Say hello to USPolymath!  

By Samantha Rachel Nah

On Thursday, 22 October 2015, the USP Chatterbox truly lived up to its name. People were leaning and lounging on every available surface, be it horizontal, vertical, or friend-shaped. Cozily buzzing with conversation, they passed around room-temperature Tetrapaks and bags of mini Snickers. All the furniture had been shifted to clear a relatively central space in which to set up a screen, a laptop, and a projector. Homemade, casual, earnest – these traits defined the inaugural session of USPolymath.

USPolymath is a brand new Ground Up Initiative started by three of our very own USP students, Devesh, Nicholas, and Jin Wee. “The three of us believed that a lot of people in USP had things to share that they were passionate about,” Devesh explained when asked how the idea came about. “We were so excited to listen to these cool ideas, and we thought the community would love to listen, too.”

In his presentation last Thursday, Devesh spoke about general relativity, mankind’s best understanding of gravity to date. Having interned at LIGO, the world’s largest gravitational wave detector, he was able to shed light on some of the unanswered questions and implications in the model.

It is already no mean feat boiling down the technicalities of one of the most influential ideas known to mankind to a level any listener can follow, without losing the spark of intellectual fascination. But Devesh, together with his fellow presenters Imran and Samara, had to do so in 400 seconds – that’s just 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

It’s called the Pecha Kucha presentation style, and as Nicholas humorously wrapped up the session by saying, it originated from two guys who decided that all too often, presentations simply went on for too long. Pecha Kucha demands that presenters be utterly focused and to the point: over the course of 20 images, each displayed for 20 seconds before automatically changing, they must compellingly introduce, develop and conclude their topic.

“It might be hard,” Imran reflected about the Pecha Kucha style, “but it’s worth the effort.” Imran especially faced difficulties trying to put his ideas into the strict format. His presentation posited a considered view of Shari’ah law that emphasised how its practices are not as barbaric and unjust as people might think, given the way recent events have misrepresented Islam. Initially insistent that he needed to display pages of text in order to communicate effectively, Imran was eventually able to reach a compromise in the content of his presentation.

Imran’s presentation was followed by one on feminism in the comic book industry, particularly superhero comics. Prepared by Samara, the slides contained examples spanning the influential feminist movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s, all the way to current series by major publishers.

“Sometimes you can’t formally study things like Shari’ah law and feminism in comics, because they might not be recognised as a field,” Imran suggested as an advantage of USPolymath for learning about new topics. “And I think it’s true to the USP spirit, if we can create this common space for sharing about things that interest us.”

Our Director, Prof Kang, was present for the session and had this to say about USPolymath: “It’s fascinating and intellectually exciting. I like that it doesn’t take a lot of time, and the topics are interesting. I also like that they’re recruiting, and reaching out to more students.”

That’s right – you can volunteer at tinyurl.com/USPolymath to speak at the next session, on any topic that interests you; there’s no expectation that you’ll be an expert in the field. There’s no need to feel apprehensive: as Samara urges, all it takes to pull off a good Pecha Kucha is to “Rehearse, rehearse, and rehearse!!! so you can get used to the timing of the slides”. Moreover, as co-founder Nicholas emphasises, “You don’t have to be a great public speaker; the Polymath Team will help you build a presentation to the best of our abilities. So you can share an idea with our community, have fun and learn new things along the way.”

The next session of USPolymath is in the works. What else is in store for the initiative? Might our very own professors join in the Pecha Kucha madness? Come on by to find out!

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