Welcome back to Universe World! We start 2023 by visiting Ireland and interviewing performer, writer and science communicator Niamh Shaw. With two degrees in engineering, a doctorate in science and an acting career, Niamh (pron. Niəv) is passionate about igniting people’s curiosity by exploring all sorts of crossovers between STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), the arts and communication. Her life’s mission is: to get to space as an artist and a citizen.
Wow, your biography is quite impressive. As usual, let’s break the ice by describing what your current occupation entails and what led you there…
I would say that I’m a communicator of science and space. This manifests itself in lots of different things: whether I’m covering launches, science missions or what’s in the news about space, making my podcast, videos, or visiting schools and giving talks. So it’s education as well as communication.
All my life, I was always doing what I’m doing now but in different versions and different forms, and now I’ve managed to clarify and filter what is essentially the common thread. What I loved was always explaining things and also finding out about people: how they got to where they were, learning lessons from them and trying to make people get excited about learning new things.
As I started to look at my life through making my different theatre shows, I just started getting clarity about what it is about my different careers that I’ve loved and I’ve kind of mashed them all together. Now I run my own business, based out of the International Space University‘s incubator campus, and it’s all about inspiring people to be curious.
You were recently voted one of Ireland’s leading science communicators and STEAM specialists, as indeed your path beautifully merges Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Maths. When and how, along this journey, did you start focussing on science outreach and education?
It was around the time that I was fully ensconced in the arts and I realised that I missed science. So I started bringing science more and more into the workspace, when we were devising different theatre shows, and I realised how much I loved explaining things to people. It was around 2011. Ever since, no matter what way it manifested itself, whether it was a theatre show or a talk, a school visit or a podcast or a video, what I do has always been about trying to bring people closer to science and breaking down any barriers they had around learning it.
You’ve made it your life’s mission to visit outer space. How did space fit into this equation?
Well, space was always there. It was always the dream, I just never felt that I would ever be somebody that could realise that. When I started exploring bigger topics around science, my ability to explain them and my passion for that, I thought: well, why not space? If I can do it with science why can’t I do it with space?
I was always excited about space but because we didn’t have a space sector in Ireland, it just never dawned on me that I could have a career in outreach, education and communication around space. Once I realised that I could, that was it! But it took me many years to build the confidence to allow me pursue that dream because it really didn’t feel that someone like me could have such a future, someone from Ireland, from a country with little or no space activity, certainly around 2011, not so much now. That was me holding myself back, I was limiting myself.
Could you expand upon the status of the space sector in Ireland?
Ireland has been involved with the European Space Agency (ESA) for many years, we probably just didn’t talk about it that much. As an ESA member State, our universities, research institutes and some businesses have been part of the major contracts and missions, providing either parts of scientific instrumentation or conducting analysis for some of the science projects that are taking place at ESA (and some at NASA).
More and more so in the last 10 years, Ireland is developing a thriving satellite spin-off business, and will be launching its very first satellite in 2023. It’s a student initiative through University College Dublin called EIRSAT-1, the Educational Irish Research Satellite 1.
For a very long time we just had one degree in Aeronautical Engineering but now there are many degree programs popping up. In the last 5-7 years, our space sector has been growing and in 2017 we submitted a white paper to the government about how to develop and extend it, and it continues to grow every year. So I’m very proud about the space sector now in Ireland.
Ireland has a rich history of astronomy but it probably wasn’t really shared for a long time. When you’re a country under the rule of another country, which in our case was England up until the 1920s, what happened was that people who were Irish sort of melded into British history, and we didn’t really tell our stories about our amazing astronomers and discoveries. But there’s a number of things that Ireland did that were extraordinary.
In the middle of Ireland there’s a place called Birr Castle and in the late 1800s the Earl of Ross, who was a great engineer, built his own telescope with a 72 inches (1.83 m) mirror, called the Leviathan. It was the largest telescope in the world for some time, and astronomers came from all over the world to make observations there. He observed M51, the same “nebula” that William Herschel also observed, but he had a much bigger clarity so he was able to observe the spiral structure of the nebula [which would later be confirmed to be a galaxy beyond our own, eds]. We also had Rowan Hamilton, he had an observatory in Dunsink, Dublin and this is where he came up with his theory of quaternions, which is used now for satellite navigation. The observatory now hosts the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, where in 1943 Erwin Schroedinger gave his famous series of lectures ‘What is life?‘ which really put everything on its head in terms of thinking bigger. So we have a very rich heritage.
What do you think are the major challenges for science education and outreach today, in Ireland and more broadly?
I think the biggest challenge is about where science is situated in people’s minds. Science is this thing in a book: white coats, goggles, graduated cylinders, titration. It’s not about being alive or seeing examples of science in everyday life. The people who are interested in science are people who are already engaged in science and we have a long way to go to make everybody have an acceptable level of confidence around science.
That’s really a big part of what I try to do: I’m trying to work with more and more people who don’t show up for science or space events because it isn’t even on their radar, they just do not see themselves as part of that community. What I’m really trying to do is break down who does space belong to, and that everybody can be a member of that club. I think we have a lot to do but it’s a really interesting time as an educator.
