Sowing the seeds of curiosity

I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.

~Albert Einstein

by Suzy Hobbs Baker

Everyone can remember at least one teacher from childhood who actually made learning fun rather than a task, and inspired students to keep digging for more knowledge after the bell had rung. Really good teachers do more than just teach—they sow the seeds of curiosity.

For me, it was my seventh grade biology teacher, Mrs. Smith. Every class was something new and exciting (cell-shaped cakes, anyone?).

Her enthusiasm for science was contagious, and for me it began a deep-seated interest in biology that persists today.

Nuclear energy professionals, advocates, and communicators can certainly learn a few things from Mrs. Smith and all the great teachers out there.

Over the weekend, a very good example of how to cultivate public curiosity was successfully put into practice by a group of pronuclear environmentalists in South Australia. The environmentalists—Ben Heard, Barry Brooks, Geoff Russell, and Corey Bradshaw—each presented to about 100 local citizens on their respective areas of expertise relating to energy, climate, and the environment, followed by Geiger counter readings of pinchblende (also known as uraninite) that Brooks put right up to his face! How’s that for entertainment? The full story from Heard is available here.

Something notable about their approach was the conscientious creation of a unified front for the sake of outreach. Each of the environmentalists support nuclear energy for very good scientific reasons—and that was the overarching message that these scientists sent to the public. These guys really listened and spoke to the concerns of their community, and they did it with enthusiasm.

The bottom line is that the environmentalists created a public forum that was informative and honest, and—most importantly—that cultivated genuine curiosity in the subject of nuclear power. One hundred citizens walked away from the meeting with a new-found interest in nuclear science, and I would be willing to bet that most in attendance will continue searching for information on their own.

The environmentalists achieved all of this forward motion in their community despite antinuclear activists working against them throughout the planning process and even at the actual event.

Improving the ways we conduct outreach has the potential to increase the number of nuclear projects, lower the cost of projects already underway, and reduce the negative environmental and human health impacts of energy production. These are HUGE stakes.

In fact Steve Kidd, the deputy director of the World Nuclear Association, has made a formal call for a new, more personal approach to outreach in a series of articles on public acceptance in Nuclear Engineering International magazine (I highly recommend reading the whole series): http://www.neimagazine.com/story.asp?storyCode=2062221

Kidd states clearly, “Last month I argued that there is a clear link between the degree of public and political acceptance of nuclear projects and their cost. It is highly likely that a substantial part of both the escalation in nuclear investment costs over the past decade and also some of the gap between these costs in the Western world and Asia can be explained by the industry’s failure to achieve greater public support. So those people who argue that ‘public acceptance is the biggest issue facing the future of the nuclear industry’ may indeed have a very good case.”

This is not just about good PR. It’s about good business, and about responsible energy generation. So the next time we each make a school visit, or talk to a neighbor about nuclear energy, let’s do it with the zeal and passion of Mrs. Smith, or with the humor of Barry Brooks, who despite being a world-renowned scientist, isn’t afraid to have a little fun! Let’s sow the seeds of curiosity and get people interested in the truly awesome power of the atom.

____________________________

Hobbs Baker

Suzy Hobbs Baker is the executive director of PopAtomic Studios, a nonprofit organization that conducts educational outreach through the Nuclear Literacy Project. Baker is an ANS member and a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Cafe.

17 Responses to Sowing the seeds of curiosity

  1. “awesome power of the atom”
    hmmmmm

    awesome power of denial of the damages caused by abusing atoms. think about it folks. In our greed for cheap power we are creating the most dangerous facilities and waste that only the devil would bless.

  2. @ Steveo, well done! Spoken like a true ignoramus….

  3. Irregular Commentator

    Steveo: Ok I’ll bite, I assume you’re talking about coal plants that emit mercury, arsenic, and uranium as an aerosol during normal operations or even the output of a refinery during normal operations? I’d argue that they may already exist.
    Last time I looked the high level rad waste comprised 5% of the fuel output at a NPP. Most is depleted uranium that has the same composition as the stuff you find in nature already. We even have a solution that was tested during the 1960s to 1990s in Idaho that can consume this high level waste and produce 0 carbon energy, the IFR.

