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Space – IAC Paper: Laughing at Mars

 

The regular space posts have been pretty quiet here for the last few months as I’ve been finishing/publishing Becoming Martian, so I’m happy to say things will be returning to more regular scheduling now that it’s out in the wild!

I’ll be returning to the “Getting To Mars” series in the next few weeks to conclude it before the end of 2017, but first I wanted to share the other thing that consumed so much of my time after Becoming Martian was published – my IAC2017 paper! I originally had two abstracts accepted to the conference, but decided to withdraw one so I could focus on the one I cared most about: summarising the work I’ve done over the last 5 years in adult science engagement using Mars One as a hook.

I’ll share video of my presentation of this paper in Adelaide at IAC separately soon, but in the meantime enjoy reading my paper on how to use comedians and storytellers to engage the public with space!


IAC-17-E1.6.2

Laughing at Mars: Using Comedians and Storytellers for Wide-Spread Public Engagement With Space

Josh Richards –  Launchpad Speaking, Perth, Western Australia

Abstract
This paper looks at a range of space outreach events conducted since 2013 for the general public, with a specific focus on using comedy and storytelling to engage adults not already interested in space. A major challenge in space science communication is making an incredibly interesting subject accessible and relevant to the general public: while few would deny the broad appeal of space exploration to kids, a lack of engaging space science events for adults often means that childhood enthusiasm fades.   Using stand-up comedy and Mars One’s proposed one-way mission to Mars as a science communication “hook”, adult audiences have been engaged and taught complex space science while they laughed during three, one-hour long comedy shows performed more than 40 times in 6 different countries since 2013. “Mars Needs Guitars” blended space science with personal storytelling around the concept that the first Mars crew would need a balance of personalities similar to a stereotypical rock band, and was first performed during Australia’s National Science Week with the support of Inspiring Australia. “Becoming Martian” shared how colonizing Mars would change humans physically, psychologically and culturally; and was also published as a non-fiction book at National Science Week 2017. “Cosmic Nomad” featured at the World Science Festival and shared how being shortlisted for a one-way mission to Mars impacts a candidate’s life while still on Earth, while also explaining the search for extraterrestrial life, the Drake equation, and the Fermi Paradox by using a Tinder metaphor.   General public engagement with space science was also achieved through large scale media events such as 20th Century Fox’s “Bring Him Home” campaign for the Australian release of “The Martian”. Coordinating with numerous television and radio stations, along with global media outlets and a sustained social media presence, the “Bring Him Home” campaign engaged more than 95 million people with space science and STEAM education while the author lived “like Mark Watney” isolated in a glass and steel habitat for 5 days. Numerous external organisations such as Boston’s Museum of Science and Sydney’s Museum of Applied Arts and Science have also been partnered with for ongoing educational impact and long-term space science engagement.

Keywords: Comedy, Storytelling, Mars One, STEM, STEAM

Nomenclature None.
Acronyms/Abbreviations STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics

1. Introduction  A major challenge in space science communication is making an incredibly interesting subject accessible and relevant to the general public. While few would deny the broad appeal of space exploration to kids, a lack of engaging space science events for adults often means that childhood enthusiasm fades. Adults who didn’t pursue a career in science immediately after secondary school are largely ignored by institutional outreach programs as they focus on encouraging students to pursue tertiary study in STEM studies, while significant government funding to encourage STEM skill training encourages this focus. Unfortunately this narrow focus often leads to alienation of adults who haven’t pursued studies and work in STEM fields, as they feel they’re “Not smart enough to understand”, “Not interested in science”, or that it’s “Meant for kids” to even attempt to engage with space science outreach events.

This paper aims to demonstrate that by supporting comedians and storytellers with an interest in space, science, space science can be communicated far more effectively to adult audiences through the incorporation of the arts. Case studies over five years are presented where the author has used public interest in Mars One’s proposed 2031 one-way human mission to Mars as a vehicle specifically for the engagement of adult public audiences with space science through STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics.

2. Material and methods

Mars One’s announcement in 2012 of a one-way human Mars colonisation mission generated significant global media coverage, and continues to generate considerable media attention as the project progresses five years on. Utilising a personal interest in space exploration and experience as a professional stand-up comedian, the author began creating comedy shows based around the science and human story of applying for a one-way mission to Mars.

2.1 “Mars Need Guitars!”

