Communicating science: Dr Len Fisher's grand plan

The great communicator: Dr Len Fisher, pictured in his Blackheath garden, was awarded a medal in the Order of Australia for service to science through a range of roles.
The great communicator: Dr Len Fisher, pictured in his Blackheath garden, was awarded a medal in the Order of Australia for service to science through a range of roles.

For decades, Dr Len Fisher has tried to communicate science to the people, to make it part of our culture.

He’s done it through radio (ABC’s The Science Show and the BBC), television (BBC TV), books, articles, scientific papers – even a recipe in Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck cook book. 

Blumenthal wrote: “Len Fisher told me about a clever way of maximising the bubbles in champagne jelly using creme de cassis and sugar to reduce the wine’s volatility.”

Dr Fisher also contributed a chapter about the science of the sour taste (he spent 20 years as a researcher in CSIRO’s food division).

He was named science writer of the year in 2004 by the American Institute of Physics for How to dunk a doughnut and he won an Ig Nobel prize in 1999 for calculating the optimal way to dunk a biscuit. 

But the populist approach to making science accessible was not a success, he conceded.

“I was trying to show how scientists think about everyday problems. I have to say it failed – people want to know the answers but don’t want to know how the thinking went,” he said.

So he switched his approach to look at how scientists think about serious problems in life – like climate change, desertification and other global threats.

Dr Fisher’s wide-ranging career has seen him in the Department of Anatomy at University College in London and at the School of Physics at the University of Bristol (where he still has an honorary position).

He has been, or is, a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, the Institute of Physics and the Linnean Society.

He jokingly remarked: “Every time people find out I don’t know what I’m talking about, I change my field.”

The Blackheath resident was delighted to find a scientist honoured with a medal in the Order of Australia.

“I’m trying to show people that this is something they can get into. There is such a thing as citizen science but, at the very least, they can learn and become interested and informed spectators.”

He particularly wants to reach out to young people, to show them science can be a rewarding career.

Dr Fisher’s other passion is getting the different science disciplines to interact better with each other.

He pointed out that many “discoveries” come in unrelated areas of research.

“For example, the platinum-based anti-cancer drugs that kept my mother alive much longer than she otherwise would have came about through research into the effect of electric fields on E.coli,” he said.

Scientists need to communicate their research to each other as much as to the public, he said.

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