Thodoris Anagnostopoulos is a geneticist, science communicator, social entrepreneur and public speaker. He is the President and Co-Founder of the Social Enterprise SciCo that operates internationally and aims to promote science through innovative ways to the general public.
By Mia Kollia
Translated by Alexandros Theodoropoulos
He has completed about 150 projects with his team, most important of which is the work he does for the dissemination of science in Greece and internationally, as well as the STEM fields and the empowerment of teenagers and young people. This is his main task.
He is also one of the few National Geographic Explorers in Greece. With his organisation, SciCo, he organised Science Festivals with activities for over 400,000 people, and with over 2000 volunteers. He is acknowledged as a National Geographic Explorer, he has received an Ashoka Fellow as a social entrepreneur, the Ecsite Award from the European Network of Science Centres and Museums and the British Council Social Impact Award. From 2013 to 2017 he was the President of the Onassis Scholars’ Association. In 2012, he was trained on climate change by former US Vice President Al Gore and he’s his ambassador for the Climate Reality Project.
Thodoris has travelled to 92 countries on all six continents.
In this interview he takes us with him on a journey to the path of knowledge and personal development by any means.
As a child I was very restless; I wanted to learn, to discover, to explore. This was clear and unambiguous. A second characteristic of me is that I had a special insistence on every goal. Now that I am raising children (one is 11 years old and the other 5 years old), I can see an overall general distraction… I was just the opposite. I set a goal and tried furiously even if I didn’t achieve it.
As a child, I was curious, but not extroverted. I was very shy and introverted. Now, I think extroversion and networking are probably some of my strongest traits. I say this because we are often stressed by various characteristics of our children, like "they don’t play, they stay alone in the corner, they don’t read, they don’t insist on anything", but somehow it happens and, along the way, many of them change. I cultivated communication and public speech a lot. I have been working on this skill for about fourteen years and I now feel it as something so simple, whether I have one person or five hundred in front of me.
Of course, some circumstances also played an important role. That is, if we have to look at it a little psychoanalytically, it is definitely related to how much you love and how much you feel what you are transmitting, as well as how much self-confidence and certainty you have when you say something you know deeply. Beyond that, the rest is about experience and multiple exposures in front of people. You foster this with experience.
Understanding the language of science in a country and making it popular is a multi-level exercise. It depends a lot on the educational system, which must be experiential in relation to the sciences, that is, to be STEM based (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics), so that one can deal with science well and effectively, even if they have only one hour of physics, chemistry or biology at school.
People must understand that what they do has an impact on their daily lives and they need to know why. If they just see some numbers and some formulas on a board, they won’t be able to make the connection, so they won’t know why they’re learning all these. A personal example: when I was a child I was taught all the theory and harmony on the piano. I learned everything by heart without understanding why. Forty years later I found out “why” when I felt the harmony in music. So, the approach has to change drastically.
The culture of trust in scientific bodies is also important; not concerning the individualities, but concerning every scientist who puts forward a position towards something. It is fundamental to listen to groups of scientists and academics. To have confidence in their decisions and not to be so disoriented by some journalists who often write whatever they want on social media, or by individual scientists who have their own theories, like for example the ones who work in the hospitals and don’t want to be vaccinated.
Now, how do you cultivate that? It's hard. We need trust and comprehension of science from an early age through the educational system. We need to be able to understand that science is dynamic. We need to understand, for example, the fact that, today, as a scientific body, I can tell you something and after a year I can tell you that this something is different to what it used to be, but this doesn’t mean that I am exposed because I changed what I said. I had new data this year and I tell you something new compared to what I had told you before.
Creativity and a free approach to science in school and university - that is the answer to everything. By far the most significant thing in the education system is not to try to stifle children's creativity. If we left creativity alone, it wouldn’t need so much hard work. In every social system, educational, the family, etc., the more a child grows up, the less space is left for creativity. This is a clear fact that has been proven by studies.
Children are born scientists. What is a scientist? Someone who experiments. What does a six-month-old baby do? They catch everything, put them in their mouth, look at them, observe and study them. The same goes for slightly older ages. Everything goes through control and testing. So indeed, children are scientists! But unfortunately, throughout their course, we cut spontaneity and at the same time creativity out of them. That’s why I find the most "open" educational systems interesting. Because they leave children with more freedom despite the "supermarket" school; like “we have this material, we have to stick to that”. Perhaps that makes the system more efficient, but I do not think it is the right choice.
I want to be informed constantly; for all the news, events, science, the environment and culture. From specific websites, from social media - everything is now served to you from everywhere. The difficult thing is not to be informed. The difficult thing is to read. I have read a lot in my life, but it took me several years to concentrate and reread literature or an essay. That is why applications that give book summaries flourish - I think that the issue of concentration is a general issue of the modern age. This is not just my issue, it is general. It is difficult for me to concentrate. What I said at the beginning was that my main characteristic as a child, concentration, is now very difficult for me.
