Science Communication

The (Second) Life Scientific

Therag Obviate is walking around the International Spaceflight Museum. It has an idyllic location on the edge of the island, the sun is setting over the sea and the place is unusually deserted. It’s probably because California is asleep. Surrounding Therag is a cluster of rockets from space programmes past and present. There’s a Soviet R-7 Semyorka next to one of the almighty Proton machines. Also here are United States launch vehicles including some 1950s Jupiter rockets, precursors to the rockets that powered the Apollo missions.

Therag is in Second Life. He is my avatar (his name is ‘Gareth’ in reverse). Second Life is the online virtual world in which avatars move between different islands, chat with each other, buy and sell things, work, party or learn. It is not a game. You don’t take part in missions, you don’t kill or get killed, no points are scored. Second Life residents just exist and hang out and do stuff.

Millions have signed up to Second Life over the years but having culled many of the spammers, bots and other miscreants, the environment has settled on an active user base of about 600,000. Despite being twice the population of Iceland, Second Life remains the virtual world that many have still never heard of. Meanwhile, some of the digerati in-crowd will tell you that Second Life is terribly old hat these days, just so 2007.

Yet, as you hang out in Second Life, around 50,000 fellow residents are wandering around at the same time. Just about every aspect of real life has a virtual counterpart in this space: government institutions, banks, concert venues, cafes, art galleries and holiday resorts.

And indeed Second Life offers much for anyone interested in science or how it is communicated. As a practitioner, I work in radio, that most traditional of the electronic media. But over the years, I have always wanted to explore communication and engagement at the fringes, especially through channels opened up by new technologies.

I first joined Second Life in 2006. Back then it was a decidedly clunky affair. Its servers struggled to keep up with the rapidly expanding user base. Landscapes took ages to load and poor old Therag had a tendency to freeze every few steps. Yet even then, I saw this place as a promising test bed for new approaches to communicating science. With my fellow avatars, I could sit in on live lectures where scientists in the real world streamed their webcams and Powerpoint presentations into Second Life. When their talks had finished, the speakers would often hang around for a chat.

And just as scientific communities cluster in places like Silicon Valley, Cambridge, Hyderabad or King’s Cross, I soon discovered that the same thing happens in Second Life. SciLands is an archipelago of about fifty islands, home to the virtual presences of big institutions like Berkeley, NOAA, Nasa, Loughborough University and indeed Imperial College. The latter has a lab where clinicians and students try out new approaches to personalised medicine. Whilst the researchers carry out their trials and attend lectures, visitors can help themselves to tours of the Second Health Hospital.

On a Sunday evening a few years ago, another avatar on SciLands tipped me off that the Naked Scientists radio show was about to broadcast nearby. I teleported to a particularly nice spot where under blue skies, deckchairs were arranged around a stage. The place was filling up quickly, so I grabbed a chair just in time. The radio show was going on air in the UK but also playing live into Second Life. So here were a load of avatars from around the world sharing a radio experience in the virtual world. One of the presenters responded to a comment on the Second Life instant messaging stream and a ripple of excitement spread through the assembled throng.

The Second Life experience now is smoother and more robust than in those glitch-ridden days of 2006. Therag eases his way between museums and social gatherings, effortlessly flying when distances are too great to walk. For the science communicator, Second Life offers all kinds of opportunities for novel forms of engagement. Think of it as another commons, another space where people gather. And where people gather, you have an audience, an interactive audience.

So, alongside your own engagement activities through Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, Tumblr or even face-to-face, feel free to pop into Second Life and hang out with the avatars. And if it gets too much and you need some time to yourself over there, the mornings are usually pretty quiet over by the rockets in the space museum.

Gareth Mitchell is a lecturer for the MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London.