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The Science Communicator That Is Sir David Attenborough

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Posted on behalf of Magdeline Lum and Upulie Divisekera.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sir David Attenborough showed us that there was nothing cold-blooded in the Life of Reptiles. He let us fly with eagles in the Life of Birds. We were there with him in a boat in The Blue Planet as the blue whale surfaced to breathe. Sir David Attenborough has been on our televisions screens for over 60 years and he’s proven to be an inspiration for many throughout.

As news that Sir David Attenborough would be coming on a tour to Australia started spreading a few months ago, many scientists used Twitter to express their enthusiasm for the man. A straw poll set up by Upulie subsequently found that six out of every ten science respondents cited Sir David Attenborough as a significant influence on their decision to become a scientist.

As soon as the tour dates were announced, Magdeline in Perth and Upulie in Melbourne set out to book their tickets. Those sold out rapidly though and a disconsolate Magdeline missed out on tickets to the show. To soften the blow, Magdeline wrote a letter to Sir David Attenborough on her blog. It was both a moving tribute and an expression of Magdeline’s own enthusiasm for science and the natural world—an interest that extended beyond her professional specialisation of chemistry. This was exactly the kind of thing that Upulie, who was herself influenced by Sir David Attenborough, wanted to hear when she ran her straw poll. How were people inspired by Sir David Attenborough? And did this enthusiasm continue into their professional lives? More importantly, why not thank the man for his work? And that’s when the idea turned into a movement.

Messages were exchanged, proposals were made, and a website was set up. Our project, Letters to Sir David Attenborough was born. Within hours, we received letters from friends in science and science communication. Then letters came from environmentalists, activists. As word got out, letters came in from all directions.

But Letters to Sir David Attenborough clearly shows that Sir David Attenborough also made a huge impression on the general public. Some letters from parents recounted how they watched his documentaries with their children… and how their children are now watching the documentaries with their children! From baby boomers to Gen Y, we are all still watching Sir David Attenborough on our screens: crawling through the dirt to teach us about plants, or wading through water to watch mayflies in their ephemeral, single glorious day of life.

What stands out most from these letters we’ve received is how Sir David Attenborough transmits a sense of wonder, joy and unbridled enthusiasm for nature and science to his audience. His curiosity becomes ours, and his enthusiasm becomes our enthusiasm. And that’s something that science communicators can learn from Sir David Attenborough. When communicating science, importance is placed on engagement. We become concerned with choosing our words and expressions in order to connect with as many people as possible. While this is crucial, it could be argued that enthusiasm is equally important. This is not something that can be replicated or learned. Enthusiasm is by nature infectious and something that allows people to share an experience.

The best science writing emanates from scientists and science writers who succeed in sharing their passion with pride. There needs to be more of this. Sir David Attenborough displays his passion all the time. This is a man who elicits sympathy for a spider spinning her web to catch a meal, and does so with the knowledge that most of us shriek in fear and reach for a can of bug spray upon sighting a spider in our homes. He opens our hearts and minds to the wonder that he can see in front of him and shares it with us. When he speaks, he does so with words and moments of silence while watching nature take its course.

You can send us your letters too. We are going to collate all letters we receive by Friday, 10th August 2012 into a book which we will then present to him. The project will continue beyond this day, of course, in the form of our blog. It is, we believe, an ideal way to say thank you to one of the greatest inspirations of our times.

Khalil A. Cassimally About the Author: Khalil A. Cassimally is the Community Coordinator of The Conversation UK. He's also a science blogger. He hails from a tropical island and is a happy geek. Subscribe to his updates on Facebook and Google+. Follow on Twitter @notscientific.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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  1. 1. shimagyoh 7:09 pm 08/7/2012

    Dear Sir David,
    You have the remarkable ability of making us (my family and I) feel as if we were members of whatever animal or even insect specie that you talk about. This has, over the years, created in us sympathy and love for even the creatures that used to give us the “creepy-crawly” feeling, to realise that we share with them the remarkable miracle of life. Your ability to accurately interpret and convey the meaning of their behaviour and feelings to us has cultivated in my family fellowship with all sorts of creatures and a strong will to persuade humanity to take every step to preserve their natural habitats and avoid their suffering and extinction.
    shimagyoh,
    Benue State, Nigeria

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  2. 2. dhricenak 9:25 am 08/8/2012

    Dear Sir David,

    I have been a fan ever I received the book Life On Earth as a Christmas Gift when I was young. I recently spent most of a Sunday watching a Planet Earth marathon on BBC America. I never grow tired of your work and I believe you are at least partly to blame for my incurable biophilia.

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