With the support of Inspiring Australia, “Mars Needs Guitars!” was a 50 minute stand-up comedy show initially written Australia’s 2013 National Science Week. Named after the Hoodoo Guru’s album, the show was written around the concept that the first four Mars One crew members would need a mix of personalities similar to those found in a stereotypical rock band, and presenting who the author would want to take to Mars and why. Rather than purely aiming for laughs, this show’s intention was to interest adult audiences through a mixture of science-based comedy and deeply personal storytelling, spelling out the very real risks of a human Mars mission in jargon-free language, and finally asking who in the audience would be willing to sign up. The author had applied to Mars One’s 2013 astronaut applications in the April, however applications were still open during National Science Week 2013. With this in mind performances of “Mars Needs Guitars!” concluded each night with an open call for interested audience members to apply to Mars One too.

A trial show was performed at The Butterfly Club (Melbourne, Australia) prior to being performed over three consecutive nights at Scitech (Perth, Australia) during the 2013 National Science Week, with the final Perth performance being filmed[1]. After a follow-up performance at the “Living On Mars” conference at the University of Twente (Enschede, The Netherlands) in November 2013 was also filmed [2], “Mars Needs Guitars!” was shelved so writing could commence on a new Mars One-based show for 2014.

Responses to “Mars Needs Guitars!” were extremely positive, with audiences appreciating the jargon-free approach to space exploration carefully combined with emotion-driven storytelling and especially dark humour. Approximately 350 people in total saw “Mars Needs Guitars!” across five performances in two countries.

2.2 “Becoming Martian”

With the author shortlisted as one of 705 Mars One candidates and building on the success of the performances of “Mars Needs Guitars!” during the National Science Week 2013, “Becoming Martian” was written initially as a 50 minute science communication stage show for National Science Week 2014 before being published as a non-fiction book three years later to coincide with National Science Week 2017. Focused on how the colonisation of Mars will change humans physiologically, psychologically and culturally (“body, mind and soul”), “Becoming Martian” removed the personal stories that had been present in “Mars Needs Guitars!” and presented a far more scientific and objective narrative on the implications of humans colonising Mars.

2.2.1 “Becoming Martian” Stage Show Tour

With the support of Inspiring Australia, “Becoming Martian” was performed across three consecutive nights at Scitech (Perth, Western Australia) during the 2014 National Science Week, with the final performance in Perth being filmed for DVD. After a follow-up performance at the “CultureTECH” festival (Londonderry, Northern Ireland) in September 2014 “Mars Needs Guitars!” was shelved as the author decided to reassess artistic direction.  Responses to “Mars Needs Guitars!” were overwhelmingly positive however the author was deeply disappointed with the stage show, with a strong sense that it was “soul-less” to only focus on the science of Mars colonisation and exclude the raw and deeply personal stories that had defined “Mars Needs Guitars!”. Approximately 300 people in total saw “Becoming Martian” across four performances in two countries.

2.2.2 “Becoming Martian” Show Support Events

Alongside performances of “Becoming Martian”, for National Science Week 2014 the author also coordinated public talks on space exploration at the Perth Science Festival, a space-science and poetry-reading talk “The Physicist and The Poet” in conjunction with poet Bronwyn Lovell, a science-themed comedy night “Shapiro Tuesdays Science Week Special” with the Brisbane Hotel (Perth), as well as a public space-science talk and gaming session “Kerbals on the Big Screen” on the Perth Cultural Centre’s 8m wide LED “Super Screen”.    Follow up support events were also run at the 2014 National Young Writer’s Festival, notably a space-science education and small-team psychology workshop called “How To Be An Astronaut”. Approximately 480 people in total attended six separate support events across Australia.

2.2.3 “Becoming Martian” Book Release

Based on the 2014 stage show of the same name but with radically updated and expanded content, “Becoming Martian” was released as a humorous non-fiction book for National Science Week 2017. After the author’s disappointment with the “dry” nature of the original stage show and on-going delays with a leading international publisher, the book was re-written with a far more engaging and personal tone (while still retaining the essential premise and structure of the 2014 stage show) and self-published.  “Becoming Martian” is currently available in 35 countries and on sale in six Australian and US science museums. Australian print sales currently exceed 200 (as of September 2017) and are projected to exceed 1000 before the end of 2017.

2.2.4 “Becoming Martian“ Book Support Events

Public talks and book launches were organised across Australia to support the publication of “Becoming Martian”. Curtin University’s ChemCentre (Perth, Australia) hosted the first book launch and public talk during National Science Week 2017, with a second book launch held four days later at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (Sydney, Australia) as the final event of both Sydney Science Festival 2017 and National Science Week 2017. Approximately 220 people in total attended two events.

2.3 “Cosmic Nomad”

Developed independently, “Cosmic Nomad” was a 50 minute science-comedy show initially written for the 2016 Adelaide Fringe Festival, starting an eight month global tour including the World Science Festival (Brisbane, Australia), Melbourne (Australia), Launceston  (Australia), Ulverstone (Australia), Hobart (Australia), Cincinnati (Ohio, United States), Haifa (Israel) and Cork (Ireland).

Learning from the mistakes made with “Becoming Martian” and capitalising on the strengths of “Mars Needs Guitars!”, “Cosmic Nomad” was written once the author had been selected as one of 100 Mars One candidates worldwide, and shared how being shortlisted for a one-way mission to Mars had significantly changed the author’s personal life – notably what the author would try to do before leaving Earth behind forever. Implications for the author’s relationships were also explored through the search for extraterrestrial life, the Drake equation, and the Fermi Paradox by using a Tinder metaphor. With a clear focus to interest adult audiences rather than entertaining or educating them, “Cosmic Nomad” was deliberately written to make the author uncomfortable and vulnerable (both emotionally and physically) on stage to provide an account of life as a Mars One candidate that was as raw and honest as possible.

Audience responses to “Cosmic Nomad” were overwhelmingly positive, praising it for it’s ability to blend storytelling, comedy and heartbreak while sharing space science. Theatre critics ranged in response from cheerfully positive to deliberately vicious. Given the deeply personal nature of the show and the vulnerability required to perform it however, the author ‘s only response to negative critical review to date has been  howling laughter, often followed by an expletive-laced recommendation for the critic to share their opinion elsewhere. Approximately 2250 people in total saw “Cosmic Nomad” across 24 performances in four countries.

2.4 Individual Events  Alongside the three science-comedy stage shows, numerous other adult space-science engagement events have been organised and performed by the author. The most notable examples between 2013 and 2018 are described below.

2.4.1 “Bring Him Home”DVD Release Event

Andy’s Weir’s bestselling novel “The Martian” and subsequent film starring Matt Damon actively embraced  adult non-specialist audiences with space science through humour in a Mars setting. Given the obvious parallels between the main character Mark Watney and this paper’s author – especially in the context of applying humour to space science and Martian exploration – 20th Century Fox engaged the author for a five-day art installation on Circular Quay (Sydney, Australia) in February 2016 to promote the DVD release of “The Martian” in Australia.

This installation was a self-contained living unit with 26.1m^3 of habitable living space under 24 hour video surveillance and glass walls, in which the author had to live while completing challenges designed around being marooned solo on Mars like the character. While some challenges were fictionalised to demonstrate space science and provide interest to the audience outside and watching online; many others such as heat management, electrical power control and communications were genuine installation issues that needed to be resolved through science and engineering. Physical and psychological fitness assessments of the author were also conducted remotely over the length of the installation.  Approximately 50 thousand people viewed the “Bring Him Home” installation on Sydney’s Circular Quay across the five days, while 95 million people engaged with content for radio, television, web articles and social media.

2.4.2 “Moving to Mars”

During the eight month “Cosmic Nomad” tour, the Museum of Science (Boston , MA) contacted the author to host a public talk with four other Mars One candidates, discussing the personal journey for each and the implications of being shortlisted for a one-way mission to Mars. Approximately 350 people attended this 2 hour event hosted at the Museum of Science’s main theatre in October 2016.

2.4.4 The Laborastory

The Laborastory is a monthly science storytelling event hosted at the Spotted Mallard (Melbourne, Australia) where science communicators share the personal story of their favourite scientists from history through a 10 minute spoken word presentation without slides. The author was invited to speak at two Laborastory events in 2015 to share the stories of Sally Ride [3] and Wernher Von Braun [4]. Approximately 500 people in total attended these two events.

2.4.4 PlanetTalks – WOMADelaide

The author was invited to speak alongside  Mars analogue commander Carmel Johnston at two of events organised through the University of South Australia and the 2017 WOMADelaide festival. These events were panels hosted by leading Australian journalists facilitating a discussion on the future of human space exploration and Mars colonisation, with both events being recorded [5][6]. Approximately 1200 people in total attended these two events in Adelaide during April 2017.

2.5 Media Engagement

Significant global media attention has been focused on Mars One and it’s candidates, especially since astronaut applications first opened in April 2013. Utilising this interest in the human story of Mars One, the author has also served as a media ambassador to National Science Week (2016 and 2017), the Perth Science Festival (2017) and the Sydney Science Festival (2017). Between June 2013 and September 2017 the author has been interviewed for radio, TV, newspaper and web content  more more than 200 times [7], sharing space science and personal perspectives on space exploration directly with mass media outlets in nine different countries and syndicated globally.

