Cristina Marras
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(Third) mission: possible!

At the beginning, it was the frying oil

When I was a child, my mother reused frying oil: she filtered it and stored it in a glass jar for future use. Then, at some point, she stopped doing it, and with her (perhaps reluctantly) millions of other people. This is because the media spread the important news that heated oil produces toxic substances. At the time, no one hypothesized that it was a trick by multinational companies that produced frying oil, and if someone thought so, I never found out.

But those were different times, different the tools for communication. Today, for better or for worse, anyone has (potentially) access to an audience of millions of people ready to believe (potentially) anything. And the last few years have sadly shown how true this is (drinking bleach to cure COVID anybody?).

woman with red wid, short bob, wearing metallic glasses, looking into the distance in front of soft focus blue sky

Photo by pawel szvmanski on Unsplash

Communicating science and technology clearly today is very important because the spread on the internet does not reward content supported by scientific evidence but rather those that best know how to polarize, outrage, and scandalise, even better if using slogans easy to share on social media.

The only weapon available to common sense is scientific literacy, encouraging people to interact directly with science, making science accessible, not simplifying or trying to reduce to slogans what are necessarily complex steps, but rather developing engaging narratives that intrigue the listener, leaving a sense of wonder and a desire to explore the subject at their own pace and with the tools available.

This is why it is important to find innovative ways to bring people closer to science, not to explain, but at least at first, to communicate the very existence of scientific concepts. This was my starting point in creating ten podcasts inspired by as many scientific articles.

Photo by Patrycja Chociej on Unsplash

As a very curious yet ignorant person in the field of science, I enthusiastically accepted the task assigned to me by the University of Cagliari for the Researchers' Night, an event shared by universities throughout Europe with the aim of celebrating research and its fundamental role in society, and I accepted with passion the challenge: to create a series of podcasts that, drawing inspiration from obscure scientific topics, managed to engage the general public.

The stages of creation

First of all I read and tried to understand the scientific articles, full of technical jargon, which often dealt with topics I had never heard of before. Imagine having to create an engaging narrative starting from a scientific research on "raw materials and relationships between mineralogical-petrographic characteristics and chemical-physical compatibility with the limestone substrate in lime and cement-based plasters of 20th-century buildings".

Once I understood, in general terms, what the various research topics were about, the next step was to identify within each one an element to use as a starting point, a foothold, something that was relevant to the theme of the research but also gave an interesting cue for the narrative.

Having found the starting point, I then moved on to creating each story and setting myself a further challenge. It was not enough for me to find a balance between the underlying scientific idea and my creativity; I also set out to create ten very different stories, different also in their format, so as to surprise (the phrase that kept going through my head was 'catching off guard') the person who, having listened to the first podcast, would approach a second one thinking they knew how it would sound, imagining finding a different content but with an identical format.

The ten podcasts are all very different from each other: romantic stories, spy stories, humorous tales, dystopian stories set in the future, and even a tribute to Leopardi's dialogues.

One element that is common to all the podcasts is the meticulous attention paid to each sound environment, using binaural techniques, sound effects, and musical elements to give the three-dimensional listening experience, to completely immerse the listener in the narrative.

With a duration of two minutes sharp, each podcast had the need to quickly get to the point, giving listeners enough time to immerse themselves in the story, tempting them without ever completely satisfying them, teasing their senses and curiosity. Each story had to be intriguing enough to make listeners want to know more, even just to discover what dark scientific article had inspired the narrative.

The series of ten podcasts offers an excellent example of how to bridge the gap between science and the general public. It demonstrates how it is possible to create fantasy narratives based on serious scientific articles.

By combining scientific research and creative storytelling, these podcasts are an innovative activity of third mission, as they promote scientific literacy, encourage the public to interact with science through new tools, without simplifying or pretending to explain it, but by developing engaging stories that arouse curiosity and make people want to explore the topic with the means available to them.

I believe that listening to the ten podcasts can also reassure the scientific community that the use of artistic techniques does not compromise the integrity of research. The reality is that scientific institutions, to remain relevant, must necessarily open up to the power of cultural and artistic contamination, because by embracing creative techniques it is possible to bring science to a wider audience, promoting and fostering transparency in scientific culture.

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

Here's how I practically translated these principles for the creation of the podcasts.

CASE STUDY 1 - The Man of the Plaster

Let's go back to the article on plaster, which strangely ended up being one of the most poetic narratives of all. The subject of the paper was a comparison of the different types of plaster used over the centuries to repair cracks in the walls (my sincere apologies to the authors of the 37-page scientific article that I summarise in such an unscientific way).

I tackled the narrative using magical realism, placing at the center of the story a man with the power to understand people's stories simply by touching the cracks in the walls of their homes. Using binaural techniques and a dynamic sound environment that completely envelops the listener, I incorporated many technical elements into the narrative that become the magic words whispered in the background to the main action.

I told the story of the man with magical hands who, by touching the surface of the plaster with his fingers, is able to understand not only the plots, composition, porosity, structure, and age of the structure, but also how the cracks and wounds of those walls have been covered over the years. In the story, the man seeks these scars because, he says, a smooth wall is like a blank page, a music waiting to be composed, a poem that no one has ever read aloud. He searches for scars on walls with the tips of his fingers, arms slightly detached from his body like a bird unsure whether to take flight. This man, now blind, is said to have been blinded by the lime fumes after years of caressing walls, while others swear he lost his sight due to a curse. Yet the fog of his eyes does not prevent him from reading the stories of the walls and plasters, their wounds, and everyone from the neighborhood and even neighboring villages come to him and call him to their homes because everyone loved to hear him tell stories.

CASE STUDY 2 - A Muravera Spy Story

The podcast inspired by an article analyzing a methodological approach for effective evaluation of infiltrations in coastal groundwater is completely different in register and format.

For this podcast, I focused on a traditional detective style, exploiting the stereotypes of the 'hard-boiled' genre, placing at the center of the story a couple of bungling gangsters with unlikely names: Bill and Mary-Ann, names that are repeated almost every line to exacerbate an atmosphere already heavily charged by the sound setting with strong New York City vibes: noir jazz and sirens in the background.

The soundscape forms a sharp contrast when overlaid with local toponymy, producing an almost Beckettian effect that is accentuated by continuous misunderstandings and nonsense from the protagonists that open up true scenarios of the absurd.

It's not important to know what action Bill and Mary-Ann should take, nor to understand the relationship between them; theirs is a dialogue with the reins loosened, a diversion. However, upon careful analysis, the dialogues conceal amusing scientific "Easter eggs," words and phrases taken directly from scientific research and colored with local folklore.

A narrative that, both in structure and content, plays with new possible interpretations of scientific language, an invitation to lightness and curiosity.

Here you find all ten original podcasts.

I've also been translating them in English and publishing them with subtitles (I publish as I go, so come back for more). Here the Youtube playlist.


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