A Revolution in Radio
Interactions - SPS Chapters in Action
A Revolution in Radio
SPS Chapter Broadcasts Science in EgyptBy:
Gabriel Popkin, freelance science writer in Baltimore, MD
“We have many problems in Egyptian society related to the lack of scientific thinking,” Taha Selim told an audience at the American University in Cairo (AUC) last summer. “Radio will be the solution.” With this proclamation, the AUC physics major and SPS chapter president launched Cosmos Radio, Egypt’s first on-air science programming.
Selim works with members of AUC’s SPS chapter and others from the university community to record and edit programs at the university’s campus in downtown Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Like the crowds that gathered in the square two years ago, the Cosmos Radio team hopes to launch a revolution. But this one will be about educating minds, not overthrowing regimes. “We are protesting also, but not protesting in the normal way,” says Selim. “We are trying to present a real product for society that can enhance science.”
The group’s goal is to make people laugh while they learn. “We educate people in fun ways,” says Selim, who takes inspiration from existing science radio shows such as The Infinite Monkey Cage, a BBC program co-hosted by a physicist and a comedian. Lacking a permanent studio right now, Cosmos Radio broadcasts mostly via the Internet. But the students behind the project have arranged for airtime on local radio stations in Cairo and hope to eventually have their own station.
The Cosmos team is putting the spirit of revolution to good use, says Mohamed Swillam, a physics professor at AUC and the university’s SPS chapter advisor. “They started thinking about what they can do in order to make their country better.”
Essam Heggy, an Egyptian-born space scientist who spoke about NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars for Cosmos’ inaugural broadcast, agrees. He says the students are "amazingly active and motivated to bring a change to the society they live in.”
But Heggy, who is also active in science outreach, cautions that reaching ordinary Egyptians may not be easy. “I think their big challenge is audience. People do not really like to hear about science. They like to hear about politicians and the solutions to their daily life.” The students hope to change this situation and show how science can find solutions to societal problems.
Selim knows firsthand how difficult it can be to build an audience. Before launching Cosmos Radio, he wrote two physics books for the public; one of these won a prize in creative writing from a Cairo-based publishing house. He also organized physics seminars on relativity, the theory of everything, and the history of cosmology, and videotaped them so people could watch them online. Still, he wasn’t reaching the broad audience he wanted. He found that many people don’t have the time or interest to read an entire book or watch an entire lecture. Radio, Selim realized, could be different; people could tune in while doing other things, such as driving.
Fortunately, AUC’s SPS chapter—the only one in the Middle East—was already a hub of physics outreach. Its events regularly drew hundreds of people, often by creatively combining science and drama in ways that proved readily adaptable to radio. In one drama written by Selim and his colleagues, entitled “The Doctor Manhattan Show,” a physics professor hoping to discover the theory of everything becomes so immersed in his equations that his fiancé complains he has no time for her anymore. The physicist then calculates the solution to his dilemma: invite his sweetheart over for dinner and sing her a love song. Meanwhile, the audience learns something about physics while being entertained. “By the end of the day people will understand the concept of superposition and the basic ideas of quantum mechanics in a very funny way,” says Selim.
Cosmos Radio also draws material from the Middle East’s rich scientific history. Last fall, one broadcast included a live talk by AUC science historian Karl Galle, who spoke about Abbas Ibn Firnas, a 9th-century Spanish Muslim inventor said to have made an early attempt to fly. The story goes that Firnas attached wings to his arms and jumped from a mountain; the landing was rough, but he survived. Galle’s talk, heard by the 500 people attending the event and by countless more online, was part of an event centered around Felix Baumgartner’s record-setting high-altitude balloon jump—a clever use of a current event to highlight a piece of science from the past.
Though less than a year old, Cosmos Radio has already taken on a life of its own. Students and professors from outside of the SPS chapter and the physics department have gotten involved, covering other scientific disciplines. New members of the team create programming in languages other than English and Arabic. The university is in the process of building the group its own studio; until now the students have been using mobile equipment and borrowing space where they can find it. As part of the expansion, the radio station recently became a separate entity from the SPS chapter, but the two organizations remain closely connected.
As a result of all this activity, Selim is in constant motion—updating the group’s Facebook and Twitter pages, recruiting volunteers, developing new programs, and fielding interview requests. Between the radio station and his studies of advanced quantum mechanics, he sleeps an average of four hours a night and no longer takes vacations. But that’s the life of a revolutionary, one who will do whatever he can to make science a part of his fellow Egyptians’ daily lives.
“A lot of people think that science is only in the lab or only in the university,” he says. “But actually everything around us is science.” //
Cosmos Radio website: