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Hong Kong's Premier Science Communicator Is Not Doing an Autopsy of Her City

Hong Kong rarely has cold spells, but 2019 was shaping to be a chilly and combustible year.

Anti-government protesters have grown increasingly agitated, while unchecked police force has led to widespread international condemnation. Two university campuses have literally gone up in flames, the sieges leading to an unprecedented cooling of international relations and US sanctions. The University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) historic campus, where Dr. Karen Mak serves as a Lecturer, was thankfully spared aside from a few skirmishes. But the lines were increasingly blurred, between what was happening and what could happen, academia and battleground, hopeful innocence and subdued despair.

And so, a few weeks before Christmas, for her annual crime fiction assignment, Dr. Karen Mak asked her Forensic Science class students one question: How does one die?

One group of students countered: What if they got murdered by the Police?

The answer to that would be an autopsy with no bottom line, no morals, and no end in sight.


The cast of "Sidewalk Scientists" poses for a photo during the shooting of a Christmas special in December 2016. This was one of the few times Dr. Mak was able to join the show since her move to HKU. (Courtesy of Dr. Karen Mak)

Speaking up and speaking out is becoming more precarious than ever before in this freewheeling city, even for scientists. Dr. Mak happens to be one of the most public-facing and outspoken science figures in town. She became most well-known as a guest expert on “Sidewalk Scientist”, a prime-time variety show on TVB, Hong Kong’s dominant television broadcaster, bringing the publicity off network television as an internet personality.

I grew up a big fan of the “Sidewalk Scientist” when I was a kid, and I met Dr. Mak once in passing as a high-schooler at a science conference. But those were simpler times. By the time we finally met over Google Meet, I was 8,000 miles away in Atlanta, unable and unwilling to return home during the COVID-19 pandemic; Dr. Mak was, presumably, in one of Hong Kong’s many micro-apartments, preparing for “Science Night”, a weekly late-night talk show that she co-hosts on RTHK, Hong Kong’s increasingly embattled public broadcaster, or planning for the upcoming academic year.

This public-facing part of her career started with an email from her supervisor at the Hong Kong Baptist University, where she was formerly employed. An unpaid, underappreciated, and time-consuming experience researching for “Sidewalk Scientist” eventually landed her more camera-facing opportunities on the program. The original concept of “Sidewalk Scientist” can at best be described as an arranged marriage between “Charlie’s Angels” and “Emily’s Wonder Lab”, the popular new Netflix show. Despite being a sustained ratings success over the mid-2010s, as a trained scientist, Dr. Mak became acutely aware of the program’s flaws.

Shootings of three to four hours usually get hastily condensed into three- to four-minute fragments; Hongkongers have the reputation of being always in a hurry and perhaps so do TV producers who make science-adjacent programs. Dr. Mak recalled how her concerns over whether the heavily edited final product adequately explains the scientific truth would be dismissed by the producer (they claimed that the audience “would understand”). “In retrospect, we scientists were taken advantage of. Science was used as an attraction, and that somehow made the show incredibly popular. Perhaps the audience thought that they could learn a lot from watching the show, but from a rigorous scientific point of view, the direct