Learning from others

It’s perhaps an inevitable part of the human condition that, with the exception of a few highly self-aware individuals, we tend to think that we know best. Now it might, of course, be that we do know best when it comes to certain things. But it might equally be the case that we do not. And no matter how skillful or experienced we may be in our own particular fields, I’d wager that there’s always something that we could learn.

This was brought home to me this week when I was writing an article for a publication that I enjoy reading. It’s not the topic of the article that’s relevant here – its about organising public outreach activities in astronomy, which is one of the things I do when I’m not Sockmonkeying around – but rather the way in which I went about researching it.

I could, of course, have written Simon’s guide to organising astronomy outreach activities. I mean, I’ve organised a fair few and have a decent enough idea of what works well and what doesn’t. But do I know everything? Am I the absolute guru when it comes to getting members of the public enthusiastic about the night sky. Sadly, no.

So I decided to pick the brains of some of my fellow astronomers. I contacted some people I know. I contacted some people that they know. And I put out a plea for help on various website fora and message boards. Then I waited. And, almost instantly, I got swamped.

From the avalanche of responses I received, I learned three things.

Firstly, one person can know quite a lot, but a group of people can know an enormous amount. Everybody who contacted me had some useful ideas, but collectively they came up with an astounding volume of insightful comments and suggestions. Far more than I – or anyone else, I would imagine – would have come up with on their own.

Secondly, people are overwhelmingly generous with their time and enthusiasm when it comes to sharing their skills and expertise. I’ve spent several hours over the last few days talking with people over the telephone, email and Skype. All of them have been busy people, but all of them have found time to speak with me. And I’m sure this doesn’t just apply to astronomers.

And finally, it has become painfully apparent that there’s absolutely no way I can fit everything I’ve learned this week into a 1,500 word article. I can pick out highlights, sure, but that’s going to have to be it. So look out for Simon & Co.’s guide to designing and organising astronomy outreach events, volumes one to ten, in a bookshop near you…

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