Science Slams Science on Stage

Maximilian Held; © Photo: scienceslam.de
Maximilian Held | Photo (detail): scienceslam.de

At a science slam, young researchers take to the stage and have just ten minutes in which to explain their findings in an original way. The audience then votes for the entrants they considered to be the best.

A young man in a denim shirt stands on the stage. He's talking about his physics class at school. He tells the audience how the last girl eventually left the course, and how the teacher prophesied that, as physicists, they would lead lonely lives. Within just one minute his audience is spellbound, and after ten minutes everyone in the room has understood how a particle accelerator works and what the theory of relativity is all about. What is more, everyone has had a good laugh and really enjoyed themselves. The young man in question is called Boris Lemmer and this presentation earned him the first prize in the German Science Slam 2011.

Finding the right images

A science journalist with a PhD in molecular biology named Julia Offe is behind many of Germany's science slams. “Most of my old school friends and relatives are not scientists. When the term DNA is mentioned, they tend first of all to take a step back. If one translates the facts into the right images, however, even lay persons can understand what it is all about.” The first science slam was held in 2006 as a one-off event in Darmstadt, a university town near Frankfurt. This was followed in 2008 by a slam at the House of Science in the North German city of Braunschweig. “I was told about it by one of the people who work there”, says Julia Offe, “and immediately thought it was a brilliant idea. In 2009 I then organized my first science slam in Hamburg and now am responsible for the slams in Cologne, Berlin and Hamburg, working together with many other organizations”. She quickly moved into places “where normally no science is ever seen: theatre stages, clubs, cultural centres”. The scene has been growing steadily ever since. In many German cities the science slammers meet regularly. Once a year, one big all-Germany slam then takes place at which the best German science slammer is crowned.

The audience discusses and decides

The name science slam is a deliberate reference to the poetry slam, an event which sees poets competing for the audience's favour. At science slams too, it is the audience which chooses the winner, though it does so not by applauding or taking part in a simple voting process: the audience is divided into groups of ten, each group being allowed to award up to ten points for each presentation. The winner is the slammer with the highest number of points at the end. “Through science, a discussion among the members of the groups ensues, as they have to reach agreement”, explains Julia Offe. This exchange within the audience is a key aspect of the concept. Most people who attend the events are students or postgraduates, though the slams are also increasingly attracting older people and non-academics. 200 to 400 people come to each slam these days.

Ten minutes of talk time

There is only one really strict rule for the science slam – entrants have just ten minutes in which to present their undergraduate, master's or doctoral thesis. Otherwise they are free to do whatever they choose on stage. Many give a PowerPoint presentation, though a few go to a great deal of trouble and demonstrate complex experiments. There are also slammers who kick footballs into the audience or use beer bottles to illustrate the law of the lever. The more exciting and entertaining the presentations, the better.

Winners of a poetry slam can re-enter each year and literally embark on a career in slamming. All they have to do is keep writing new poems. That is not how it works with a science slam. “A doctoral thesis often results only in one or two topics”, says Julia Offe. Although slammers are of course free to tour through different cities, giving this one presentation in each, they would eventually have to write a new doctoral thesis in order to be able to take part again. This system has two advantages: for one thing, it means that the spotlight is trained on ever new fields of research, and for another thing audiences are always able to experience new candidates.

In principle, science slams are open to anyone, and the name is intentionally not protected. Anyone can organize their own slam, and many have followed the example, with initial slams having already taken place in Austria, Scandinavia and Switzerland. “Occasionally there are New Agers and nutcases who think they've found a stage for their theories”, reports Julia Offe. Or people get involved who want to advertise their products. Such entrants are rejected, however, ensuring that science slams remain a platform at which young scientists can present their work to a broader public.