Hyde Park Civilisation's Daniel Stach on why popularizing science is so important

Daniel Stach, photo: Czech Television

Daniel Stach is the charismatic host of Hyde Park Civilisation, a weekly program which runs every Saturday evening on public broadcaster Czech TV. Daniel has interviewed numerous acclaimed scientists, award-winning and groundbreaking researchers, Nobel Prize laureates about everything from quantum mechanics to the latest research in DNA. There is no doubt in his mind, or the team behind him, that the spreading of information, the debate of ideas, and an understanding of science, is of fundamental importance for our future.

Daniel Stach,  photo: Czech Television
I began by asking him how the program came about.

"The aim was to focus on science and only science, nothing else. The sister program, or original program Hyde Park is for politicians, economists, experts in numerous fields but Hyde Park Civilisation, is about science and scientists. I am sure politicians would love to take part but they are not allowed. It is about science and about giving viewers food for thought."

As a host you have a great many opportunities to dig deep into many different topics, many different areas, and we will talk about that, but one thing: it strikes me that more and more in recent years some groups have chipped away at scientific truth, trying to cast doubt on evolution, on our role in global warming, even recently a few on the fringe questioning the world was round, which raised astronomer Jiří Grygar's hackles. So in a way, it seems that programs popularizing science and scientific advances are more needed than ever...

"I do think so. It is important and it is getting more and more important. Science needs to be talked about because, simply, it affects every single aspects of our lives. Science is not just in your tablet or phone, it is everywhere. And for me the most important thing is to explain, to broaden horizons. For example, if you take a pencil and a diamond there is no chemical difference, the only difference is in how the atoms are arranged. But if I ask you which one you'd prefer to have, it's not a hard question to answer!

"The aim was to focus on science and only science, nothing else."

"We can't see atoms, but science helps us understands that world and the knowledge gained is used to make our lives better. As far as the public is concerned, I love the saying that NASA has: that in order to get anywhere, you have to take the public with you. If you are a scientist, here or abroad, you are doing it for people, not for a publication. Because it is through science that we can move forward, that we can learn, and move ahead."

What are some of the tricks of the trade? Or how do you approach it? Because across different fields that are concepts which can be very difficult to explain. In the past I spoke to scientists about astrophysics or quantum mechanics and string theory and they readily said okay, you can get this on a certain level, but mathematically much of this is far beyond anything a layman would be able to appreciate. So I imagine it must be quite difficult to break down some concepts into terms anyone can understand...

"That is one of the most difficult tasks for us at the program: to find the correct level of popularization yet at the same time be precise. When I reported on the radio telescope Alma in Chile,collecting radiation on the millimeter and sub-millimeter part of the spectrum in terms of wavelength, something which is not easy to explain.

Daniel Stach,  photo: Luboš Vedral
"So I compared the situation to driving in heavy fog: if you use only you normal lights through the windshield you will see nothing, just a whiteout. But if you use the proper fog lights you will cut through and regain visibility. Alma is the same thing. If you use an ordinary telescope, you won't see anything: but with Alma, which measures in a different part of the spectrum, through those clouds in a very cold part of the universe, the birth of stars."

Since you mentioned this trip to Chile and Alma and many other locations, which was part of a program in December, let me ask - how often does Hyde Park Civilisation go abroad?

"The focus on the European Southern Observatory in Chile, trips like that are fairly rare I would say, maybe once a year. We went to Chile but we have also been to Svalbard and to Cern in Switzerland. But it is changing and I hope that more such programs, of such specific places, will be planned in the future, not only for Hyde Park but the whole science section at Czech TV. That too is part of my job."

It is one thing to read a book or paper and another to meet authors, in this case, scientists in person. You have spoken to many scientists who are Nobel Prize winners - so I wanted to ask about some of the people you interviewed and how that went.

"One of the most difficult tasks is to find the correct level of popularization yet still be precise."

"It is amazing to meet people up close and to see their reasoning and the process of their thinking. It sometimes has unusual results. For example, when we were preparing to interview French mathematician Cedric Villani, I told the crew in the studio as they were preparing the lights that he was 'a walker'. They asked me what I meant: all the material I had seen showed he paced this way and that while talking, while presenting an idea, and then changed direction after about 20 minutes. And they said, ok, it's a 55 minute program. And they said, nobody can talk about math for that long!

"You can watch the show in both English and Czech and if you see the episode at the start you see that he begins behind the table but by the end of it he is in front of it next to me. It was great! He was absolutely in a part of the studio where no one expected him to be, facing me as I am facing you now here. And it wasn't to make me uncomfortable or to shake things up, it was just that he was concentrating so much in what we were talking about. For him it was not about standing in one place but being absolutely precise in his argumentation and in the popularization of science. That is more important than whether he walked this way or that!"

Elon Musk,  photo: Steve Jurvetson,  CC BY 2.0
He is great but then not all scientists are good at explaining what they do, are they?

"Some are better at it, certainly. Or they find a key. Physics professor James Kakalios in the United States, for example, decided to use superheroes to explain concepts. He uses characters like Spider-Man, Superman, Thor, Ant-Man or Captain America and his shield to explain physical principles. He said, that before he developed that approach, people would sometimes come up to him after lectures and be unclear on certain things, or on their usefulness, but that since he began using superheroes to explain, that didn't happen any more.

"His seminars are packed and he is a success. Some people are good at popularizing science, others practicing in the field, but all scientists should try it, I think."

You were asked by Czech Radio which scientists you hadn't spoken to yet and two or three names came up that were pretty good choices...

"Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk are two guests we would love to have on the show."

There are a number of clips on YouTube: Elon Musk seems pretty forthcoming once there but I guess it isn't easy to get through in the first place...

"If we give up on science we are giving up on our future - on this planet or any other that we hope to reach."

"It is very difficult to reach him. But at the show we do not give up, we keep trying. It took four years to get his Holiness the Dalai Lama in the show and eventually we did. We will keep trying to make this happen, too. I'm not saying it will be tomorrow, next month, or even this year, but we will keep at it. Failure is not an option."

Science is in the new every day, whether it is scientists searching for elusive particles, gravitational waves, dark matter, AI, Musk has numerous companies including the Boring one... On the whole it seems positive. Ultimately, will science help us overcome the challenges and many problems we are facing? Because in the solution lie a new danger, people are afraid for example about general AI (Hawking and Musk to name two) and the fact that is the Singularity is achieved, we may no longer be the smartest thing on the planet. Will science help us prevail?

Stephen Hawking,  photo: NASA/Paul Alers,  Public Domain
"I believe certainly that without science we would not prevail. We would not only stay stuck in the same place, we would go backwards and there would be no opportunity to change it. I strongly believe that we need science to survive on the this planet."

It's not really a choice...

"It's not really a choice. Our choice lies in what we are willing to do. Many processes, such as DNA editing, have to be thoroughly debated, analyzed, discussed. It is highly controversial and there are many things we have to work out before we decide. I don't think that science will ever fully solve all problems for us, and sometimes it creates them, with for example nuclear weapons, but I still think that if we look back at the history, science has solved many more problems than it created. Never give up on science. If we give up on science we are giving up on our future - on this planet or any other that we hope to reach."