As a science journalist, Eva Wolfangel has had her fair share of experience communicating complex scientific terms and ideas to the lay public. However, it was two years ago, during her time as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, that she really started thinking about newer, creative forms of storytelling.
Until then, Wolfangel had worked mostly with the written word. But at MIT, she began more deeply exploring other formats. She developed virtual reality spaces where audiences could interact with scientists as they work. And last year, after she interviewed a doctor at an underground Syrian hospital who had been the subject of a recent documentary, Wolfangel had a revelation of sorts: She realized the power of visual media to communicate science in ways that did not strip it of our lived experiences, that did not leave it cold and sterile.
So, this year, when Wolfangel had the opportunity to serve as curator of the SilberSalz conference — part of an international science and media festival in Germany aimed at fostering a culture of experimentation with science engagement — it seemed like a perfect marriage. Now in its fourth year, Silbersalz brings together scientists, filmmakers, and storytellers from all around the world to share ideas about the future of science communication. This year’s conference included case studies on using virtual and augmented reality for immersive storytelling, a talk by Tunisian feminist Aya Chebbi on the art of reaching diverse audiences, and a panel discussion on the art of science communication.
KSJ spoke with Wolfangel to learn more about her experience at SilberSalz and how the festival is transforming scientific storytelling. (This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
KSJ@MIT: What is SilberSalz, exactly?
Eva Wolfangel: SilberSalz is a two part event — a festival and a conference. The festival lasts about a week, normally in June. But this year it was in September in Halle, which is a city in former eastern Germany. So during this week, you show the public award-winning science documentaries everywhere in the city. They had, for example, an old mall, which is empty. So they built a pop up cinema into this former mall. It is all really impressive.
The conference on the other hand is closed to the public. Participants of the conference are science journalists and documentary makers as well as science communicators and scientists who want to communicate better. At the conference we are working on the future of science journalism and communication. So typically we discuss interesting new formats and we take pitches from film makers as well as scientists about documentaries they wish to produce. So the idea behind both the festivals and the conference is to help produce more and even better science documentaries, explore new formats and, not just that, but also create experiences for the local community as well as for audiences around the world.
KSJ: How did you get involved with the conference?
EW: When I was at MIT for the KSJ Fellowship, I started really thinking about how we as journalists can communicate science effectively. How can we write and report about science in a way that makes it interesting for the audience, and that makes them open to listen and see it? And this led to me getting really interested in new formats of storytelling. That’s how I started to experiment with virtual reality for example. How to reach the people is a big discussion here in Germany, too – especially since we’re seeing, during the pandemic, a growing science skepticism in the public. So when the organizers of SilberSalz approached me last year to see if I could be a moderator for a part of the SilberSalz conference, I was so excited to do it. And this year, I was involved in organizing and curating the whole SilberSalz conference, where scientists and filmmakers pitched ideas for documentaries and received feedback from other storytellers in the audience. It was great. It was a ton of work, but it was really nice.
KSJ: How has SilberSalz influenced your work as a science journalist?
EW: So far, I’ve mostly been a science writer, except for some radio pieces. But I have never produced a documentary. So when I was at the festival last year and I did some interviews with documentary filmmakers, I realized that this is really another way to reach people, parallel to writing or producing radio pieces. What I think is truly unique about these documentaries is that they try to reach people from an emotional side using this creative perspective. They’re not really a new format — a classical one actually. But, at SilberSalz, we’re talking about how we can make these documentaries an interactive experience using AR and VR or experimenting with sounds. So I was deeply inspired to do a radio piece myself and to explore creative ways of using sound, because sound can be really immersive too. The piece was about the difference between dreaming and thinking and the state of our mind and brain during the onset of sleep.
I interviewed Adam Horowitz for this piece, who is at the MIT Media Lab, and he had made a device that could influence your dreams. That brought me to many other scientists who are working on dreams, and finally I participated in an experiment at University of Tübingen in Germany: I had to sleep in an MRI machine with an EEG headset on and listen to an audio book during sleeping. As I lay there, I was thinking about pieces of the audio book, but also had my own thoughts. And, of course, I started dreaming about the content of the book. For the radio piece I experimented with all those sounds from this situation to make it as immersive as possible for the audience.
KSJ: What are your hopes for SilberSalz moving forward?
EW: At the center of it, the festival is about new formats and experiences in science storytelling, and virtual reality and other immersive media are now a big part of that, too. The pandemic showed us the need for that as well as the limitations. We had to try hard to make an in-person event happen and I’m so grateful that it worked because it was so important for everyone who was joining us to be able to interact with each other in the real world.
So far, I’ve seen so much potential in the people who have joined us and I’m hoping that this festival becomes even more of a place for innovation when it comes to formats [for communicating science]. I really hope that we can make this virtual reality and augmented reality journalism bigger — and have a diversity of other new formats and media that can make science communication better.
Shafaq Zia is a research associate with the Knight Science Journalism Program and a student in the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing.