Who Dr Niraj Lal, Australian National University and Australian Energy Market Operator
What Science communication at its best showcases the wonders of our universe while sparking critical thinking. Dr Niraj Lal excels at both. Through mediums including prime-time television, ground-breaking podcasts and a popular children’s book about gravity, he has increased understanding and appreciation of science among Australians of all ages.
Winner of the 2021 Celestino Eureka Prize for Promoting Understanding of Science
What philosophies guide your approach to science communication?
It’s still evolving! And continually being informed by communicators I’m inspired by. But my main touchstone is to start with where the audience is and to spend time thinking about what I’d like to convey in a broad sense. Following this, it’s to i) use the lowest-common denominator of shared education as the baseline for communication, ii) to show not tell, and iii) to remember the purpose.
In written form, I try to follow the advice of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (never use a long word where a short one will do, omit needless words), and George Orwell’s wonderful essay on English. In graph form it’s via the lovely PNAS paper by Rougier et al., and in spoken presentation it’s to “be present, and first connect with the audience” — easier said than done, but probably the single most important thing to do.
A lot of your work is targeted at children. Have younger audiences been a priority from your early days as a science communicator, or did this focus come about more organically?
The most impactful science communication for me is to audiences that aren’t already engaged. I find that adults’ minds (my own included) are often already made up and that we generally self-select content that either we’re already interested in or that confirms our own opinions — something made worse by the closed feedback loops of the modern media environment.
Probably the only time we can reach people that aren’t self-selecting their content is at school, with the message perhaps more impactful the younger one is. It’s maybe a philosophy outlined in Hermann Hesse’s book Glass Bead Game, which is a lovely read for anyone connected with academia. There’s also a great definition of intelligence being ‘the ability to change one’s mind’ — by which I’m getting dumber by the day! But this is what makes science communication so wonderful, fun and impactful with little ones.
The most impactful science communication for me is to audiences that aren’t already engaged.
Henry the Flying Emu, your second book, introduces physics concepts to children. Can you share the story behind the book?
The idea for Henry the Flying Emu came to me, cliched enough, in a dream! It was about running really fast to go to the beach. I was studying general relativity in physics at the time and I wondered how fast you’d need to travel to go into orbit at the earth’s surface and ‘fly’ there (28,440km/h if you’d like to know!). And I thought about whether any animal could do this, then about emus not being able to fly — and how frustrating that must be — and then the story kind of wrote itself from there.
Over 2015 I refined the rhymes and verses, then in 2016 I was lucky enough to be selected for the ABC’s Top 5 Under 40 program. As part of that I got to turn my story into an audiobook and broadcast it on ABC Radio National's Science Show with Robyn Williams and David Fisher.
Television, podcasts, books — you’ve worked across a broad range of mediums! Are there any others that you’ve got your sights set on?
Cabaret and augmented reality ... nah, just joking — there’s actually some great science communicating happening through these mediums already! I’m really loving working on our podcast for preschoolers – Imagine This on ABC Kids Listen, I find it such a lovely medium for little ones — away from screens and hype but still one-to-one. I’m also writing and recording (in slow time) a kids music album. Our brain’s ability to remember tunes and lyrics is astonishing and I reckon the medium of song is an untapped method for (modern) education …
A 100% renewable electricity grid is incredibly doable.
Can you tell us a bit about your work in the energy sector?
A 100% renewable electricity grid is incredibly doable. Solar panels will get cheaper, batteries too. Electric cars will be everywhere and along with pumped hydro storage, will eventually provide all the storage we need. There’s a bit of work to do in figuring out the smarts to connect it all and provide the essential grid services to keep the grid secure and stable — this is my day job, but it’s all very doable. A little of it was covered in my recent Catalyst episode on ABC TV, The Grid – Powering our Future, directed by Poppy Stockell, and also in a paper I wrote with colleagues at AEMO on Essential System Services in Renewable-Dominated Grids for the IEEE Power and Energy Magazine.
These are the easy things. The harder thing is to do this in a truly sustainable way. Making the silicon that goes into solar panels without destroying old-growth forests for charcoal in Australia or using forced Uyghur labour in re-education camps in China. Mining the copper for wires and transmission lines without devastating waterways in Papua New Guinea. Mining the lithium and cobalt for batteries and electric vehicles without toxifying the groundwater in Tibet or the Congo. Building new things without disrespecting the global rights of workers to a fair wage and fair working conditions.
What does winning a Eureka Prize mean to you?
It’s a real honour. It was a privilege just being named in the company of the other finalists, but a surprise and a delight to be recognised alongside the work of the wonderful people I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with over the years. The real value of awards like this is to help this kind of work continue in the future, and that's what I hope to do in promoting the understanding of science.
The real value of awards like this is to help this kind of work continue in the future, and that's what I hope to do in promoting the understanding of science.
I’m donating half of my prize money to organisations that support kids to engage with science, critical thinking, creativity, performing arts, civics, or connection to country and our natural world. I’m also keen to mentor and help provide connection where I can, to help pay my privilege forward.