Bradley Wiggins

The Clever Clogs of PubhD

13 June 16 words: Gav Squires
"Three local researchers have ten minutes to explain their work. There's no PowerPoint presentation, but speakers are allowed to bring props, and have to talk at a 'man in pub' level"
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illustration: Raphael Achache

Like all great ideas, PubhD began in a bar – Kash and Regan had been to a talk at the University of Nottingham and found themselves in the student union afterwards. Regan struck up a conversation with a student and, although he didn’t understand the bloke’s research, he realised that he was “talking with somebody who knew more about that than anybody else in the world”. An idea started to form, and the next day Kash came up with the format: three speakers, ten minutes each. That’s how it’s remained ever since – three local researchers have ten minutes to explain their work in a pub and then the audience gets to ask them questions. There’s no PowerPoint presentation, but speakers are allowed to bring props, and have to talk at a “man in pub” level.

Apart from a free pint, what’s in it for the researchers? “It’s an opportunity for them to tell the public about their work outside of an academic setting”, Kash explains. “There’s a big gap for PhD students to get their first taste of public engagement – it’s the first chance for them to talk about their work, which is something they’re going to need to do to pass their doctorate. There’s a hunger to meet other students, meet ordinary people, and also for ordinary people to understand that they’re working hard”, Regan adds. Often, they enjoy it so much they return as punters.

Regan tells me about Sera Baker, their first ever speaker. She’s researching archaeology and is a regular down PubhD. “It’s fascinating watching her scrunch her face in bemusement at a talk about pure maths the same way that completely non-academic people do. Just because you’re working on your PhD or are already Dr So-and-so, doesn’t mean that you know anything about anybody else’s research. It’s a level playing field.” Kash agrees, “I remember her asking an astrophysicist a question about dark matter. You don’t normally get that in an academic environment.”

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There’s a lot in it for the average Joe and all, as Regan explains. “In Nottingham, we have some fantastic universities and bleeding edge research in some really important, interesting areas. People are doing research two or three miles away from you, and you can come and listen to them talk about it before they publish it, before anyone else hears about it, in a very nice pub with a pint in your hand. What a lovely Wednesday.”

Speaking with the guys, it’s obvious from the way that they talk about past events just how passionate they are about PubhD. As he drinks his beer, Regan reminisces about the first event. “We had Dave Farmer who ended up playing the national anthem on a ruler to demonstrate wave function. Sera Baker spoke about the shops of Pompeii, then there was Chris Perrin, who did a fantastic talk about how to help prisoners reintegrate with society after they’ve served their term, and how we are rubbish at doing that”. Kash also raves about Clare Burrage, who, since her talk at PubhD, has gone on to appear on BBC’s Horizon. “She explained the difference between dark matter and dark energy using a loaf of bread. It was the best description I’ve seen on how to differentiate between the two with the flour being the dark matter, and the yeast trying to push things apart being the dark energy.”

When pressed to name their favourite talk, they struggle to select just one. Regan describes it as Sophie’s Choice while Kash says, “For me it’s the non-science ones. I have some understanding of science, but the non-science things are completely new to me. I’m always amazed at the level of research and detail. I guess that I thought non-science research would be less analytical with not as much evidence, but the amount of research going on – looking through archives and finding the first sources of information – is amazing. It’s evidence-based research”. He adds, “The science that goes on in Nottingham – I can’t believe some of the things that are being researched here that could change the world.” We go on to talk about a mathematician using statistics to help birds with their sex life, a philosopher who spoke about thinking about the way you think, and a microbiologist who’s working on a new test for TB that could be perfect for the developing world.

After a successful launch in Nottingham, PubhD soon spread – Leicester, Lincoln and Dublin. Then, he was approached by someone from Portugal after an event in Nottingham, “He came up to me afterwards and said, ‘I’ve just graduated, I’m going back to Lisbon next week, can I set one up in Lisbon?’” As well as the international fame, it’s also spreading throughout the UK with regular PubhDs in Brighton, Liverpool and Manchester – there are now around twelve ongoing, with talks to start in Leeds, Exeter, Bristol, Glasgow, Stirling and Edinburgh. But Kash isn’t done there. “I’d like it to be in America, Australia and Germany. Places where research happens”.

Regan compares it to punk. “The model is really simple so it is like photocopy art or something. It’s easy to set one up in your own city.” As for Nottingham, the plans are to carry on as is. They’re currently trying to get a speaker from the ‘Viking department’, more speakers from Nottingham Trent, and an astronomy special in June to coincide with Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting at the University of Nottingham.

Spending time with Kash and Regan, it’s easy to see why PubhD works. They’re two passionate guys who enjoy what they do. The nights are well planned, well organised and the guys go out of their way to make the audience feel welcome. They really don’t feel like stuffy science lectures – more a bunch of mates chatting in the pub.

Some interesting facts learned at PubhD:

  •  Flying penises keep away bad luck
  • The Polish language was banned in Poland for more than 100 years
  • Haiti lost 200 years’ worth of GDP in the 2010 earthquake
  • BMI categories changed in the early 2000s – people who were ‘normal’ became ‘overweight’ overnight
  • We have more E. coli cells in our bodies than human cells
  • Angelology – the study of angels – pre-dates the bible
  • The idea of black holes was invented by a French astronomer in the 1860s
  • All insulin is genetically modified
  • We get around 30,000 useful chemicals from crude oil
  • You can model a black hole in a bath

PubhD takes place on the third Wednesday of every month, 7.30pm, The Vat and Fiddle.

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