Science and the Sydney

Monday 15th May came with a very, very early start. With my taxi booked for 4.30am, I really needed an early night. Unfortunately though, sleep didn’t arrive, so it was a Laurie-shaped shadow that kissed a sleeping RJ, and crawled out the door, dragging a case behind me. With no traffic to slow us down, the cab made it to Wellington Airport in just 25mins. I walked past Smaug, checked-in in rapid time….but forgot to ask for a window seat. Despite kicking myself, I headed off in search of coffee, passing under two Great Eagles (one piloted by Gandalf). Two large flat whites later, and I finally started to feel human.

Yes. These really, really are in Welly airport
Yes. These really, really are in Welly airport

I was at the airport because I was off to Sydney for a few days, invited by the Committee for Sydney – a not-for-profit, independent think tank who want to make Sydney a more liveable and sustainable global city, by promoting new ideas around urban policy. Their Director of Advocacy, James Hulme, had come across a review of SATC, and after buying a copy, approached me to ask if I’d give a talk on it. I was only too delighted to accept! I was mainly drawn by the diversity of the Committee’s membership – it includes major companies, universities, not-for-profits, government departments and cultural, sporting and marketing bodies. I knew it’d be a great opportunity to meet, and share ideas with, some fascinating people.

So once we had a date in the calendar, the Committee’s events team leaped into action! Just a few weeks after the initial approach, James and his team had booked my flights, secured a venue, and lined up a panel to lead a discussion / Q&A session with the audience. In the meantime, I started to work on the talk itself. I like to personalise my talks for each location – not the most efficient approach, I grant you, but it’s a lot of fun, and I get the feeling that the audience enjoy it too. Alongside the CfS event, Adam Kirkman, my publicity person at Bloomsbury Australia, was very hard at work, lining up opportunities for me to publicise the book. Something that you might not know is that, as a person with something to ‘sell’ (in my case, a book), its pretty rare that media appearances come with any pay. So, that means that I very often have to say no to things (because I’m a sole trader). Luckily though, on this occasion, I could fit the (unpaid) promo around a paid activity (the talk), so it worked out well. Anyway, its fair to say that Adam did a flippin fantastic job – with THREE radio appearances AND a live TV interview booked in!

So as I nursed those two coffees in Wellington airport, I wasn’t feeling too sorry for myself – with all this ahead of me, I couldn’t fail to be excited! After an uneventful flight, I arrived in Sydney refreshed, and headed straight to the train station. It was rush-hour, so it was jam-packed – my inner Londoner felt warm and squishy 🙂 I was staying right in the centre of Sydney’s CBD, so I passed through some awesome old stations, including Museum and St. James. More London-feels ensued!


After departing at Wynyard (which I later found out has/d a wooden escalator!!) I dodged the tram works, and headed to my hotel. My plan to nap was boosted by seeing the gorgeous room, but with the sun coming out, my city-explorer-self couldn’t sit still. I dumped my bags and headed down to Circular Quay, to see the glorious Harbour Bridge and the iconic Opera House. I treated myself to some macrons, and a glass of bubbly, and followed the path around to Mrs’ MacQuaries chair and then explored the Botanic Gardens. With two very busy days ahead, I had a much needed early night.20170515_115659

Next morning, I was off to Network Ten to make my Aussie TV debut! A fancy hairdo and lots of makeup later, the nerves started to kick in. Once I was called forward to take my place, Adam turned into a paparazzi and took lots of pics of the interview. Some of the questions were a bit…unexpected… but I think it went pretty well. You can judge for yourself though – the video is on YouTube!

After a coffee and catch-up with Adam (this was the first time we’d met in person!) I decided to walk back to my hotel – I’ll never get sick of exploring new areas in a city! That afternoon, I walked to The Rocks – an old industrial part of the city, that sits under the bridge. It was ace. I love the bridge so damn much. My talk was that evening, so I spent the rest of the day working on my slides. The event itself was in the AMAZING Powerhouse Museum – part of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) – with drinks in the shadow of a steam train (I was in heaven). Before the talk, I recorded a podcast with the committee’s CEO Tim Williams, which will appear on their website very soon. In the talk itself, I highlighted what I feel are Sydney’s Top 3 challenges – Air Quality, Traffic, and Housing – and gave examples of how science and technology are being used to solve them elsewhere.

Afterwards, I took my seat on a panel with three others: Mathematician-turned-urban-planner Michael Comninos, Director of MAAS Dolla Merrillees, and Vice-Chancellor and President of Western Sydney Uni, Prof Barney Glover. Though we all had different views on how we can meet the challenges facing our cities, it was a really dynamic, memorable discussion. And the audience got heavily involved too. One of the party – Jess Scully, a Councillor for the City of Sydney – tweeted lots of pics / quotes. The discussion spilled over into the foyer, and onto the streets of the city. My fellow panel member Michael kindly walked me back to my hotel so that we could keep chatting about urban planning, and Barney’s already working on getting me to visit WSU!

The next day was all about radio! Adam brought me to ABC studios to meet the legend that is Dr. Karl. We exchanged and signed books and then took part in live ‘ask a scientist’ phone-in sessions with two regional radio shows. Not knowing what the callers were going to ask us was terrifying, but ultimately, loads of fun. Karl is a remarkable man – we had some fascinating conversations, and I’m looking forward to meeting up with him in September, when we’re both speaking at New Scientist Live. Next up was Afternoons with James Valentine. Though only 10 mins long, this was one of my favourite ever interviews about the book. James was an informed and generous interviewer, and we got on really well. His team also (very kindly) sent me the MP3 of it, so that I could share it with you all…. so here you go (just press play):

After that, I was extremely lucky to have a private tour of the Powerhouse Museum – huge thanks to Leann for organising it, and to Matthew and Nina for being my guides! If you ever get to Sydney, don’t miss out on this place – it is wonderful! Work-wise, that was it really. A jam-packed, but incredibly productive few days, dashing around Sydney! On Thurs morning, I took the double-decker train north to Newcastle (FYI, many of the seats on these trains are reversible, which blew my tiny mind) to spend time with my lovely friends Emily & Joe, and their daughter Isabel, and wider family. A trip I’ll never forget!