Thursday, 18 September 2014

Master classes in communication: Lisa Jardine's Point of View

I try not to miss an episode of "A Point of View" which is usually broadcast at 8.45am on Sundays on Radio 4. But when Lisa Jardine, is the guest presenter, I make sure that I am by the radio, and if I can't make it, I download the podcast. The format is simple, the presenter reads an audio essay in 10 minutes, no more: no less. Other presenters include journalists, thinkers, academics, politicians etc. - I should also say that the Australian author and journalist Clive James comes a close second to Professor Jardine. Why do I enjoy Lisa Jardine's broadcasts so much? It could be because she happens to be the daughter of Jacob Bronowski, whose book and TV series, "The Ascent of Man" has stayed with me as an influence ever since I watched the series as a 15 year old schoolboy. No, it is because her use of language and choice of anecdotes, make her my favourite media communicator. As Professor of Renaissance Studies at University College London, she brings enormous insight into the legends of Science: iconic figures such as Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle. Her towering intellect combined with a life, lived rich in experience and through her encounters with some of the greatest minds of the last half century, have endowed her with a rich, cultural reservoir which she dips into regularly to enrich her essays. And this is why I want to encourage you all to download her Points of View (or PoV)!

The last PoV I tuned into was entitled "The Horror of War". I don't intend to dissect the broadcast as an amateur literary critic, but suffice to say that in 10 minutes, she manages to engage you, inform you, entertain you and leave you moved by the sincerity of her views and values, with a remarkable eloquence and economy of language. By contrast, apart from a few exceptions such as the mesmerising language of the journalists on Radio 4's "From Our Own Correspondent", the many hours I spend wading through the academic literature, the essays I from students at all levels, I feel that language skills have been eroded to the point of functionality, at best. And to find ourselves at this point, when our ability to communicate our Science, has perhaps never been so critical. For example, the need to explain the key principles of antibiotic resistance is seen to be a National priority: hence the Longitude Prize. But how many times have I heard "experts" in the media giving at best muddled and at worst, downright incorrect explanations of the mechanisms that give rise to resistant populations of bacteria. I don't think John F Kennedy would have had a problem both in recognising the importance of such an issue and then effectively communicating it.

If we are to provide students with the training needed to carry out incisive experimental Science, or indeed the tools for contributing to theoretical Physics, then we must also impress upon them the need to respect the significance of communication and dissemination. I am not suggesting that we need to get back to Shakesperian values, but I do think that Lisa Jardine's Points of View broadcasts could be used as a framework for teaching such skills. They provide not only superb examples of spoken communication, but are wonderful examples of perfectly crafted essays. 

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