Simon Watt, the Man Who Brought Love for Ugly Animals to Sofia
Pandas are so cuddly… and are given too much attention, whilst there are many other, unknown and “aesthetically challenging” animals we should work more to preserve. That’s what biologist, writer, science communicator and TV presenter Simon Watt believes. He is in Bulgaria as part of the Sofia Science Festival, a series of events which the British Council organizes near the capital’s downtown area for the fifth year running.
Mr Watt runs Ready, Steady Science, a science communication which its own website describes as “a company committed to making information interesting and takes science based performances into schools, museums, theatres and festivals. “ He is MC/president for life of the Ugly Animal Preservation Society, a comedy night with a conservation twist.
Wherever he tours in the UK, a town or city elects its own “ugly animal mascot”, through a “democratic vote” as he puts it; but what is unique during his current visit is that on Sunday at 19:00, Sofia is to become the first place outside Britain to pick a mascot of its own.
Less than two hours before Simon Watt’s Frogs and Friends, his brilliant, adults-only comedy event on Friday evening, he talked to Novinite about his mission, his fondness for “ugly animals”, and his determination that science should in no way be confined only to scientists.
Though the show could hardly be summarized in a few words, we must say that here in Sofia it fully served its purpose.
To Bulgarians the notion of a science communicator is a little bit strange. Why didn't you choose instead to delve into science writing complicated analyses or spend more time writing for scientific magazines?
I think that science is too important to be just for scientists. It should be shared to as wider possible audience as we can find. For several reasons: one is that it is useful. It equips us for the future. Science is going to be the answer to climate change, to population issues, to food security, to clean water... I think many of the greatest things we have in our life right now are owed to science. I want to try and help equip everyone with the information we need, with the outlook that we need, the curiosity we need. That's what takes us forward. But also I want to celebrate. You know we have new advances every single day, there's so much fascinating information out there. I think the Universe is and is always going to be an interesting place, so I just enjoy talking about it.
How are you coping with the problem of having a balance between entertainment and science?
[Communication philosopher] Marshall McLuhan said that anyone who tries to make a distinction between entertainment and e education doesn’t know the first thing about either. Look at a good teacher: a good teacher is an entertainer. And good entertainment teaches you something, be it about yourself, be it about the world, the Universe, science, history or anything if it’s interesting. I’ve always loved information and communication. So I always think that in science we should beg, borrow or steal from SOCS [social sciences] as much as we can.
If we have led anybody to think that science is boring or something like that, we've been doing something wrong,because it plainly isn't. Consider the things we have here in Europe, the Large Hadron Collider, the biggest machine ever made, the coolest place in the Universe. How can such a thing exist and people not want to know about it? It's natural, curiosity is a human instinct.
Why did you decide to start this thing about the ugly animals?
I'm a biologist by training, so I spend most of my time and ideas talking about science, writing about science, but I love biology that is my passion I guess. And as I do a lot of talks about science people ask me what was my favourite animal. And I usually say - ant. A small but wonderful insect - and they look disappointed. And then I spend about 10 minutes complaining about how people don’t see creatures which are not as pretty. And then it hit me that we have to address this properly because 200-250 species we think die out every single day.
And if that is the extent of the crisis facing our biodiversity, we cannot afford not to talk about it. So I started the Ugly Animal Preservation Society for two purposes: one is to get people talking about this species. But also, it's a comedy night. I wanted to have fun with it because it's such a depressing topic. We have to have fun with it, otherwise we'll lose all hope.
How do you think people's attitude toward nature will improve if they know about ugly animals?
I hope so. It worked in terms of that we got into newspapers, even here in Bulgaria, in Japan, China and all over the world - there were tens of thousands of articles written about our election of the blobfish as the world's ugliest animal. At least in the short term it got people to know about a creature they wouldn't have known about otherwise.
But we want more than that, I would like the conversation to continue, I guess. Because I'd love to say that charity could help. But it's only limited. At least charity is doing something but it's not going to be the answer. The crisis is so so big that we probably have to get political, we probably have to vote ecologically, to be able to make international companies write for the ecological problems they cause. So it has to be bigger than politics, it has to be bigger than charity.
Because once it's gone, [a species] is not coming back. My ambition was to make it talked by everybody. It's one of the problems we have in science - we think that only scientists should be able to engage. And we think you have to be clever, you have to know everything – no, you don't. You have to have a good question.
Basically the reason I also use humor was that I thought it was too big to be above satire. We make jokes about politics, relationships, love, religion; we should make jokes about conservation. We should make jokes about science too.
I know that part of your show is for children and part for adults. Does your message get to children more easily?
No, I guess we tend to say the children are the future, as people who've given up on themselves always say. But I think we have to talk to everybody . This has to be a conversation we're having both with our kids and with each other.
Crown Princess Mary of Denmark - I remember seeing her speak once – said something that really stuck with me. Which is that we have to leave better children for our world, because we're not leaving a better world for our children. So I think education is important, and that is why I love talking to kids as well. On top of that they have the best questions. I mean they don't have the filter which adults have: we get embarrassed when we ask so many questions, kids are just doing this straight away. And as a result they ask brilliant questions. They are not cynical yet.
In your book Ugly Animals: We Can’t All Be Pandas, now published in Bulgarian as well, you show your talent for presenting animals to the public. But which animal have you found the most difficult to explain?
The book has got sixty endangered species. That was the real reason - it must be ugly, it must be endangered, so a little bit like the anti-Panda, if you can imagine. Perhaps some of the fish that live in the depths of the sea and the other creatures that live so far down. Because we know so little about them - we know more about the surface of the Moon than we do about the depths of our oceans. And they are, as a result of their strange environment, so strange. There are many cases we just don't know enough. So [we are] filling in the gaps of this stuff we don't know and trying to ask some questions about these species.
There is an ant I love, it's called the Dracula Ant, after the vampire. It feeds on the blood of the baby ants, of the larvae. It feeds on its children. And that seems crazy when you first hear about it, but then you learn why. And it's because the kids are much better digesting than the adults are with their digestion machines. So the adults "outsource" their digestion to the children. By sucking their blood they're having a very concentrated, very easily digestible form. But it also means they can free up their mouthparts, so that they they have more parts which are better for carrying stuff to feed their children. So it works but it's complicated.
Do you imagine the “ugly animal mascot” thing turning into a real campaign like every city having its mascot?
I hope so. Currently what we do, mostly in the UK, we go in the country and every city we go to elects its own ugly animal mascot. So London for instance is the proboscis monkey, a monkey with an enormous nose, Winchester is the scrotum frog, Bristol is the sloth, Aberdeen is the black-crested macaque, all the towns we go to get their mascots. And Sunday night coming, Sofia is electing its own ugly animal mascot. It's the first election we've had outside of Britain. The closest thing we've had so far was an online mascot for our society globally. So anybody could vote anywhere in the world for that one. And the blobfish won, it looks lie a deep-sea jelly.
But now there's no online election for here, right?
No, there's a live one, this Sunday several scientists from the Natural History Museum will be championing a different animal and then the audience will vote. That's the rule - you must have it very democratic. The people of Sofia will vote and choose their own mascot. I can't wait to see what it is. And by way of thanking to Sofia, when we elect it, the winner whoseever’s mascot gets through, will write something for my website in both English and Bulgarian, and we'll put it up so that everybody could read about it.
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