3. Calculation

Due to the wide range of adult engagement approaches, multiple methods are required to calculate attendance and engagement. Engagement is calculated on reported ticket or book sales. This calculation approach applies all activities listed under section 2 excluding 2.4.1 “Bring Him Home”DVD Release Event, and 2.5 Media Engagement.

Engagement with 2.4.1 “Bring Him Home” DVD Release Event was compiled by Frank PR. Engagement with the installation itself was calculated on Sydney city council measurements of approximately 10,000 people passing the Circular Quay Overseas Passenger Jetty (the location of the installation) each day over five days. Social media engagement was calculated as the total listeners, viewers and readers for radio, television and web respectively; being measured by broadcasters and content providers for advertising purposes.

Calculation of 2.5 Media Engagement is from consistent cataloguing of interviews for radio, TV and web content since June 2013 until July 2017, with 157 interviews recorded. An additional 44-47 interviews were conducted during National Science Week 2017 and another 5-8 since August 2017 that have not yet been publicly published and catalogued.

4. Results and Discussion

Engagement from August 2013 to August 2017 is calculated at approximately 55,650 people in total across 47 public events targeted at non-specialist adults. It is important to note that approximately 50,000 of these engagements come from 2.4.1 “Bring Him Home”DVD Release Event. Removing this individual outlier, average audience size is approximately 120 people per event.  It is also important to note that the calculated engagement figures do not include adult events closed to the general public (such as invite-only corporate events) or events for students. Total engagement for closed adult events since August 2013 is estimated at 2,000 to 3,000. Total engagement for student events since August 2013 is estimated at 90,000 to 100,000.

Given the relative lack of adult space science outreach when compared to funding for student STEM engagement, considerable future opportunities have been presented to the author to continue to engage the under-appreciated adult non-specialist demographic with space science.   Expanding on the growing success of 2.2.3 “Becoming Martian” Book Release, an audiobook version of “Becoming Martian” will be recorded in November 2017 to engage adults through audio rather than written text. As “Becoming Martian” was turned from a 2014 stage show into a 2017 non-fiction book, work has already begun on turning “Cosmic Nomad” from a 2016 stage show into a non-fiction book being released for National Science Week 2018. Two further non-fiction books are also being actively researched and developed, respectively focussed on humanity’s relationship with the cosmos and our perception of reality.

Consistent engagement with the media has also presented considerable opportunities to work more directly in radio and television. Three television shows based on student and adult space science engagement and education are currently being negotiated in Australia and the United States, with similar standing offers in Australian commercial and community broadcast radio.

5. Conclusions

Effective space science engagement for non-specialist adults is sorely needed to make space accessible to everyone, not just for students or adults with careers in a STEM field. Incredible opportunities for space science engagement are available by supporting comedians and storytellers to add the “A” for arts into STEM to make it STEAM, while further opportunities are available to science communicators willing to develop and present space science in an interesting and engaging manner for non-specialist adult audiences. Mass media is a significant amplifier for communicating space science, provided scientists embrace opportunities to share their work through humour and focusing on the human story of science.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to formally acknowledge Inspiring Australia, which has funded and supported the author’s work through numerous projects since 2013, as well as Mars One, without whom the author would likely never have moved into space science communication. The author would also like to acknowledge the following organisations for hosting and supporting adult space-science engagement events in partnership with the author: Scitech Science Museum, the University of Twente, CultureTECH, Australia’s Science Channel at Royal Institute of Australia, World Science Festival Brisbane, the Boston Museum of Science, WOMADelaide, Curtin University’s ChemCentre, and the Museum of Applied Arts and Science.

References

[1] Josh Richards, Josh Richards – Mars Needs Guitars! (Full Show – August 15, 2013)  youtu.be/fCNoWgSa0fI (accessed 5/9/2017)
[2] Living On Mars Convention, LOMC Josh Richards, youtu.be/kRcyfD2Bk4s (accessed 5/9/2017)
[3] The Laborastory, Josh Richards on Sally Ride, youtu.be/Qiwy2-QXhoA (accessed 5/9/2017)
[4] The Laborastory, Josh Richards on Wernher Von Braun, youtu.be/adNU_2Urir0 (accessed 5/9/2017)
[5] HawkeCentre, Life on Mars, youtu.be/ttnEeLHT8Xc(accessed 5/9/2017)
[6] Radio National – The Science Show, Fly me to Mars!, www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/scienceshow/fly-me-to-mars!/8625154 (accessed 6/9/2017) [7] Josh Richards, Media,  joshrichards.space/media/ (accessed 5/9/2017)