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Lockdown conversations

On June 24th, Gareth will be giving an ‘online zoom webinar’ as one of a series of public talks entitled “Conversations”. The series highlights the contributions of mathematics to biology, and Gareth has given the title “Touching the Heart of the Brain.”

I’m nervous about this – that’s not unusual, I’m nervous before every talk I give. It doesn’t get better with age and experience, and maybe it shouldn’t – when you stop worrying for your audience, about whether you’re going to bore, bemuse or confuse them, maybe it’s time to shut up.

That title, “Conversations”, captures something important; no lecture, no talk, no seminar works without an audience, and an audience is never passive. Even if you’re doing all the talking it’s still a conversation: what the listener knows and understands, what they are interested in and care about, their prejudices and preconceptions – their various biases – all have their parts in decoding what you say.

Understanding that – and knowing your audience – might be the key to giving a good talk. Usually I know something about my audience – the student audience (who know they have to be there), or the audience of peers (who feel they should be there, or are waiting for the next talk, or couldn’t escape quickly enough after the last talk). Giving a talk to a public audience is different because it’s hard to know what to expect. If you don’t know what they know, or what they expect, you must try to find out as you go, and adjust as best you can.

It’s not always possible to adjust. I gave my first ‘public’ lecture forty years ago at the University of Iceland. Well, I say it was at the University, but the seminar room was above a piano shop. It was a public lecture though, advertised in the national newspaper. In the front seats, two formidable-looking women who were unmistakeably Members of the Public were glaring suspiciously at me. They walked out after 5 minutes when they discovered that I wasn’t talking in Icelandic.

Just after they left, probably coincidentally, a pneumatic drill began to compete with me from the road outside. My chairman, considerately, left the room, soon the noise stopped, and he returned. I thanked him, promising not to overrun my time. He said, “You won’t – I told them to start again in half an hour.”

It was good experience; I learnt to look at the audience, to see when I was speaking in a language strange to them, to recognise competition from other distractions, and to sense when I was straining patience and goodwill. Usually, the audience will help the speaker – as you look on them, they may look back with smiles of encouragement, quizzically raised eyebrows or furrowed brows, or meet you with closed eyes or blank insolence. Each is an invitation for you to respond, and if you do so, whether successfully or not, the audience will probably appreciate and reward your effort.

But this coming conversation is another challenge. What kind of conversation can it be when you cannot see or hear your audience or even know that one is there? I am of course, like many mathematicians, frequently to be found deep in conversation with myself, but few such conversations will grip any listener.

Ten years ago, that wonderful journalist Jon Snow came to Edinburgh to give a public lecture as part of a series called ‘Our Changing World’. In giving his lecture, he displayed this gift of seeming to be talking directly to you, as one person to another person. Of course it is this that makes him such a great broadcaster (that, and his fast brain and lucid tongue). So I don’t remember whether it was during his lecture or over dinner after, but he talked about his approach to live broadcasting – that he saw himself as being in conversation with the unseen audience - that his role was to try and understand with them the events of the day, and to make common sense of them.

So we shall see how I fare with this challenge, or we shall see if technology allows it. Last week I chaired an online meeting of a final Honours Exam Board – until a power cut intervened. No students were injured, and I cannot be certain that anyone even noticed that the chair of the meeting had frozen. If, on June 24th I freeze, it may be for different reasons.

SMQB Conversations

June 24th Gareth Leng: "Touching the Heart of the Brain" 03.00 PM London

At the heart of the brain, a tiny and ancient region, the hypothalamus, controls things that fill our lives with meaning and passion – our appetites, motivations and emotions. Professor Gareth Leng FRSE will be talking about what we know of how it does these things, and about how mathematics can help in understanding it.

‘The Heart of the Brain: the hypothalamus and its hormones’ by Gareth Leng was published by MIT Press in 2018.

Jon Snow ‘A changing media in a changing world.’ Lecture in the 2010 series of Our Changing World at the University of Edinburgh.

Gareth Leng: a conversation with himself. Blog for The Endocrine Post, 30/08/2018


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