Who has seen the wind? Dr. Jennifer Gardy, that’s who.
In the name of science — and her hosting role in tonight’s The Nature of Things — she steps into the eye of a (man-made) tornado, winds swirling around her, to discover whether a highway overpass is a safe place to hide. She also investigates if a plane would survive a lightning strike and if snow is really white.
For the episode “Myth or Science: In the Eye of the Storm,” Vancouver resident Gardy also travelled to Manchester to study rain, which seems like travelling from Edmonton to Anchorage to study snow, but that’s a perk of the gig: visiting experts wherever they are in order to get answers.
“We follow the science, and more importantly we follow the scientists themselves,” says Gardy, explaining they want to capture the thought process of those scientists who were integral to deepening our understanding of the science behind weather phenomena.
Ironically Manchester – the Vancouver of the UK in terms of rain — was dry for all but about an hour during the six days the crew was filming there.
For one crucial shot, Gardy stood in an alley while the director stood on a railway bridge above with a watering can. For others, they desperately drove around Manchester in a van chasing the rain. “As soon as it would start raining we’d slam the brakes on, throw open the door, everyone would run out onto the street and we’d get set up and get the shot, praying it would rain long enough for us to get a single take.”
That segment brought her the biggest surprise. “If you ask a child to draw a raindrop, or you ask an adult to draw a raindrop, they’ll draw that teardrop shape,” she says. “We’ve been lied to all these years. The outline of a raindrop is more like a flattened out hamburger.”
Gardy is a researcher herself, with a day job studying the genome of infectious diseases with the BC Centre for Disease Control — a growth industry, you have to think, given the rise of superbugs. She jokingly compares her methods to CSI, except it’s Cootie Scene Investigation. “I try to find out from clues left in an organism’s genome things like where did that pathogen come from, how did it suddenly jump into this population, how did it cause this outbreak, how did it infect person A who infected B who infected C.”
Given that background, how does she approach her The Nature of Things segments knowing the audience is coming in without her background knowledge of the scientific process and the science itself? She says it’s important to consider the narrative arc they want the story to take before filming, and put on her “naive-to-the-subject-matter hat” when questioning the experts.
Gardy is a passionate communicator on and off-screen, melding her loves of performing and science. “The biggest thing we can do as scientists is to communicate our work to the public,” she says. “The simplest reason is that we are obliged to.”
She points out much of the research being done in Canada is publicly funded. “The happy side effect of communicating that is the public realizes just how much it surrounds us in our everyday lives. People develop a greater appreciation for science and a greater appreciation for the role it plays in society.”
She points to the last election where people may not have been swayed by the science issue alone but “packaged with a bunch of other sweeping changes you have people saying wow, I’m really excited to support a government that supports science.”
That in turn creates a better climate for researchers active today and “more importantly, for the researchers of tomorrow. You can show kids that science is everywhere. Science isn’t a guy with crazy white hair and a lab coat with beakers full of coloured liquids.”
“Science is people who look like you and me. We come in every gender, we come in every colour, we come in every shape and size, we come in every research domain.”
“Science is all about thinking and observing and being curious. If we can raise a generation who keeps that curiosity and recognizes that everyone can be a scientist, we’ll get an awesome next generation.”
“Myth or Science: In the Eye of the Storm” airs tonight on CBC’s The Nature of Things.