#SciencesDebout, an other path for scientific outreach?

What is #SciencesDebout?

I guess most of the readers know what the French movement NuitDebout (Standing Night) is. If not, let’s just say that after a demonstration against a law draft about working conditions, a few tens of people decided to remain on the République square for the night. This occupation persists and gathers hundreds to thousands of people each day. The atmosphere is mostly relax and the participants spend their time discussing theoretical and practical ways to improve our future.

Emmanuelle Perez and I are both passionate about our respective fields of research (Mexican-American border in the 19th century and quantum physics), and we usually enjoy sharing this passion with non-specialists. We quickly decided that the open-minded atmosphere of NuitDebout was a great place for scientific outreach as well as discussions about sciences and politics.

So we took a felt and a cardboard and wrote “I’m a physicist/historian/anything, ask me your questions!” and we came to NuitDebout by groups of up to 20 researchers. Our idea was to avoid something too vertical in which we would decide the subject, come as the knowing ones and paternalistically spread our knowledge to educate people.

We wanted the passer-by to choose their subject, to pick-up whatever mattered for them and then to discuss about it. With our knowledge of course, but most of all with the critical mind required by the scientific method.

Can you tell me how the brain works?

Tell me about…

As the method is very open, no session ever looks like the previous one. Nevertheless, I think I have determined five kinds of questions or attitudes:

But sometimes I couldn’t answer a question… and I said it clearly! In a way I think it’s important to stress that a physicist doesn’t know all about physics just as an economist doesn’t know all about economy. That’s a way of deconstructing the role of experts we hear about all the time in politics.

  1. I was quite surprised to see that many people follow closely the scientific news and want to know more about the Higgs boson, or the satellite they have heard about on the radio the day before. These questions imply for us a close follow of the press 😉
  2. Sadly, I was confronted several times to conspiracy theories about the Americans on the moon, chemtrails, Tesla’s free energy or even the protocols of the elders of Sion. Unfortunately some activists are a bit too wary about the “official truth” and get astray… Then it’s (almost) impossible to reason them…
  3. Many people want to have an analyse of the movement itself. They ask about the differences between NuitDebout and May 68 for example. This kind of question needs a bit of knowledge at the start but soon transforms on political discussion about the future of the movement itself.
  4. I kept my favorite for the end: when the conversation drifts from research to a multidisciplinary and political question. Many people enquire about the future of energies (production, politics but also the sociological aspects). Debates about the funding of research are common, just as reflections about how research should take care of its potential applications.
    In these kind of discussion, I’m no longer the knowing one, but a simply a citizen discussing with his fellows a political matter.
What are the similarities between NuitDebout and May 68?

Let’s do it elsewhere!

I think that many of the people I discussed with would never have come to scientific conferences and certainly not to my lab. Many of the questions they had would never have occurred to me, or if I had thought about that I would have concluded that I was not qualified enough to say anything. If think this experience is rather unique, or at least completely different than any other form of scientific outreach I’ve done up to now.

In the end, the best description of #SciencesDebout was given in a tweet: it’s the scientific version of “free hugs”. My point of view is that there is a real interest for scientific free hugs, so we should try to export this new form of scientific outreach out of the NuitDebout and do it elsewhere: on other places, in the underground or in front of the commercial centres!

Adrien Jeantet
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