Fishing for stories of the earth

Scottish geologist Iain Stewart  


Four years ago, Scottish geologist Iain Stewart made his first ever visit to Kerala along with a BBC crew in search of karimeen, the backwater fish that’s also a favourite among foodies. But this was no culinary expedition. The crew were filming the Rise of the Continents, a mega documentary series on the split-ups and reunions of Earth’s gigantic landmasses, and karimeen was central to their story.

As it turns out, there is only one other fish in the entire world that shares its anatomy with our karimeen - the paratilapia cichlids. And they live over 4,000 kilometres away in the freshwaters of the island country of Madagascar, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. To understand how the break off happened, we need to go into the geology of our planet. As Iain explains, it was not these small fishes that swam, braving the winds and the undercurrents of the sea all the way, but it was the land mass of India that drifted away from Madagascar 90 million years ago, sailing off North, carrying schools of karimeen and a lot more with it.

Iain’s documentary films are peppered with such captivating stories. He knows all too well that a scientific idea is best communicated when draped around a familiar context. “A story is one of the simplest ways to talk about a complex world. The key to good science communication is to get to the essence of a scientific story, get the facts right, and then tell it in the most vivid and entertaining manner,” he explains.

Iain belongs to a new breed of scientists who are deeply passionate about science communication. As Professor of Geoscience Communication at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom, he spends a large portion of his time trying to promote the public’s interest in the planet that we live on. Through a dozen science documentary films, Iain has told the story of Earth from its billion year history, to its present and future and what all that means for global issues like climate change, energy conservation and natural disasters.

Science journalism, Iain feels, is a wide and fertile arena for young people to make a career. “There has always been this gap between what’s happening in the research labs and universities, how the scientific frontiers are getting pushed with breakthrough discoveries, and the public’s level of understanding of it. Good science communication can fill that space”, he says.

Though a distinguished geoscientist himself, Iain feels it is not necessary to have an academic scientific background to write about science for non-experts. “If you understand well the scientific process, the language that scientists use to describe their work; and if you understand some of the journalistic values and get a grasp of the psychology of the reader, you can be a fairly successful communicator of science,” he explains.

As science gets more accessible through television documentaries and popular writing, public awareness gets enhanced on the utility of science and its many possibilities. But that, according to Iain, is a more mundane goal. There is a higher philosophical purpose for science communication. As he explains, “We have been on this planet for tens of thousands of years. Our collective scientific knowledge of all these years is so incredible that it’s worth understanding and passing on. The more people read about science, the more they will realise how fascinating it is to engage with it, and overtime this knowledge can enhance the way we live our lives, just the way music, art and entertainment does, because in the end science is no different from any of that. It’s yet another dimension of human culture.”

Fishing for stories of the earth

Workshop on science communication

Iain Stewart was in Thiruvananthapuram to conduct a two-day residential workshop on science communication as part of FameLab India, one of the largest science communication competitions in the world. The event was organised by the British Council India in association with University of Kerala and Kerala State Council for Science, Technology and Environment.

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2021 4:40:49 PM |

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