Soapbox Art & Science London 2017 is being sponsored by Overleaf. Here they catch up with two of the speakers from the event- artist Amy Knight (left) and scientist Sophia Goldberg (right), who will be giving a presentation together entitled: “How does Einstein’s v Newton’s gravity effect structure on the largest scales: from clusters of galaxies to the universe” on Saturday 16th September in Thamesmead as part of Thamesmead Festival.
Overleaf is a London-based startup, supported by Digital Science and Bethnal Green Ventures, and founded by two mathematicians who were inspired by their own experiences in academia to create a better solution for scientific collaboration and communication.
Overleaf is building ‘Google Docs for Science’, making science and R&D faster, more open and more transparent by bringing the whole scientific process into the cloud, from idea to writing to review to publication. Overleaf has 750,000 users who’ve created more than 10 million documents, and is being used in hundreds of universities worldwide for teaching and research. Read our interview with Software Developer Hugh O’Brien to find out more!
Overleaf: Thank you Sophia and Amy for answering these questions for us! First of all, how did you get your current positions?
Sophia Goldberg: I’ve always been passionate about Physics and Mathematics, so when it came to choosing what to study at university Theoretical Physics was the natural choice for me. It was great being able to study one of the most fundamental sciences. My masters thesis was in complex networks, which was really interesting but I felt that I had unfinished business with Theoretical Physics. I loved studying General Relativity – the maths behind it was elegant and beautiful – and understanding our Universe, how it works and evolves, has always fascinated me so I decided to specialise in cosmology and gravitation at Queen Mary University of London, where I’ve been studying for my PhD.
Amy Knight: I am currently studying MA Art and science at Central Saint Martins, I came to do this after studying an Undergraduate in Mathematics at King’s College London and a Foundation in Art. The MA combines my lifelong artistic endeavour with my natural ability for scientific thinking.
O: What, or who, inspired your career choices?
AK: Whilst studying for my A levels, I read a book by Alex Bellos called ‘Alex’s adventures in numberland.’ It was whilst reading that I was able to visualise Mathematics as beautiful images within my mind and appreciate it with a logical and aesthetic viewpoint -this encouraged me to study math at a higher level. It was then, in my first term at University where a professor exclaimed ‘Mathematics is Art, if you don’t believe that you should leave now’ that I realized I could marry my interest in Art with my scientific thinking together and go on to pursue the connection of Art and Science on into my MA.
SG: I shared a love of all-things-science with my parents growing up! I’m very fortunate to have parents who encouraged me to pursue my passion in STEM subjects: getting me maths books and taking me to the Science Museum on countless occasions. My mum’s a strong role model for me: she’s taught me resilience – something you need lots of in research. Over the years my supervisors, teachers, colleagues and friends have also been a great source of inspiration for me, showing the diverse and exciting paths a STEM career can lead to. The great motivator for me though, has to be an ever-curious itch of wanting to know how stuff works, not always being satisfied with the first answer that comes my way, and being my own hardest customer to convince.
O: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?
SG: We’re living in a fascinating era in theoretical cosmology where we’re not only asking interesting and important fundamental questions, but it’s also necessary that we find the answers to them for observations. It’s at this intersection where my research sits: how does Einstein’s general relativity affect the largest structures we see in our Universe, like clusters of galaxies? Creating a mathematical framework which formalises this regime is exactly what I’ve been doing during my PhD. With ever-increasing technical advances in observational cosmology, it’s pressing to characterise the effects of Einstein’s general relativity, rather than just Newton’s theory of gravity, for up-coming high-precision observations. (Pic: Me on a deserted train in Uyuni, Bolivia, with Einstein’s field equations graffitied onto them. These are the equations I use every day!)
AK: The most fascinating aspect of my work as an Artist is being able to choose the topic that I wish to research and develop into a physical piece. I can carefully attack topics that may be a larger issue and in doing so, raise an awareness to a group of people who may not access this information by themselves; this includes the ideas of science. It’s about communicating and being the mediator between two realms that do not usually integrate.
O: What attracted you to Soapbox Art & Science in the first place?
AK: I was attracted to Soapbox because I wanted to get a more scientific grounding within my Art Practice. I also wanted the opportunity to raise the profile of Art and Science as a subject of its own – it is my intention to persuade as many people as possible that they are not so different disciplines. It has offered me a fantastic opportunity to be inspired by real scientific research which will continue within my MA and art career.
SG: I’ve been so lucky to have such great support in pursuing a STEM career but I know that’s not the case for everyone; I’m hoping to reach out to people who think: ‘it’s not for me’. I think exciting public talks on science, where you can keep the content and drop the jargon, can be really effective at communicating difficult scientific concepts. However, everyone thinks and learns differently, and I think that including art with Amy will help bring complex ideas home and allow people to understand scientific ideas in a new way. Additionally, including art in Soapbox Science will hopefully mean that a more diverse set of people will come to the events. (Pic: Me recording for an outreach video I made on explaining integration by parts!)
O: What ideas are you working on together?
SG: Amy’s idea is to use audience participation, so she’s making a piece that’s hands-on. Two (lucky) people will represent our Solar System and galaxy, the Milky Way, by wearing hi-vis jackets and helmets (with our Sun and galaxy printed on it). We’ll then ‘build’ a Solar System from planets, and a galaxy from stars, which we’ll stick onto the hi-vis jackets. This should be fun for the kids (and grown-up kids!), but also should help me explain the vast array of gravitationally bound structures that exist in our Universe on gigantic astronomical scales.
O: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?
AK: As someone who is yet to reach this level but certainly aspires to it, I would say, choose a subject which you know you can sustain interest in; truly love what you are researching.
SG: My advice is: you belong in this space, so if you want to pursue an academic career, go for it! Surround yourself with role models, people who do things the way you want to do them and to whom you can relate. Join your local women in STEM group too, it’s great for support and inspiration!
O: Overleaf is a champion of collaborative writing – in your opinion, why is it important to have collaboration as a part of your work and have you got any advice for researchers who are looking to increase collaboration?
SG: Collaboration is key in science for several reasons. Firstly, everyone brings different knowledge and skills to the research problem at hand, so a once unsolvable problem can quickly turn into a solvable one. A diverse collaboration should mean that although your skills may be similar (e.g. all experts in differential geometry and gravitation), your experiences and ways of problem-solving may be different, leading to really original ideas and results. Finally, working on a project alone can be pretty solitary, but also ineffective: with two people working on a project the time taken to do the research is often cut by more than a half. For researchers who want to increase collaboration I’d encourage them to attend workshops, meetings and conferences that interest them: it’s a great way to meet other researchers and, followed up with an email, often leads to new collaborations.
AK: I second Sophia!
O: What would be your recommendation for working with people from other subjects and disciplines?
SG: There is normally some overlap material in different fields for interdisciplinary collaborations. When approaching a problem I’d recommend first covering some commonalities before diving into the complex intricacies relevant to individual fields.
AK: I would highly recommend interdisciplinary work, it is something that feeds a lot of my research and ideas. It is important to embrace a different perspective and to be well informed and this can be achieved by meeting and working with people from other fields of research. (Pic: My with piece ‘Mr Higgs Hat Stand’ – it’s inspired by CERN)
Since 2014, our overall whole initiative is supported by the Science and Technology Facilities Council. We are very grateful for their financial support of the new Soapbox Art & Science projects.