Robert Winston, fertility researcher and member of the House of Lords, came to Israel to talk about connecting the public to science in a convention that also included a first-of-its-kind talent show
In a convention about science communication at the Davidson Institute, held in collaboration with the Ministry of Science and the United Nations University, Lord and Professor Robert Winston told the audience a personal story. In 1980s, a patient came to him, requesting a genetic solution to a disease she carried, so that she will not pass it on to her children. Having already given birth to a sick child, she watched him die in agony and could not bear the thought of taking that risk again; but she also did not see herself terminating a pregnancy if the fetus was positively diagnosed. He took up the challenge, both out of curiosity and because the scientific community claimed it would be impossible. Reaching the finishing line with an important scientific breakthrough at hand, he was unable to enjoy it, however, as a frightening thought crept to his mind, which he courageously shared with the audience: were his efforts of genetic manipulation to prevent the birth of children with genetic defects any different from the genocide executed by the Nazis to purge society of the “Jewish disease?” Winston settled his inner conflict by realizing that his scientific practice respected the human in front of him and the individual’s wishes.
His reputation precedes him
Many participants in the second annual convention on connecting people to science were very excited towards Winston's talk, who was the key note speaker. Winston is a successful physician and researcher, responsible for some of the breakthroughs in the fertility field, but he is also a well-known figure in the field of science communication. He published science books for children, and appeared on television and radio shows as a prominent, witty and original representative of science. He is mainly known for the documentary Child of Our Time, which follows the life and development of a number of children. He is also a member of the House of Lords, the upper house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, and took some time away from his career in science, medicine and media to direct a successful play. In light of his very impressive life achievements, people were looking forward to hearing from the 76-year-old lord about his ideas and perceptions on how to connect the general public to science.
Fertility scientist, science communicator, lord and candle lighter. Lord Winston at the convention | Photograph: Ohad Herches, Weizmann Institute of Science
Between the Holocaust and science
Soon enough, it was apparent that Lord Winston did not come all the way from London just to entertain the audience with the exciting demonstrations he performs on his famous online videos. His talk hit some sore spots, demonstrating how ignorance and pseudo-science can be exploited – from eugenics, which was based on a distorted interpretation of the theory of evolution as an excuse for the need to "improve" the human race, and all the way to the Holocaust. Music segments were incorporated in the talk, one of which was the voice of a mother singing to her children as they are being sent to Auschwitz death camp.
Winston successfully engaged the audience, delivering an important message on the dangers of ignorance and pseudo-science. This is reflected not only in global historical events, but also in everyday decisions on medical, environmental and consumption issues. He believes that people who work in communicating science are responsible for transferring the knowledge and having a scientific discussion with everyone and everywhere.
The meeting was unexpected and very authentic. Winston chose to share himself as a person – his fears and moral doubts, his love of music and the respect he has towards people as individuals. Through this his message stood clear – we must connect with people through science. And in deed, he succeeded in doing exactly so.
Lord Winston’s talk was the main event of the theoretical part of the convention, which opened with a talk by Prof. Ayelet Baram-Tsabari from the Faculty of Education in Science and Technology at the Technion on science in the new media. The following talks, on ongoing online activities, were by some of the most prominent figures in the field: Maya Ziv-Silver, former administrator of the Israeli Educational Channel's Facebook page and current digital content manager of Kan Israeli Broadcasting Corporation; Yomiran Nissan, CEO of the non-profit organization “Little Big Science;” and Yifat Mor, PhD student at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who studies science on social media.
General Director of the Davidson Institute, Dr. Liat Ben David awards the check to the winners of the talent show | Photograph: Ohad Herches, Weizmann Institute of Science
Singing about biochemistry and dancing to physics
At the center of the artistic part of the event was the first-ever science communication talent show, “The S-Factor.” Out of the many songs, dance numbers, spoken word, and other forms of performance that entered the competition, six contestants made it to the finals, which were hosted by comedian and science shows television host Dudu Erez.
The first place was awarded to the Troubadours, a band of three scientists – Ayelet Dekel, Nurit Karni, and Yannai Gonczarowski. They explained how vaccines work to the melody of “Under the Sea” from Disney's Little Mermaid. They won a 5000 NIS scholarship to support studies of their choice.
The other contestants were the ensemble Quantum Funk, performing an upbeat dance about physics; astronomer David Polishook, who introduced the solar system in a song, including a story about how an encounter with a lovely alien prompted him to become an astronomer; soldier Adi Weiss, who did a spoken-word bit on the biology of love; Ma'ayan Blevis in a song about gravitational waves; and the students of Brenner High School in Petah Tikva in a chemical dance about redox reactions.
While the votes were counted and combined with the judges'’ rankings, Prof. Ehud Shapiro and musicians Ye'ela Avital, Noam Shos, Gilad Hildesheim, and Evegeni Lisogursky performed a 300-year-old scientific operatic duet, paying tribute to a…distillation device. The final performance was the show “"A Light for Love",” which is a collaboration between musician Hemi Rudner and geneticist Dr. Liat Yakir, incorporating songs we all know and love with explanations on the science behind love.
The Troubadours’ winning song:
What happens in the brain, heart, skin and eyes? Adi Weiss on the biochemistry of love:
What's that signal that was detected from space in September 2014? Maayan Blevis sings about gravitational waves:
Dancing and rapping about quantum mechanics – Quantum Funk:
The lovely alien, the solar system and me – Dr. David Polishook sings about his adventures in space:
Redox reactions and Nobel Prizes – the dance of the students from Brenner High School in Petah Tikva:
The finale – a tribute to laboratory equipment – Prof. Ehud Shapiro and his ensemble in a scientific opera:
Translated by Elee Shimshoni