Meet the woman tackling a sticky subject in science

25 May 2022

Laurie Winkless. Image: © Ricky Situ/Zhu Creative

Laurie Winkless is on a mission to explain the fascinating science lying just beneath the surfaces we interact with on a daily basis.

It’s no secret that many areas of science have a comms problem. There has been much conversation and debate around the dangers of disinformation, how to fight against it and the unique struggle that scientists have in this department.

Many of the amazing scientists I have interviewed in the past have talked about this ongoing challenge. Arlene Blum, who fought against lobbyists to ban a dangerous chemical from children’s sleepwear, said that while academics have strong science to support them, they often have “no communications support at all”.

This is just one of the topics I explored when I sat down with Irish author and science communicator Laurie Winkless.

“When you’re trying to communicate with the public, who don’t have that scientific training, facts are not enough. You have to be able to engage people, you have to meet them where they are,” she said.

“It’s really hard. But that’s the only chance you have. You can’t just say, ‘Well, here’s all the facts. Why don’t you believe this?’ And I think loads of scientists have come to the realisation that that’s not enough any more. They have to do it differently.”

Winkless has her own method of doing this. In 2016 she released her first book, Science and the City: The Mechanics Behind the Metropolis, which takes an intriguing look at the ‘hidden science’ of how cities work.

“I was living in London at the time, and so much of your life is defined by this transport system and this invisible machine just keeps moving and you don’t even notice it until it stops. And I felt like, if I find that interesting, I’m sure other people would find it interesting.”

In that same year her first book was released, Winkless signed a contract to write her next book, Sticky: The Secret Science of Surfaces, which focuses on the science behind friction and its effects on everything from earthquakes to Post-it notes. However, she said it was “the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Truly, the book almost broke me at times.”

In the years between that initial contract and the book’s release in November 2021, Winkless moved to New Zealand, which she hadn’t allowed for in her planning. Add to that the Covid-19 pandemic, which hampered her ability to travel to places she had hoped to visit.

Learning through doing

Writing about friction was pushing Winkless out of her comfort zone in terms of her knowledge, and one of the trickier parts of the book was finding the right people to talk to and ensuring she could tie all the ideas together.

“I know some people write books about things they know … that sounds like the most boring thing in the world to me,” she said. “For me, the two books that I’ve written have been just pursuits of curiosity.”

Winkless’s background is in physics and applied research, but her passion is about discussing all things STEM and translating complex topics into easy-to-understand concepts.

She spoke passionately about the importance of making her readers feel like they are learning along with her as opposed to feeling lectured by a professor. And while the downside of living in New Zealand means that the book was finding readers before Winkless even got her hands on a copy herself, she said the response has been amazing.

“I’ve had emails from people who have each taken something from it or someone who’s an expert on one of those things and then learn something new from one of the others and that’s been amazing,” she said.

“To have emails from people all over the world saying, ‘I’m a retired professor of chemistry and I really enjoyed this and you made me think about this differently,’ or secondary school teachers saying that it has made them think that maybe they need to change the way they teach friction, that’s amazing.”

‘I wanted to tell stories, because I think stories engage you in a way that facts just don’t’

As we talked about some of the interesting topics covered in the book, from how geckos stick to things to why ice is slippery, we moved on to a much wider conversation around how certain areas of science are taught and perceived, particularly physics in terms of how ‘difficult’ it can be seen as a subject.

On a personal level, I suggested that the reason for the positive reception to the book is how it brings physics into real life more than I had ever experienced before, making it more relatable.

Winkless agreed and said one of her personal goals for the book was to make it engaging by telling stories about people doing science rather than just about ‘the thing’ they were doing.

“That was really pushing me out of my comfort zone in terms of writing because I love ‘the thing’!” she said.

“I wanted to tell stories, because I think stories engage you in a way that facts just don’t. Stories help you to sneak facts and information into people’s minds. If you’re just reading a list of facts or listening to a podcast and they’re just listing interesting things, none of that sticks with you. What sticks with you is the narrative that ties them together and I really wanted to try my very best to do that with this book.”

Women in science

What is clear from our conversation is Winkless’s innate curiosity, which unsurprisingly is what brought her to science in the first place.

“From very early on, I was encouraged and also not made to feel weird for enjoying nerdy stuff and for wanting to learn how to take things apart and put it together again. I think my parents have to take an awful lot of credit for that because I had no idea that something like physics or engineering couldn’t be for me, that idea didn’t exist.”

It wasn’t until she went to school and noticed fewer girls taking physics that she started to see the gender divide within STEM.

Fast forward to today, and Winkless lamented about how these views are sadly still around, mentioning in particular Katharine Birbalsingh, a teacher and UK government social mobility adviser who came under fire last month for saying girls avoid physics because they don’t like hard maths.

“What was amazing and awesome was to see how much outrage came from the physics community. Yes, mostly from women in physics, but also from lots and lots of male allies in the STEM sector saying this is ludicrous,” she said.

“The sooner we can get rid of those sorts of opinions, you as a person feel freer when other people’s perceptions of you aren’t so toxic.”

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic