Interview with the astrophysicist and communicator of science – Vladimir Bozhilov

Vladimir Bozhilov - bulgarian communicator of science

Vladimir Bozhilov is one of the most famous Bulgarian astrophysicists, one of the first finalists of FameLab, a constant lecturer on Sofia Science Festival, one of the creators of the master’s program in Astronomy and Communication of Astronomy for Non-Specialists and much more. You’ve probably seen him talking on TV about one of his favorite topics – the Universe.

I interviewed him in May 2019 during the ninth edition of Sofia Science Festival.

Now you could enjoy the final result! 🙂

1. You are one of the most active communicators of science in Bulgaria. Will you tell me what take you along this road?

– When I was in my tenth year of school, I read the Stephen Hawking’s book „A Brief History of Time“ and unraveling the secrets of the universe became my big dream. That’s why I chose astronomy as my specialty at the Physics Faculty of Sofia University. However, FameLab lead me on the road of communicating science. In 2010 I saw a poster at the university about the upcoming edition of the competition FameLab. What attracted my attention was the fact that the previous year the winner was one of my lecturers – Venelin Kozhuharov. He is a man that I admire a lot. That’s why I decided to follow his example. During the competition, I also met other inspiring people, I realized how important it is to popularize our knowledge in a language that is understandable to the general public. Since then communicating science became my destiny.

2. One of your numerous communicating activities is your participation in the Sofia Science Festival. What made you such a permanent speaker on the event?

– Part of the rules of FameLab is the participation of the competition’s finalists as lecturers on Sofia Science Festival. In 2010 I won the second place, so I quickly found myself on the stage of the first edition of the festival in 2011. FameLab and the festival create a community of people with the same points of view. Once you become part of this community, communicating science becomes your incurable passion. That is why I have participated in every edition of the Sofia Science Festival for the last 9 years. Moreover, I can prove that through another example too. In 2010 Toma Shillianov was one of the other participators on FameLab. Nowadays, he is a scientist, a communicator of science and also a team leader of this year’s volunteers of the festival. Another proof that if you become a member of this community once, helping its development becomes one of your biggest aims.

3. What about the festival’s audience? How would you describe it? Does it change over the years?

– The people who come to the festival are different – from young children to retired people over 70 years old. They all ask questions, listen to the lectures, and watch the exhibitions with interest. The youngest, of course, ask the most complex questions, but it is a real pleasure to find a way to answer them. Moreover, their interest is what motivates us to continue with our activity. A great example is a boy who has been visiting the festival every year since its first edition. Since then, he has always been on the first lines, asking questions, absorbing what we say. In 2011 he was in his third year of school, and today he is graduating from the National Gymnasium of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and choosing his career area. It was the festival that influenced him to love so much the science. Examples like that prove that our efforts make sense. And what about the change? The lectures, the participants, the exhibitions increased, the festival gained more popularity, respectively, the visitors increased too. This is the only change that I see.

4. Why do you think that communicating science is so important?

– The science work is possible because of the taxpayers’ money. That’s why it’s important for people to know, to understand what they pay for. In addition, science is an integral part of our daily life, we carry it even in our pocket in the form of smartphones. In order to understand the world around them, people need to understand the scientific processes that happen in it. By presenting them in a simple and illustrative way, we facilitate this process. Last year, the festival included even a science-theater production for high school students. In addition, society needs to learn to think, to discern the truth and the lies. For example, to realize the contribution of astronomy to the mankind and to distinguish it from the false astrology; to know which doctors are trustworthy and that homeopathy is a placebo.

5. What about children, students and their interest in science? As you a lecturer at Muzeiko too, you must have spoken to many of them?

– Oh yes, I have had to answer the complex questions coming from a number of kids. There are many children with affinity to science. The most important is for parents and all of us members of the scientific society, to stimulate its development.

6. Another of your multiple projects is the creation of the master’s program in Astronomy and Communication of Astronomy for Non-Specialists at the Faculty of Physics of Sofia University. Could you tell me how the idea was born and how did you develop it afterwards?

Through the years a lot of people who had nothing in common with astronomy and physics but the dream to know more about the Space for example, have come to our faculty with the question of whether they could enroll in a Master’s program in our faculty. Although, that was impossible. That’s why with efforts of the whole team in 2016 we finally started this long-awaited Master’s program. Everyone with a grade over 4 for his/her bachelor’s degree is free to join us without a passing exam. The people who come to us are with different backgrounds – lawyers, biologists, sociologists, gynecologists, etc. The youngest one is a 23-year-old boy who enrolled this year. We’ve had also people over 60 years old. Obviously, the stars inspire everyone – no matter their age, profession or gender.

We teach these people a lot of dates and skills they can use in their work and at the same time we, the teachers, learn about a variety of areas, our students’ professional areas. Our lectures take place at weekends and days off, allowing the students to keep up with their working hours. However, we teach them also mathematics and physics which is a big challenge for some of them and they give up, but most of them manage it. We have about 20 new students annually, which is a great achievement. And the best thing is that through this specialty we are expanding the community of communicators of science. Actually, in the program there is a discipline Communication of science and I am the teacher.

7. Your messages don’t inspire only your lectures’ public, they reach also the TV viewers, the readers of print and web media. Could you tell me about your relationship with the journalists? What about their interest in science?

– The interest of the journalists in scientific matters is great and it is increasing. Personally, I receive hundreds of invitations for media appearances and interviews. So in 2012 the editor-in-chief of BBC Knowledge – Hristo Dimitrov, invited me to join their team. I accepted with joy and for a while I was a scientific editor, and then I replaced Hristo as editor-in-chief of the magazine until last year, when he came back to his position. My work for the magazine was a great pleasure for me, because of the huge amount of readers – the circulation is about 12,000 pieces a month, which means that I am getting the science closer to thousands of people through its pages.

Every facility in the direction of communicating science is useful. Currently I’m also a public relations expert at the Bulgarian National Science Fund (BNSF), and a National Contact Point for the Horizon 2020 „Science with and for society“ Programme. Mass media, public relations – these are basic ways of communication, so we – the scientists, must use and collaborate with them constantly in order to have a sustainable conversation with the society.

8. How do you see the future of science in Bulgaria?

Science is an international activity, so it is difficult to speak about science only and specifically in Bulgaria. Yet, yes, there is a future, but only if the state starts to allocate bigger funding for equipment, science researches and experiments of Bulgarian scientists.

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