Confessions of a Space Popularizer

and How You Can Be One Too

Jim Loudon
University of Michigan Exhibit Museum
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Jim Loudon, who died several years ago, made his living by giving talks on space and astronomy. They were extremely popular and he acquired a small cult following in and around Michigan. He knew what it takes to reach an audience and hold its attention, something we all aspire to, so in 1987 I asked him to share his secrets with us. This article is adapted from one that appeared in the L5 Society magazine in 1980. Although he specifically addresses non-professionals using the slide/lecture format, his observations are relevant to any astronomy lecturing situation, be it classroom, after-dinner talk, or planetarium show. -JM

One of the myths of our time is "the public has lost interest in space." I agree the mass media have no interest (or more accurately never had any genuine interest to begin with), but every indication I can see (including the fact that I've found it possible to make a reasonably comfortable living as a professional space lecturer) is that people are fascinated by space, starved for the information of what we're discovering there which the media aren't giving them-and eager to obtain it from, for example, public programs that local L-5 chapters might consider putting on for them, beyond the basic astronomy that planetaria routinely present.

I warn you that doing a good job on such programs-the kind that generates large crowds and keeps them coming back-takes far more time and sheer hard work than you'd probably ever imagine. But the response you can get is fantastically greater than you'd likely expect too. Everywhere I go, lecturing across the United States and Canada, I get crowds of 400, 500, 600 people-if the event has been adequately advertised-and they sit and listen to me talk for three hours or more on Mars or the moons of Jupiter or the prospects for the Shuttle or the great untold story of Apollo, what we discovered on the moon-and they come back the next night for more. It's not me, folks (much though I'd love to believe that); it's the subject. These people are desperate for information on space-if it's presented to them slowly, interestingly, and in terms they can understand.

If you want proof that interest in this magnificent, complex, above all infinitely varied universe we find ourselves in is an intrinsic human characteristic, simply observe any five-year-old. Many are lucky enough to retain it into adulthood, despite years of contact with an educational system that almost seems designed to knock it out of them. The single most popular tourist attraction in Washington, D.C., save only the White House and Capitol, is the National Air and Space Museum; more people go there each year than visit Disneyland. Over a million people went to see each Apollo launch-and the number increased with each one, despite the media's assurances that we were losing interest. Sixty thousand people got up before dawn and committed their cars, their gasoline and their sacred honor to the Mojave Desert just to see the Enterprise fly five minutes-in the lower atmosphere, not even space-the first time it was drop-tested from the 747.

I claim the best way to generate support for space exploration is simply to tell people what it's already discovered. We're talking education, not propaganda, and no hard sell is necessary. In my experience, and contrary to what you might expect, people get bored very quickly with "relevant" or "practical" presentations of space, such as sermons on spinoff. What turns them on is black holes and the volcanoes of Io and how many two-billion-atom-bomb-equivalent explosions it took to cover the moon with overlapping 50-mile craters and why the clouds of Venus are made of concentrated sulfuric acid. In fairness, that may just reflect my own abilities and limitations. I happen to be a good explainer of pure facts and a lousy politician. You may find different interest patterns; in fact, I'd be interested to hear if you do. Meanwhile, I think it's safe advice to say: share your interests; do what you do well; and then give your audience plenty of chance for feedback.

Start out small and simple. You'll inevitably make mistakes, and it's best to make them, and learn from them, when you aren't yet facing half a thousand people. Besides, you can't possibly imagine how many things can go wrong with a seemingly simple public presentation until you've experienced them. For my programs at the University of Michigan (admittedly more complex than most I do) I make my projectionist and myself show up 2 1/2 hours before show time, so we can catch the problems before the audience sees them. Do the projectors work-and are there spare lamps for each one anyway? Find and splice the breaks in the film. What new hums and buzzes has the sound system thought up for us this time? Do all the slides drop into this particular Carousel projector? (By the way, for auditorium use, make it an Ektagraphic, the uprated professional version of the home Carousel, tougher, with more precise focusing, and [depending on model] a brighter lamp. But don't use a supposed equivalent machine with an arc lamp unless you're sure you'll change slides frequently-it can literally melt your [possibly irreplaceable] slide. As your audience watches and laughs. Note also that "Carousel" is a trade name, not a generic term for "circular slide tray," and will take only its own trays!) Find the janitor and get some chalk. Find where the last turkey who used the pointer misplaced it. If it's a new auditorium, where the heck are the light switches? You get the idea.