    I actually came here from Decarbonise SA, and atended this event. It was well received, even making a couple of people who consider themselves anti-nuclear stop and have a second think about their opposition. The only hiccup was the shouting of one supporter from outside, could hardly understand what was said from the inside, that just reaffirmed that these community engagement discussions work, and the placard shouting at people methodology doesn’t. Because at the end of the day in Australia it’s not a political party that is asserting a pro-nuclear agenda but a grass roots campaign. Being aggressive to everyday citizens that are pro-nuclear is only going to damage the image of the anti-nuclear (power) groups.

  4. @steveo

    You are entitled to your own opinions – if you are an American or the citizen of another country that respects individual rights – but certainly not your own facts.

    Nuclear facilities have posed very few dangers to anyone through their 60+ years of operation. The power plants that we have built produce reliable, virtually emission free electricity that serves the needs of hundreds of millions of people.

    The total output from nuclear energy facilities is roughly equivalent to the energy production of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – combined.

    With regard to your dismissal of the importance of low cost power, I think you have a losing argument. Try telling Americans honestly that you want us to be forced to purchase electricity at an ever increasing price. See how many fellow travelers you will find.

    Energy is the ability to do work. Most of us recognize that there is a lot of work that is being left undone due to the unreasonably high cost of energy fuels. Uranium and thorium are so abundant that human society could use them to supply all of our needs for thousands of years and there would still be more remaining.

    Nuclear fuel availability makes a lie out of the notion that energy fuels are scarce. Uranium and thorium resource volumes also make a lie out of the notion that we have no choice but to pay OPEC and other energy suppliers ever higher prices so that they can lord over the rest of us for even more decades to come.

  5. Oops, I almost forgot – great post, Suzy. Having spent some time in the front of the classroom, I can tell you that Ms. Smith was probably as energized by your interest in science as you were by her way of sharing her own interest.

    Good students make being a teacher fun and rewarding. It goes both ways.

  6. Great post, Suzy! The problem with nuclear is that people think they know already!

    Nuclear proponents should avoid delivering an unpleasant message: “What you claim that you know is WRONG.” This comes across as condescending and threatening. Instead, we need to encourage curiosity.

  7. Howard Shaffer

    Great post Suzy. And Great work by our Austrailian colleagues!!
    An IT executive said years ago that “The Internet is like a bathroom wall. Anyone can put anything on it. You have no way of knowing if its true.” For me, its the same with people who don’t use their real name.

    We have had workshops and science fair type events in the Vermont Yankee area, by both the plant and NRC. The last one was combined. See Meredith’s post on the Politics of Intimidation. The antis show up and dominate.

  8. Howard Shaffer

    See my post on the value of people who don’t use their real names.

  9. Suzy Hobbs Baker

    Thanks Rod, Meredith and Howard! I agree that our counterparts in Australia have done something really exceptional in terms of nuclear science communication! I only wish folks like Steveo had the opportunity to attend such events to they could “know more, fear less,” to quote Mr. Heard. Being stricken with fear about anything is a terrible state to be in, and curiosity is a really great antidote to fear.

  10. James Greenidge

    Very good article whose ideas are long overdue for the U.S. nuclear industry! I’d like to see Suzy’s concepts moved to a YouTube version, kind of like a regular “Mr. Wizard” format for young people to go on and see their nuclear questions answered or explained on video. Ought be very cheap to do if junior high kids can regularly air silly “shows”. I’d also love to see giving air support for students thinking (if they break out of the prevailing school mindset) of doing atomic energy exhibits for science fairs. I’m not exaggerating to say nuclear science fair exhibits are rare as hen’s teeth in the NYC school system wherein there’re so many windmills in them that the fair doesn’t need air conditioning. That’s the David-Goliath pity of it all; trying to get the calm reasoned nuclear message out against green-slanted school systems, fossil fuel commercials, nuclear-hostile media and anti-nuclear med-darlings who run amok without challenges spreading FUD like indelible poison. Hence the industry must really get a hefty hand in this instead of expecting grass-roots efforts to carry their water for them.

    re: steveo
    Same ol’ Greenpeace & Co. hit and run Chicken Little vaporware rant — but I”ll give you chance to think for yourself, Stevie-boy. Please list down EXACTLY what your nuclear pet peeves are. Not the Greenpeace line which is always super-general and nebulous — tell us exactly where you see Darth Vader in nuclear energy. If you’re the type who thinks nukes ought be banished for the somehow uniquely evil thing it did in Hiroshima, why not banish all oil at one toot for all the flame throwers used in WWII just as gruesomely as Nagasaki victims looked? A hammer can slug a nail or a skull, Stevie. That’s how the universe is built — “devils ” unnecessary. If you can’t jot out any credible peeves, hey, I understand! Greenpeace’s strings don’t run that long!

