This guest post is by Lukasz Lamza, who took part in a Europlanet Expert Exchange aimed at journalists, teachers of journalism and science communicators. Applications to an open call of this programme can now be submitted any time up until 31st December 2018, with visits taking place before 30th April 2019.
My name is Lukasz Lamza, I took part in the Europlanet Exchange Programme in January, 2018. I’m a journalist (I work for the Polish magazine “Tygodnik Powszechny” as an editor/author of the scientific section), but also an academic teacher (I teach philosophy in Krakow, specializing in philosophy of science and cosmology) – so the program was doubly interesting. I’ve spoken to a number of scientists before, both as a member of the Academia, during conferences, research projects and such, and as a journalist, interviewing them. Quite honestly, however, I had not yet had a chance to visit a large research community of space scientists in their labs. Those people were on their own ground, the shelves were filled with their books of choice, and their lab benches had all the dents and scratches of their own making. This is something different. I wasn’t there for the interview, we weren’t in ties, and nothing was recorded.
The visit lasted three days, during which I have visited, successively, the University College in London, the Open University in Milton Keynes and UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, southwest of London, located in a picturesque Surrey countryside. I won’t detail my schedule, also for the simple reason that by day two my head was spinning. I met a couple of dozen people, and, being the space science and astrophysics freak that I am, and also feeling sort of obliged as a journalist, I made it a point of honor to read at least a single recent paper by each of the people I was to meet, and to let everybody talk as long as they felt like. If I were to write a book about the theory and practice of planetary science, now I might as well, based on the sheer amount of issues that I’ve been introduced to. From elementary particle physics, through applied solar physics to pure, good ole engineering (there were rolls of silver scotch tape all over the place). I’ve heard a great deal about how to find the right people for organizing a solar mission, how to squeeze a sufficient number of cameras into a rover, and how to make money using your image analysis software or your miniature mass spectrometer. I’ve seen the actual folders that hold the actual raw images from the surface of Mars, and folks that analyze them for a living. Each person had their own story, job and interests. I haven’t met a single person who wasn’t willing to let me a little bit into their work and responsibilities – and yet I wasn’t even working on a material. I wasn’t promising their name in the paper and their face on TV. I was basically a random guy stopping them from their work and asking them a bunch of question, most of them probably more or less naïve. The welcoming atmosphere was quite inspiring.
With a fistful of cards, I returned home and started processing all the information. If the idea was to inspire me to write more, and better, and smarter, and deeper about planetary science, then the idea worked great. I definitely want to do that now. I wholeheartedly recommend the Europlanet Exchange Programme to anyone who deals professionally with the relevant subjects would like to take a step into the community of people who live and breathe space exploration and/or planetary science. What a trip!