Start out small and simple, then-but plan on metamorphosing into a Major Event as soon as possible. It's the only way to get the good publicity listings, the best auditorium, the most competent projectionists (and believe me, they'll make or break your show)-and the biggest crowds. I will now tell you free the hardest lesson of my career: to be given status, you have to assume it. Robert Heinlein said it years ago in his classic The Man Who Sold the Moon: "If Columbus had asked for a dime, he'd have been thrown out on his ear. As it was, he got the crown jewels." Or a somewhat earlier wise man: "To him who hath shall be given." Get everybody thinking of you as a major event, which of course needs a big hall and deserves lots of publicity-and magically you'll find you are one; the crowds will come. (But be darn sure you're ready to deliver when they do.)

A good basic format is one or two films, an intermission to let those with lesser attention spans leave gracefully (be sure to remind them to grab any literature you're handing out as they go!), then a slide lecture for the hard core. Consider co-sponsoring with a planetarium or observatory (or college/university astronomy department); then you may have additional events such as planetarium shows or telescopic observing (but plan contingencies if the latter is wiped out by clouds, and check sunset time and moon phase before scheduling it-a full moon is uninteresting itself and its light drowns out everything else except the very bright planets). Most planetaria have shows geared for people with relatively little previous space interest, and not much for more serious types; you can help them fill that gap, and their established publicity apparatus can in turn help you draw the crowds. I'll assume a lecture format for the rest of this article, but remember there are other possibilities (e.g. panels, debates, and one I've had a lot of success with but requires experience: totally fee-form Q&A sessions with no restrictions on subject matter, save that it be somehow space-related).

Planning starts many months in advance. Films and auditoria may require six to nine months' lead time to obtain. Many colleges have a policy that "non-academic" auditorium users, like you, can be bumped without notice from a hall they'd been promised if some "academic" user requests it (e.g. a film professor decides the night before your program that the hall you'd been advertising as your site for six months is the best place to show Cries and Whispers to his class of 25-and out you go). I solved that problem at Michigan only by switching to Friday evenings, when there are no classes. If you do get bumped, put up arrows about every five feet to direct your audience to the new site-but expect (based on my experience) a 50% reduction in your crowd anyway.

How to Lecture

I'm convinced it can't be taught; all I can do is give a few hints. You learn how by observing good and bad lecturers, then adapting what you see to your particular style, knowledge, and interests. Hint 1: pick subjects reflecting what you know and care about. Hint 2: let the audience teach you how to lecture; encourage them to ask questions, profound or simple, during the talk, not just after it-why waste your time and theirs talking about something they don't follow you on, when a simple explanation might have given them the key concept needed to understand everything you said from then on? Hint 3: if you're going to let the audience teach you (and they'll do so-the most valuable instruction you could ever have, and absolutely free-if you give them a chance), don't sandbag them by reacting negatively to any question. Credendum, to be engraved on the heart of anyone who would speak in public: there is no such thing as a dumb question. The lecturer's greatest enemy is pluralistic ignorance, a technical term denoting the state where much of the audience doesn't understand something but each individual is afraid to ask for fear he/she is the only one. Psychologists have studied it intensively; it's very common in classes and in lecture audiences, and may be the biggest single factor that kills that wonderful five-year-old's intrinsic interest in science. Fight it: answer every question with the dignity its asker deserves as a human being, a member of (as far as we know) the single intelligent living species. Their questions will teach you what you haven't explained sufficiently, and your refusal to laugh will open them up to ask more "dumb" questions--and thereby teach you more.

If someone asks a question and the audience laughs, you have a crisis. Get across right now that no one need fear to ask any questions, or you've lost them. Technique: use the fact that most "dumb" questions are asked only by five-year-old kids and great philosophers. Respond to the question as if it were so profound that only you and the questioner understood how important it was, while those turkeys who laughed totally missed its significance. Here's your golden chance to tell the audience some major, complicated principle of science that you'd previously shied off from, for fear they wouldn't sit still long enough: make it fit the "dumb" question! No, of course you won't fool anyone-least of all the questioner-into thinking the question was actually that profound-but you'll have established the atmosphere you want, "Don't be afraid to ask any question." And you'll have gotten in that explanation!

Reproduced from the Planetarian, Vol. 16, #2, April 1987. Copyright 1987 International Planetarium Society. For permission to reproduce please contact Executive Editor John Mosley, 2800 E. Observatory Road, Los Angeles, CA 90027.

Reproduced at this website by permission of the above, for which we are very grateful!