A New Kind of Genius – Joy Ng (The VH Interview)

Genius is a new popular science programme on National Geographic hosted by Professor Stephen Hawking. In the show, Hawking challenges a selection of volunteers to think like the greatest geniuses in history and solve some of humanity’s most enduring questions. we managed to catch up one of the experts on the programme, Joy Ng, to chat about the programme.

How did you first get involved in the Genius programme?

An email looking for participants for Genius was forwarded to me. It stated that they were looking for naturally inquisitive people to work on a science television series with Professor Stephen Hawking. Of course, I immediately contacted the casting producer. She interviewed me on the phone and invited me to be one of the volunteers within the series several weeks later.

What was it that appealed to you about Genius?

What appealed to me about working on Genius was the idea of conveying complex science concepts through big demonstrations. I’m a big fan of science shows so I was intrigued to see what ideas they wanted to tackle and how they would break it down to the public.

In addition, the idea of working on a programme with Stephen Hawking was so exciting. I admire him greatly. As well as being one of our modern day geniuses he has popularised theoretical physics, which I think is an amazing achievement. Although not everyone will know his theories, most people will know who he is!

Genius with Stephen Hawking.BLACK ROCK DESERT, NEV. - Volunteers; James Fitzsimmons, Joy Ng and CaTamira Babino test the Coreolous Effect machine.
Genius with Stephen Hawking.BLACK ROCK DESERT, NEV. – Volunteers; James Fitzsimmons, Joy Ng and CaTamira Babino test the Coreolous Effect machine.

How did you find working of Genius and did you learn anything during the making of it?

In our episode Cat, Jim, and I tackled the question ‘where are we?’ which means where are we in relation to our solar system and the universe. You might be thinking that most people learned this information at school. Most of us know that Earth is the third planet from the sun, that our solar system is embedded within the Milky Way galaxy, and that the Milky Way is one of many other galaxies. But learning through images and abstract numbers doesn’t give you the sense of just how vast the universe really is. During the making of Genius we not only worked out where we are in the cosmos but we literally went through the same process that once went through the world’s greatest minds who made these discoveries and that felt incredibly satisfying. I just kept on imagining what it would have been like to discover these things thousands of years ago.

But my biggest breakthrough wasn’t necessarily my ability to think like Galileo or Copernicus; it was my new realisation of how unbelievably small we are. We were able to visualise the vastness of the universe and this has really stuck with me. I often think about moments I had during the making of Genius when I was thinking ‘we are so small!’ and I absolutely love that feeling. There’s something meaningful about re-visiting science concepts through large and unique demonstrations and analogies.

For NASA Goddard you produced videos to translate the work there into presentations which non-technical people can understand. What is it that appeals to you about video as a medium in popular science?

Science is ridden with jargon and abstract concepts and I think video is a great medium to break down the complexities of science to the public because you have infinite creative freedom. You can literally making anything happen on screen. Through the magic of splicing images together you can transport your viewer to the depths of DNA replication or to an exploding star in the cosmos.

It must be exciting to be working in video in an age with such a rapidly changing technology; 4K, 8k, IMAX, 3D. Have you managed to get involved with any of those or other new technologies?

One of my recent projects at NASA involved me creating a video for a spherical screen called Science On a Sphere that is developed by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Viewers can walk around the sphere and see any part of it at any time. It pushed me to think about how to tell a story in a 3-D space instead of just a flat screen.

Genius with Stephen Hawking.BLACK ROCK DESERT, NEV. - Volunteers; James Fitzsimmons, Joy Ng and CaTamira Babino, looking inside a crate for a clue to the next demo.
Genius with Stephen Hawking.BLACK ROCK DESERT, NEV. – Volunteers; James Fitzsimmons, Joy Ng and CaTamira Babino, looking inside a crate for a clue to the next demo.

You describe yourself as a science storyteller. What is it that appeals about being able to translate complex issues into terms that everyone can understand?

Science is currently how humans make sense of the world but it often gets pigeonholed as being too complicated or boring. What motivates me is being able to break those barriers and convey what I think is legitimately interesting. I also think the nature of how we understand the world aka. do science is incredibly interesting.

Were you always interested in Science?

I’ve always had an interest in science but also many other things too. I have great curiosity for everything and can’t help but delve into learning new things all the time. But it can be distracting so I’ve been trying to become more focused recently.

You were very creative at school. Do you think that helps with your work in Science?

I don’t work in science as a scientist but I do work with scientists in communicating their work and I think creativity is important on both sides to solve problems and to conjure novel ideas. I don’t think creativity is something that some have and some don’t; I think we are all creative in some way.

There was a real downturn in Science student numbers in the UK a few years ago yet numbers are now seeing an incredible rise. Why do you think that is?

I’m not sure why numbers might be rising but from my personal experience, the more I see science integrated in popular culture the more science-related conversations I have with people. There may be an array of reasons from campaigns in getting more women in STEM to making further education more accessible to mature students. I think STEM education is important but I also see education within the arts as an important role in our society too.
10.Working for NASA you must be constantly surrounded by discoveries that make our own world and us as humans feel tiny and somewhat insignificant. Do you think a programme like Genius is good to remind us just how amazing things are on our own planet and in our own bodies?

A programme like Genius turns familiar (or old) scientific concepts to new and unfamiliar analogies, which I think is key in connecting with audiences and making these complex concepts memorable. I hope that this will inspire educators and teachers when they are trying to think of new ways to communicate science.

Genius with Stephen Hawking.BLACK ROCK DESERT, NEV. - Volunteers; James Fitzsimmons, Joy Ng and CaTamira Babino stand next to a replica of the sun.
Genius with Stephen Hawking.BLACK ROCK DESERT, NEV. – Volunteers; James Fitzsimmons, Joy Ng and CaTamira Babino stand next to a replica of the sun.

What are you next steps/ambitions?

I’d love to delve more into documentary film-making because I love conveying human motivations and emotions. I’m also interested in working with virtual reality because I think there’s a lot of potential in using NASA satellite data within that platform.
If you had one bit of advice for a teenager pondering on whether to take science education further or not what would it be?

Follow what interests you and explore your interest. There are so many jobs and industries that can be connected with something you’re interested in. For example, if you like surfing there are people who invent new materials for surfboards, people who design the branding for packaging, people who are making surfboards using recycled material, people who organize surf trips, and people who teach yoga at surf schools. The connections are endless.

If you don’t know what interests you then make the best effort you can to speak to people about their experiences. I’m endlessly inspired by other people’s work and you might come across a little spark from a short conversation with a stranger. If a little spark fires up, follow it.

 

Genius with Stephen Hawking on Saturdays at 7pm on National Geographic Channel