Let’s talk about your work. Can you tell us more about your theatre plays inspired by science and space exploration?
The first show I wrote was when I had stepped away from science. I had become an artist and actor and I was very guilty for doing that. The theatre company I was working with were very successful and because of that I was given opportunities to express myself artistically as a scientist. In my first show, I was trying to figure out why other people seem to know what to do with their lives whereas I was somebody that was a scientist and artist and engineer and and still trying to figure it out. I looked at particle physics with the Arts at CERN scheme, where you can go and talk to physicists at CERN and just hang out there. I looked at the standard model of particle physics and string theory, because that’s about figuring out the early beginnings of our universe and I was trying to figure out who am I, the early beginnings of me. So I rediscovered my passion for space: I had a moment in that show where I realised how important it was for me and how I’d let that go. I really enjoyed making that, it was absolutely terrifying to share so much of myself but I think it paid off.
Out of that, I made my second show ‘To space’ which was about why I left this one dream that I’ve always had. As I said earlier, Ireland didn’t really have a burgeoning space sector for many years, so when I grew up I just didn’t see anyone involved in space. This was my love letter to space. It was about recreating moments of self-reflection: the moment I realised I wanted to be an astronaut, the moment I stepped away from science and how my dad helped me figure out my Five-Year Plan. The really interesting thing is, as I’ve been filtering more and more and becoming a science educator and communicator, the art part is dripping over into all my ways of communicating. I’m an educator of science but actually humans come first: all of my activities and my adventures are about describing science through the lens of a human being. I think that’s the best and the strongest form of self-expression I have.
My last show, ‘Diaries from Martian beekeeper’, was inspired by a Mars analogue mission that I undertook in 2017. I had funding from Science Foundation Ireland and support from ESA to make a piece to capture the huge human cost of putting humans in space but also the massive group of people required for that to happen. It’s about this notion that we’re nothing alone but together we can create big things. The show was set in the future, as if I had actually gone to Mars on a science mission where we were trying to see if we could pollinate plants using bees. I used bees as a colony because people are talking about colonising Mars. To me, we do amazing things because so many people are passionate about space, so if we all work together in the same direction it’s incredible what we can do, and so I see that a bee colony is a perfect example of how to work as a community.
Any future shows in the making?
I wrote these three theatre pieces but then I’ve stopped because I wanted to connect more in real time with people. As much as I loved writing theatre, I just wanted to talk to people straight away and hear their response and that’s the only reason why I stopped, but I still love it very much. Since then, I’ve written a book and a lot more fact-based things, I express myself artistically now in much more practical ways… but there could be another theatre show in me. I’m waiting for inspiration for the fourth one!
As a scientist, engineer, performer, writer and communicator, the STEAM approach must come natural to you. Why do you think it’s important to add the arts to the STEM universe?
I think the question is more: why did we separate them? Why did we do that? Because I think that was the day we made a mistake. There was a time when people who knew a lot about science were considered entertainers. There’s this painting, ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump‘ by Joseph Wright of Derby from 1768, of a scientist showing a family a vacuum pump and how it removes air from a glass jar, there’s a canary in the jar and some people are disturbed by it, others are very entertained. Science was the pursuit of the landed gentry, they all had a laboratory in the house somewhere: photography, a chemistry set, a telescope. It was a hobby, something that people felt very positive towards.
Then I don’t know what happened but we made science professional and when we did that we started using words and language that made people feel excluded. It no longer became a hobby, it became a very well respected and regarded profession – which it should be! – but we kind of lost our way of keeping the connection with the community. The words we used and also the costumes – the white coats, the labs, the glassware and everything, it just segregated people. That’s when it all started to break down. In order to respond to science now, as an artist, you need to have been introduced to it or to be very comfortable with it. But the question really is: why did they split? If we look back on ancient times, they were teaching philosophy, science, maths all in the same breath. There was always an interdisciplinarity there, just in western civilisation in the last 150 to 200 years we chose to separate them.
You mentioned earlier having been on a space exploration analogue mission and you also flew on an ESA zero-gravity flight. How do you wrap these extraordinary experiences with your science outreach and education activities?
After I came back from the analogue Mars mission, I realised that when I told stories about my personal experiences, which were quite technical at times, people hung in there and they actually wanted to understand what I was talking about, the technicalities. If I told the story of how I experienced these activities, it was like people didn’t see the science, but of course the science is there and it was a great way to teach people a new way of learning about science.
With the zero-gravity flight, it was great to be able to explain what happens to your body on the vertical incline and then on the vertical decline and then the payoff at zero-gravity in the middle: I found that I could talk about the mechanics and engineering of that and also what it felt like in my body, how confusing it is, which then makes me able to talk about how amazing astronauts are that they can sleep and eat and work with this weird feeling in your body that that is very difficult to get used to. That’s how I use all my activities and experiences for education and outreach. That’s why I want to go to the International Space Station so that I have this lived experience that I can break down into achievable chunks of education and outreach storytelling, but also something quite artistic as well that I can capture: what it feels like as a human being to experience something like that.
What are the most exciting and most difficult parts in your job?
I love travelling. I could travel forever, can never get enough of going to a new place, hopping off a plane and checking it out. I just adore that feeling: meeting new cultures, new places, new ways of doing things, new foods I haven’t seen, new transport systems, new buildings, new languages. I love that everywhere I go I pick up something new and I learn something about how to be better as a human.
The difficult part is finance, because nobody really sees what I’m doing but I know the work is really important. I would do it for free if I could afford it. I try to make very little money stretch, it’s really hard. I’ve contemplated shutting down and just going to work in a company because it’s just so hard and maybe I will have to one day, I don’t know. I would love it if I was just funded every year by some philanthropist for example… I want to share what I know with so many more people, build a network and work together, but I can’t do that because I can’t afford to take on people. I have one intern, Diego, he’s brilliant but I would love to do so much more and with more people I could… So if there’s any philanthropists or people with big wads of money out there listening, let’s talk!
What are you working on right now?
At the moment I’m working with smaller and smaller communities of people. I was getting opportunities to speak at big stages like New Scientist Live, Wired Live UK, TedX and they’re brilliant, but I started seeing that the people that turned up were people that knew everything I was saying. I wasn’t really exchanging that much information, I was just reinforcing what these people already knew. In the same way, when I was doing my theatre shows, the people had every confidence of turning up and coming to the show. I want to talk to people who don’t even know this show is on and have no confidence, people who don’t believe they have the right to be in the room or just don’t see themselves as the kind of person that would show up for my talk.
I found that from working with libraries. I got introduced to new groups of people who are very much embedded in the community, I started having conversations with them and figuring out what it was about science that they liked and that they didn’t like. Listening to them, I started adjusting what I was presenting, custom building what they wanted to hear and giving value to that, and I found that work to be extremely rewarding. It’s more time consuming but I think it has a longer impact on the ground because you’re working with somebody basically one-to-one.
I’ve been working on a few projects funded by Science Foundation Ireland with three libraries across the country, I’m getting data with surveys because I want to present it and I’m really trying to come up with a new pedagogy of how we engage the disengaged. I completed a certificate in practical science communication in Cambridge and also the Midland Science Festival paid for some of us to get one-to-one training on informal science learning from Louise Archer from UCL who’s really been looking at why is it that some people take up careers and statements and other people don’t. I’m really enjoying the work that I’m doing now, nobody knows about it but I don’t think it really matters.
Who inspired you most along this journey? Any scientists, thinkers, books you’d like to mention?
If you haven’t come across Carl Sagan, you should definitely check him out, he was a huge inspiration to me. My dad would put him on, a lot of what he was saying was way above my head because they were talking about the cosmos but he was just very artistic, himself and his wife Ann Druyan, they genuinely merged science and arts together in a very natural way. They have written ‘Contact’ which is my favourite movie, with Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey, about making contact with an alien life form. I recommend any book that makes you think big. ‘Astrophysics for people in a hurry’, by Neil De Grass Tyson, is very good, he’s able to explain some really big ideas in a very simple way. ‘A Brief History of Time’ by Stephen Hawking is very good. If you’re looking for a good memoir about what it’s like to be an astronaut in space, Scott Kelly‘s ‘Endurance’ is very good, also ‘The Right Stuff’ by Tom Wolfe. A really great book I reviewed recently for Sky at Night magazine was ‘Soviets in space’, if you want to get a good review of how much Russia put into their space journey.
I think the books that I’m drawn to are books that are written as if it’s a story. I’ll always be drawn to the human side of science. I have lots of science books that are reference materials but the books that I absolutely cherish are the ones that are very personal. And I’m a visual person more than a reader so there’s a lot of shows, documentaries or TV programs that I would recommend: ‘Cosmos’ by Carl Sagan most absolutely definitely, Stephen Hawking did a fantastic series about our Universe. Tom Sachs is really interesting to me: he is this American artist who keeps building rockets out of cardboard and he makes space stations, model space stations that he gets people to live in as well.
But also podcasts: people are having really interesting conversations in podcasts. I would listen again and again to Lex Friedman, he sometimes deals with space but also just with big ideas and what our future is going to be like. I just absorb everything and listen to people a lot. My podcast ‘Humans of space’ is as much about me understanding myself by listening to them as it is about sharing, getting people to hear about how these really successful people managed to get what they did in life.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve learnt from all these experiences?
Science is passive if it isn’t spoken about, if it isn’t breathed through the nostrils and the lungs of people. Talking about these topics is what gives them life. Everything is about being people, everything’s about being human and so whatever form we need to hear those stories about science, then we have to seek them out. It’s our job to provide that service and I can see a need to really rethink the way we’re telling the stories about science and space today. It’s my life’s passion to be a part of that as artists, as communicator, as adventurer and hopefully as somebody who will have seen the Earth from a distance.