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  11. A larger polemic humans have to surmount is the proliferation of Gov’t anti-human behavior and ideas of scarcity and austerity. Largely Malthusian poison ideas, Darwinian Eugenics and Climate Warming (change) advocates who see humans as a blight on the earth. The Club of Rome, Holdren, Ehrlich, Maurice Strong. People who the left & right on the political spectrum see as gods. To promote the idea that the best form of culling humans is to deny humans adequate safe efficient energy free from speculation as is the Hydrocarbon market. History provides examples in 1952 a cold-air inversion caused fumes from a coal-fired power plant to settle on London for 4 days . Nearly 4000 people died instantly with another 8000 permanently scared for life with lung problems.
    The real criminals is the pseudo-scientists and the Cult of anti-humanism. Nuclear power is a benefit it provides competition in the energy market place to provide value for every human and race. Every nation has the right to pursue nuclear power for its citizens in peace.

  12. The big hitters in the nuclear industry should get together and run a few well thought up television adds for nuclear power. Like what the natural gas people have been doing. Only increase your chosen demographic. Having multiple focuses for youth, young adult, adult versions all with their own “learn more” websites. The content should be that of teasing to get people to want to explore more on their own. Moreover as nuclear power will be an issue for many generations we need something geared for younger minds and not just adults.

  13. Suzy Hobbs Baker

    James, My secret dream is to be the lady version of Mr. Wizard! A girl can dream!

  14. Irregular Commentator

    Nice analogy, I think I’ll reiterate that.
    On the anonymity part, those who write inflammatory comments under a pseudonym are a big issue. No excuses for that at all.
    However on the other side of the coin, for those like me, I need to have a level of online anonymity in particular circles. I have been on the receiving end of some targeted abuse and I can’t be bothered dealing with it (distracts me from the issue at hand). Anonymity protects my personal life, work life, and associates of mine from abuse while being able to engage constructively to the respective discussion.
    So I’ll say my 2 cents worth, provide accurate references to back up my claims, and engage in a respectful honest discussion. Furthermore I only let those who I can trust absolutely know the connection between my pseudonym and name in real life. Proof can be verified by these individuals.

  15. @Irregular Commentator

    I think I can read between the lines to guess who you might be. In the highly charged discussions about energy supplies there is room for thoughtful comments by people who have good reasons to keep their identity under cover. Not only do some risk targeted abuse, but many highly trained and knowledgable people risk criticism at their place of work for discussing issues that their employers simply hope will go away.

    People who know me and know my employment history (which is readily available on Atomic Insights) know that I have had to work hard to share nuclear knowledge without putting any confidential, proprietary or even secret information at risk. I am in a little bit of a unique situation in terms of having a thick skin against potential targeted abuse and having gained the trust of my employers with regard to public engagement in discussions about nuclear energy. Before I gained that trust I jumped in anyway, again because I had the ability to accept the risk of censure or even dismissal.

    Not everyone is in the same situation; some need the cloak of anonymity provided by a pseudonym.

    Howard – as much as I respect and value your contributions and your comments, please remember that as a retired person you have certain advantages that employed people who are trying to raise families might not have.

    I am happy that so many established people who no longer have employment related concerns are stepping forward in pronuclear activism. This is one huge advantage that we have today that we did not have in the 1970s and 1980s in the fight to defend atomic energy against the professional naysayers. We now have a potential army of people who can step forward without worry and we have the communications tools required to help that army succeed.

  16. Pingback: 109th Carnival of Nuclear Energy Bloggers | ANS Nuclear Cafe

  17. Ben Heard has claimed that Friends of the Earth “tried to have our event shut down” – i.e. the public meeting with Barry Brook et al. However that claim by Mr Heard is a blatant lie and he should be held to account for his deceit. See here for a critique of Mr Heard’s propaganda: http://www.foe.org.au/anti-nuclear/issues/oz/ben-heard-decarbonisesa