Whales in NY Harbor, Part III

Blue Whale, copyright iStockphoto.com/roclwyrIn our corner of Brooklyn, we’ve been waiting for our local whale sighting. But it looks like it just might be a matter of time. According toNY Daily News article, local boat owners are already making money off a revenue stream that seemed confined to calmer waters: whale watching tours.

I’ve posted before about the acoustic evidence that whales are living right here in the busy New York shipping lanes. Christopher Clark and colleagues listened in on the giant mammals with underwater microphones and recorded a complex chorus of several species. But lack of funds has paused any follow-up research.

Once the weather gets warmer, I’ll try to time my harbor walks for whale sightings  and bring along my binoculars. But I hope we and the whales can adapt to each other. I’d like to keep cetaceans in my neighborhood.

Image credit:  iStockphoto.com/roclwyr


Stop, Think and Listen

So, who is your audience? My whole workday can be focused around that simple yet complicated question.

As I’m crafting a stream of words for an article, I’m lining them up against a mental picture, a mini-dossier, of the person will read them. On any given day, I might spend my morning writing sentences for PhD scientists and my afternoon constructing word pictures for school-age children. That’s a huge leap, and I don’t know many science writers who routinely bridge that chasm. But if I lose my picture of my audience, I lose my focus.

Today I’ve been thinking about a workshop that I’m developing for early career scientists to help them deal with the day-to-day communications challenges in their careers from building collaborations with colleagues to describing their work for policymakers, the media, and the general public. As I’m thinking about what I’ll present, I’m realizing how much I need to emphasize building that picture of your audience. Before you start talking, you have to start listening.

It’s so easy to forget the listening part. Maybe you’re having a conversation over a cup of coffee, and it’s easy to just talk instead of ask questions and then actively process what the other person has to say. Sometimes it’s hard to make time to read and think outside a very defined topic area. But as you listen and think you gather the vital clues that serve as the foundation of that mini-dossier: What do this person and I have in common? How do we see the world differently? How might we be able to work together?

Those are the questions that I think will most help the scientists in my workshop understand the concept of audience. But though my questions as a journalist are more about gathering information and insights to present in another form, I also need to remind myself to pay attention and not to talk too much.

I just stuck a post-it above my computer monitor: Stop, think and listen.


Almost Saturday Science Video: A Möbius World

Möbius stripSeveral years ago, my husband introduced me to Flatland, Edwin Abbott Abbott’s novella about a two-dimensional polygon world that also ventures into a single dimension. The social satire goes far beyond geometry, but it’s also a fascinating mental leap into a world with no depth.

In a Flatland-esque homage, Vi Hart has created a video of a Möbius world based on a triangle who lives on the infinite loop with a half twist. Most math classes pull out these strips at some point, but the creativity here comes in the narrative loop that Hart creates.

Who is this woman? Ken Chang profiled her this week in the NY Times Science section. She’d like to become “an ambassador for mathematics.” And  her audience includes teenage girls. Very cool.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons: David Benbennick

UPDATED: Video now embedded.


Science at the Circus

X Bud Roses Troupe, Credit: Bertrand Guay/Big Apple Circus
X Bud Roses Acrobat Troupe at the Big Apple Circus

We finally went to see the Big Apple Circus last week before they finished up their run at Lincoln Center. Though I’d been to larger 3-ring circus performances, I love the intimacy of this single-ring show, where you can connect with the facial expressions of the clowns and marvel at the strength, talent, and skill of performers within 50 feet of your seat. They charmed me just as thoroughly as many of the younger viewers who sat nearby.

We also spent three evenings in November watching PBS’s series Circus, a documentary that followed the Big Apple Circus through an entire season. Great stories and a wonderful picture of the lives of modern performing nomads. If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to go on the road with an extreme act, now you can latch on  for a few evenings from the comfort of your living room.

The circus also provides an entertaining way to think about physics. PBS caught on with several educational science videos that they made to accompany the Circus series.

Newton’s laws of motion were never so funny as when they’re presented as part of a dog act. To illustrate Newton’s 3rd Law, the dog and Luciano’s butt exert equal and opposite forces.

Watch the full episode. See more Circus.

Check out the  treasure trove of internet information about both the history of the circus and circus science.

Image Credit: Bertrand Guay/Big Apple Circus


New Year’s Blogwarming

photo courtesy of camknows on flickr

Frequent visitors to Webb of Science have probably already noticed the new digs, but you can now consider the new blog & website fully launched. I’ll continue to improve the site, but it’s time for the official blogwarming.

A friend and email subscriber asked me, “So, why the move?”

  • With my website (sarahannewebb.com) and the WordPress.com blog, I had two internet homes. I decided I wanted to live at one address.
  • I wanted the flexibility of self-hosting my site, and overall, having everything in one place will save me money. A win-win overall.
  • I hope that visitors who found me through my website will enjoy visiting the blog and that blog visitors will learn more about my other work.

Welcome, feel free to roam around and comment if you like. I hope you’ll visit again soon!


Snow: the marvel of frozen water

Credit: Electron and Confocal Microscopy Laboratory, Agricultural Research Service, U. S. Department of Agriculture

From my unplowed street in New York City last week, two feet of beautiful fluffy white stuff morphed into frustration if you actually needed to leave the house. But secretly snow still reduces me to an 8-year-old child every time I see a few flakes. I grew up in Florida where I rarely saw a few pellets and never made a snowman or snowangels until sometime in college. Nor did I have to shovel  the disappointing aftermath, gray ice-slush hunks of industrialism on asphalt.

Snowflakes form six-sided moments of magic that come and then waft away, forcing us to slow down, whether we want to or not.

I’m not the only one who got swept away with the snow this week.

For the final truth about snowflakes is that they become more individual as they fall—that, buffeted by wind and time, they are translated, as if by magic, into ever more strange and complex patterns, until, at last, like us, they touch earth. Then, like us, they melt.