editor persuades the other BBC stations in the region to take the show

Web link:

Dr Chris Smith factfile

Born Braintree, 1975

Schools: Felsted, near Braintree; then King Edward VI, Chelmsford

Followed by: The London Hospital Medical College, University College London, Cambridge University

PhD dissertation: “An Analysis of HSV-1 Mediated Transgene Expression In The Mammalian Nervous System”

And HSV is? Herpes simplex virus. Causes blisters around the mouth or lips - cold sores - or on the genitals

A Dr Chris quip: “You can always tell the herpes virologists because they wash their hands before they go to the toilet”

YOU'VE heard it on the radio, through the web and on a podcast - now you can read it in traditional form.

Dr Chris Smith has brought out Naked Science: a book that answers the questions we never got round to asking and gives an insight into the latest developments in science and technology.

“The book is stuff that's gone over the airwaves in the last year - a broad brushstroke; something for everyone. No matter where you open it, you'll get some powerful playground ammo that you can impress your mates with.”

It discusses conundrums such as: Could a robot dog do better than a guide dog? Which way do most people tilt their head while kissing? Why can't you get certain songs out of your head? And: how do you escape from quicksand?

Naked Science is published by European Atlantic Publications at £7.99. ISBN 978-1-905770-01-4

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