Why we must share science stories: speaking in Saudi Arabia

Astronomy, engineering, medicine and maths: books of the Islamic golden age contain rich seams of knowledge from which we can learn today. Libraries across the world hold hand-copied manuscripts illustrated in vivid colours, their script intelligible to contemporary readers of Arabic, even though the pages were written centuries ago.

Al-Idrisi’s map of the known world, 16th-century manuscript of the 12th-century original. In the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

When you see these books for real, you cannot help but feel they were written to be read: to share and celebrate knowledge and ideas. In the Bodleian Library, Oxford, I recently explored several incredible manuscripts from their 15,000-strong collection: the famous 12th-century world map by Al-Idrisi, the 13th-century machines of Al-Jazari, and a compendium of botanical treatments based on Dioscorides’ herbal of the first century.

Laserwort plant illustrated in a 13th-century Arabic manuscript of Dioscorides’ 1st-century Materia Medica. In the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

My work with 1001 Inventions global touring exhibitions and books has given me several opportunities to write about this period of history in science and technology. I’ve also developed content and written text for the Arabic Sciences Museum that is part of the Sheikh Abdullah Al-Salem Cultural Center, opening soon in Kuwait. So I was delighted to speak on the topic of Human Machine Past in the House of Wisdom: Learning for the Future at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia (KAUST).

Kuwait’s new science museum complex will open in 2018 on a 13-hectare site and include a Space Museum, Natural History Museum, Science & Technology Museum and Arabic Sciences Museum.

The talk was part of the Winter Enrichment Program, a huge event with hundreds of speakers and visitors arriving at KAUST for a two-week series of lectures, workshops and showcases. The secondary school on campus (where a childhood friend of mine, Emma Nason, teaches biology) also makes the most of the WEP and encourages students to attend keynotes.

My arrival coincided with a glorious day in which to acclimatise and make final preparations. Emma, my host, took me on a tour of the campus and out to KAUST’s signature monument, the Beacon, reached just as the sun was going down.

Inside the Breakwater Beacon, a contemporary interpretation of a lighthouse and symbol of KAUST.

On Sunday I gave my lecture to an auditorium of postgraduate students, staff and classes from the secondary school, developing a theme inspired by the manuscripts of the golden age by Al-Jazari, Al-Zahrawi, and the Banu Musa brothers. We need to follow their example in telling stories of engineering and invention, using vivid and compelling media and methods, if we are to share knowledge effectively. Much scientific and engineering research cannot speak for itself: we need experts to explain what is going on – and communicators to help match message and audience. I hope to see an exhibition programme start up at KAUST, sharing the community’s contemporary science stories around the world in word, object and interactive, as global universities and museums are increasingly doing.

Brain Diaries is an exhibition about contemporary brain research by the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, which is now on tour.

I had the chance to visit KAUST’s campus museum which gives a comprehensive insight into the developments of the golden age. The range of models was very impressive, and my favourite aspect was the chemistry theatre which brought to life combustion and distillation using clever AV technology.

The KAUST campus museum celebrates the inventions of scholars including engineer Al-Jazari and his elephant clock.

As part of the WEP, the campus was alive with activities, and postgraduates had set up a Maker Space that incorporated 3-D printing, transfer cutting, heavy-duty sewing machines, electronics and programming. One of their projects, a robotically-tended garden, was on display outside.

Anna Fruehstueck was one of the students behind KAUST’s Maker Space.

My other invitation while at KAUST was to speak to two groups from the secondary school. In the first of these I talked about being a science writer, exploring the big science questions I get to tackle. I was very excited to be able to use auditorium voting – red and white cards that students could show, and then see the overall vote on a webcam. Another thrill was that a girl in the front row said she had one of my books at home. One of the questions I asked was who should be on the cover of my new book about the periodic table: Dmitri Mendeleev or Marie Curie? They voted for Curie – and I am glad to say their wish is now going to come true.

KAUST students used red and white cards to vote on questions during my talk.

The second session was with a grade 10 group who were studying a cross-disciplinary module looking at coral bleaching. The students’ English teacher had briefed them on persuasive writing – the kind of writing I try to do every day – and the science teachers had led activities on corals and how they are impacted by pollution, acidification and ocean temperature increase. Matt Tietbohl, a researcher in KAUST’s Red Sea Research Center, lent insights into current research into bleaching.

Biology teacher Dr Emma Nason (shown) and colleagues at KAUST’s secondary school have developed creative ways of using the 16 km of Red Sea coastline bordering their campus. Read more about their snorkelling project.

My workshop looked at how important it is to choose audience, message and tone to focus your writing – and also at how scientific vocabulary sometimes has much easier alternatives (did you know your hallux is your big toe?).

The best part was that the next day, the students were going on their corals field trip in the Red Sea, which their classroom for the day overlooked. They would snorkel, look for corals that were healthy and bleached, and photograph them with Matt’s guidance. Brilliant.

Teachers and scientists from the KAUST school, led by Ms Laney Rweyemamu and including Dr Emma Nason, Dr Matt Tietbohl and Ms Myriam Abdulbaki, ran the interdisciplinary project on coral bleaching.

My flight left late the same night and it was great to have been in Saudi Arabia again to see this international campus full of ideas and excitement. I hope to visit again and see how science stories continue to be told here, and start to spread to audiences worldwide.

The KAUST Beacon at sunset.

The KAUST School students were a wonderful group to work with!