Fresh from delivering this year’s RI Christmas lectures, Professor Sophie Scott put her unique spin on this stalwart of the science communications diary – we caught up with her as she was preparing her appearance...
Congratulations on presenting this year’s Christmas Lectures! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Yes, I’m a professor of neuroscience at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, where I’m very much a research scientist, but I teach as well. I love science, so I’m interested in everything, but the main focus of my research is the neuroscience of voices, speech and laughter – how humans communicate – and how the brain supports that.
I came to neuroscience through a combination of biology and psychology and before that I really had no idea that science could be a full time job! So I looked for a research assistant job and found I loved it; I think as you get older there are so many other calls on your time, but this was three years when it was just me and my research. So having received my PhD at UCL in 1994 I returned here in 1998, via Cambridge and the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, where I started working in brain scanning; the precursor to cognitive neuroscience.
And I’m also passionate about science communication, so I like to do as much as possible to bring scientific research alive for people.
How did you feel when you were asked to present this year’s Lectures?
Absolutely delighted. It’s a long time since I can remember a conversation when I was happier! And I didn’t have any inkling at all. I had done some talks at the Ri already so when I got a tweet from Dom MacDonald, who’s project managing the Lectures at the Ri, this year, asking if we could meet, I just assumed it was about giving another lecture; not the Lectures! I grew up watching the Christmas Lectures with my parents and I now continue the tradition with my Son. So it’s really exciting and a huge honour and I’m looking forward to some great demonstrations and posing a few fundamental questions about the sort of future we want.
Are here any hints you can give around The language of life, the lecture’s title? For example, when did language first develop?
Communication is such a fundamental part of animal and human lives that it’s a subject of interest to everyone
That’s difficult; it’s really hard to know with modern humans because the parts of the body we use to communicate don’t fossilise very well, so we have to rely on things like the shape of the skull and spine. There are those that argue that human language started about 100,000 years ago…and others who argue it was more like 1.75 million years ago. So we just don’t know, but compared to running upright and taking care of each other – some other fairly fundamental human indicators – developing speech was probably relatively late.
Hints on this year’s Lectures? My lips are sealed on the detail, but we’re going to strip communication right back, looking at links to our animal past, how language has evolved, the 93% or so of communication that’s non-verbal, and then how speech is transformed into the written word, including textspeak and emojis. Communication is such a fundamental part of animal and human lives that it’s a subject of interest to everyone. There are deaf people in remote parts of the world who communicate though sign and will travel for days to find someone else who signs, just so they can have a conversation. And that is amazing!
How do you feel your work in stand-up comedy will help you with the lectures?
I’ve been doing stand-up for a few years now and I love it. It was an academic thing set up by Steve Cross at UCL, where there was a professional comedian as compere, but everyone else on the bill was a scientist. I really didn’t want to do it, but now I make all of my research scientists do it; it’s been that useful to me! It’s taught me a lot about stories and how to tell them and to think about real life examples that demonstrate scientific points. I love the fact that doing stand-up has made me a much better communicator…and I’m well aware of the irony! So I don’t think this year’s Christmas Lectures will be funny, but they will definitely be fun!
In a time of ever increasing efforts by the science community to increase awareness of their work, how does the Christmas Lectures, the oldest science series in the world, fit into this?
It’s at least a two-fold contribution. It’s the main focal point for the amazing amount of other science communication and engagement undertaken by the Ri; it’s very much a figurehead series for them and has a lot of recognition.
And it’s an important example of taking science communication seriously. If you look at the history of the people who have given the lectures and the things they’ve done, they make science accessible but not pointless or ridiculous by that accessibility. I have clear memories of watching my first Christmas Lectures, delivered by Carl Sagan, and it felt like I’d been let in on a secret, that there was a whole world of people out there ‘doing science’. Science in the 1970s was lots of nice books with pretty pictures, but felt very much like a presentation of ‘stuff we’ve always known’ and you didn’t get a sense of process or that it’s an on-going thing. So it was extraordinary to me – that in the same way there are authors out there thinking of stories, there are also scientists thinking of research.
What’s the main thing you would like to see viewers take away from your talk?
I would like people to realise just how complex communication is and how unaware we are of a lot of what we do. We’re obviously aware of the words, but there’s so much more – emotion, body language, taking turns to speak, speaking differently to different people. It’s such a smooth, automatic process that we don’t notice what’s going on because we do it so well. And apart from that, I think just a love of science; the Christmas Lectures are fun and engaging and a great family-focused way to stimulate an interest in science.
Professor Sophie Scott is a Wellcome Trust senior fellow at University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, stand-up comedian, and the 2017 Royal Institution Christmas Lecturer