Nov 17, 2013

Terence’s Stuff: My 15 Minutes of Fame

I recently won the Australian Prime Minister’s Prize for Science. This was widely covered by the mass media, so I got a brief glimpse of what politicians and celebrities experience daily. I had a three-minute video made about me, I was on several national TV news shows, including THE NEWS…BUT NOT AS YOU KNOW IT (they led with He’s written a bunch of internationally renowned theoretical papers that almost no-one has ever read, and ended asking Does having a beard help you in Science? —right on both counts.) National newspaper chains picked up the story, with photos [and he made it into a cartoon (see below)—Ed], and I made many “appearances” on radio shows around the country. One newspaper ran a photo of me next to images of O. J. Simpson and Ronald Ryan, the last man executed in Australia. Most were well written and informative. The reaction from my fellow statisticians was very positive.

Let me begin by describing the slightly surreal process. Most of my interaction with the media took place in Australia’s capital, Canberra, much in or around its Parliament House. Inside this building is a large press gallery, which has radio and TV studios. Most Australians live in capital cities a long way from Canberra, and that’s where the majority of the news reporters live too. So I would be in a studio and the people to whom I was talking would be elsewhere (“We cross now to Terry Speed in our Canberra studio.”) I’d have an ear-piece in one ear, and then look, smile and gesture animatedly at a red dot in the dark room, listening to my interviewers through that one ear. Not easy.

As for my “live” radio appearances, they could take place anywhere: in a studio, outside the Parliament, in my hotel, or in a car in between, for I’d be talking into a cell phone. Interviews with newspaper reporters were easier: they too were on a phone, but they weren’t broadcast live. On only two occasions out of a very large number did I actually meet a journalist face-to-face.

So much for the words. What about the images? Well, I re-learned one thing I knew from past experience: all images in the media are contrived in some way or another. I suppose that showing us as we really are is unutterably boring. There were the obligatory “nerd shots” of me and a colleague staring at a terminal, me leafing through a book (Fisher’s Collected Papers!), writing on a whiteboard or a glass wall or door. I’d be asked to walk slowly, look to the ceiling and then move my head slowly downwards, turn this way or that, hold my glass of champagne up to the others. Stretching out my hands or arms was good, looking serious was bad, and of course everything was repeated many times.

Was it all worthwhile? One thing was clear: lots of people saw, heard or read about my prize-winning. My wife and I take our morning coffee in one place on weekdays, a different place on Saturdays, and a third place on Sundays. The baristas at all three places knew my news, and were pleased to share in it. The same was true for my bread store, and many other places. One can only be impressed with the reach of the mass media. I got emails from people I know but haven’t seen for over 50 years. All of the above and presumably many more saw the word “statistician” (or “maths whiz”, “number cruncher” or “jack of all trades”) in close proximity to “science” and “PM’s prize”. Can this be bad? One story was headed Is it possible to add statistics to science? You can count on it. There were many more-or-less accurate descriptions of what I do. The message in Tukey’s remark that “the best thing about being a statistician is that you get to play in everyone’s backyard” really got through. I hope that might inspire some young people to stick with maths and take up statistics. What was especially gratifying was the response from colleagues, summarized in this extract from an email: There seems to be a general glow of happiness in the math/stat community … for the general recognition of stats/math in the sciences.

I conclude that my media exposure was well worth it.

Will this blip have any lasting effect? That is hard to tell at this stage: my experience had no controls! I have been approached to help inspire school-kids to stick with maths and science, I have been asked to let myself to be considered for TEDxSydney 2014, and more like this. What will constitute lasting success? A weekly or daily Statistics show, a Statistics channel, a Statistics network? Clips on YouTube, one of which goes viral? Or, an increase in math/stat enrolments?

I’ll wait and see.

Crikey! Is that Terry Speed in a cartoon?

Terry Speed featured in a cartoon in the Australian magazine Crikey by cartoonist First Dog on the Moon. For anyone needing a pointer about the cartoon: Tony Abbott is the Australian Prime Minister; Tim Flannery was head of the recently disbanded Climate Commission. Terry Speed, with his enormous brain full of sciencey numbers (and beard) probably needs no introduction…

Reproduced with permission from www.crikey.com.au

2 Comments

  • [...] where he analyses data from cancerous cells. Terry writes about the attention he received in Terence’s Stuff (and features in a [...]

  • [...] of the prime minister’s prize for scientist Terry Speed describes media coverage of the award, saying that “lots” of people saw it and that “it was well worth [...]

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