I travel and learn. I discover and review. I could talk to some extent about what we call collective intelligence. What I cannot say or support in any case is that there are differences in intelligence depending on the country of origin. But I can say that collective intelligence depends on several factors. In a recent postgraduate course in Leadership, in the US, I had a module from which I learned that the part of collective creativity and intelligence depends on the so-called social perspective.
That means the level of perception that a population can have regarding human connection and empathy so that it can sympathise with the fellow man. Even more important is the level of diversity that can be found in a society. If you have a population that is very geographically and socially isolated, it has less variation, less diversity. And diversity helps a lot in collective intelligence. Thus, having different races, different types of people, different sexual orientations, generally different people, helps a lot.
I have travelled to over ninety countries. It is interesting that, in some countries, you think "oh, here I am". In others you feel like “okay, I’ve been here, I’ve taken a walk and now I’m glad that I’m leaving”. For example, my trip to North Korea was very interesting just because it is a country phenomenon. Even in Namibia, which is a beautiful African country, with an amazing safari, with the ability to do trekking, with interesting tribes, where you have a much greater experience than in North Korea, you wouldn’t stay for good. I think I would live in certain western cities. It is very strict what I will say: I like America but I wouldn’t stay, for example, in Alabama. I would live in New York or San Francisco. I would stay in London, Berlin, Barcelona.
I have a special love for tribes and wildlife. Therefore, it would be difficult for me to mention a historical monument in my separate memories. It was a powerful experience when we went and saw, free in nature, the gorillas in Uganda. You walk for hours in a jungle, without any protection and you see the gorilla, who is one of the closest primates to man, with his family! It is touching to see something that resembles homo sapiens; something that is there, in front of you, and you watch all the movements similar to yours. It's amazing.
The level of danger is very small. If you respect the animal there is no danger. It was also amazing in the Galapagos Islands. Being a biologist it was shocking to be on the islands where Charles Darwin made his first observations, the ones that led him to the Evolution of Species by “natural selection”. You also see some endemic species, animals that live exclusively in these places, and are not very afraid of humans. It's like being in a lively zoo without the bars. We combined the trip with sailing, so contact with nature was very strong.
I would say the same for the one week I spent in the Amazon, a place of great ecological importance. We lived in huts in the jungle from where we could really watch nature and listen to the sounds of it. This is a very powerful experience. Of course, I also lived through hard times; unique, but tough.
We were in Ethiopia, in the Omo Valley. Some primitive tribes had a custom according to which they were all under the influence of some tobacco at a feast, where it was an honor for women to be flogged by the wandering men. You could see their backs that were obviously injured. That was very hard.
I think one of the biggest difficulties I went through was that for about fifteen years, I couldn’t find exactly what I wanted to do. It took me a while and effort - and I even gave a talk called "Follow your Passion" in which I described exactly how I "crawled" for years. Yes, I was studying at the best universities with scholarships, but I hadn’t found out what I wanted to do and, for me at least, that was very problematic. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t know what to do to smile. I am not talking about superficial joy but about what makes you happy deep inside.
I believe that the more you deal with science, the more you distance yourself from God. Unfortunately, I don’t believe in god. And I say "unfortunately" because I believed for many years, both as a child and as a student and until I was 25-28 years old my life was much more comfortable. You are more relieved when you believe. In the process, however, if you put the facts down and deal with science, you don’t find that part to be realistic.
What to believe? That Jesus came here two thousand years ago? That for one part of the population of seven billion Jesus was the godsent and for another part it was another man? And what used to happen before that?
Religion has so many paradoxes, so many gaps, that it only ends up in "believe blindly and without doing any research". If you start researching it, it's over. If you have logic you understand that these things do not stand. To be honest, I cannot understand how some scientists can combine science with religion. I think a lot of people (even religious people) agree to some extent that religion is basically part of our culture and that these are customs and practices that we happened to inherit. For example, I happened to be born here, so I take communion. If I had been born in Egypt, I would have taken something else. It's nice to believe that there is something superior, but there is no proof about it.
I stayed outside Greece for 12 years. I wanted to return because I thought I had closed a big life circle in the UK. I like it here. The only thing I miss so much is the diversity, the collective intelligence you find in big cities of the West, such as Berlin, London or New York. On the other hand, generally in the Mediterranean and more particularly in Greece, there are very strong bonds between individuals - between family, between friends - stronger than in many other countries. It has been studied that these bonds are one of the main reasons regarding the high ranking in the level of happiness of a population.