Category Archives: how it's served up

Cocktail hour in the Facebook age

Whether you’re a scientist, a writer, or a science communicator, most of us spend some time at conferences, or more appropriately noshing on cheese, fruit and other snacks, and sipping free wine or beer at the end of the day. And then depending on how well you know the other people in the room, you start conversations about who you are, what you do, or what you’ve been up to lately.

Last Friday, I mingled in one of these rooms, networking with my colleagues, and I was struck by how Facebook is changing these types of conversations.

First of all, I don’t routinely connect with my work colleagues on Facebook (usually Twitter or LinkedIn, first). Maybe they chose to connect with me, or I’ve had enough conversations with them that I chose to connect with them there. I’m not unusual. A Pew Internet study indicates that about 10 percent of our “friends” are colleagues. But I ran into several of them last week. And when I made conversation, I realized that many of the things that were once polite conversation starters are now old news because they’ve already had a life on Facebook.

With one colleague we almost had a little joking game about it, she says, “How are you? I saw on Facebook that your husband finished up his Ph.D. and you’re still making all that pottery.” Check and check. “So what else is going on with you?”

But I also don’t assume that people stalk my Facebook page or my Twitter feed. So, if you offer up information that already appeared elsewhere, are you being social and looping people in on life information that they might not have heard? Or are you that boring person droning on about information that the other person is hearing for the third or fourth time? Social media offers opportunities to connect with people we might never meet otherwise, and I see that as primarily positive. But it also can give us a sense of knowing people when we’ve never met them in person or a false sense that I’ve had a conversation with someone when I haven’t.

In certain ways, I feel like this idea isn’t incredibly different from my experience as a freelancer, working closely with editors who I only communicate with via email or phone. I remember meeting one long-time editor at a conference a few years ago. He was standing 10 feet from me, but asked loudly, “Is Sarah Webb here?” I’d probably written at least 15 articles for him by that point, and it was funny but natural that he wouldn’t recognize me in a crowded room.

Maybe as a journalist I’m oversensitive to the idea of what is news. But I don’t think we can completely ignore that choice to share information, and that nagging question of whether other people are interested and whether we’re beating a dead horse. For now I think I’ll take my cocktail hour lead from my colleague. Here’s what I know, and what else is new?

Image courtesy of public-domain-image.com

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Science Communication Without Borders: reflections on ScienceOnline 2012

 I’m hardly a newbie to science communication. But last week was my first trip to ScienceOnline. The energy buzzing around that conference for 72 hours made me flash back a decade to when I was still in a chemistry Ph.D. program but desperate to reboot my career without leaving science behind.

At that point, I knew I wanted to think about broader science questions and communicate science to more audiences. So I spent time working in a hands-on science museum, took a science journalism course, and eventually launched my science writing career. But even though science writing has fewer defined boundaries than the research world does, I still run into cultural norms that don’t always fit with how I view myself. For example, many journalists will tell you that their core responsibility is to inform, but not to educate, the public. I can see where the idea comes from, but I firmly believe that education is an important part of what I do. As a result, I’ve continued to keep my hand in museum or exhibit work, or I try to keep writing for children in my mix of projects. I’m not a professional educator, but if I’m doing my job well, I’m a stealth educator.

ScienceOnline 2012 provided a Science-Communication-Without-Borders experience: scientists, journalists, bloggers, educators, and many people who hyphenate those categories, all coming together to discuss issues questions and how we think about all the issues of taking the ideas we’re passionate about and bringing them to broader audiences. It’s not just that people are friendly, but by virtue of being at an Unconference and knowing the diversity of perspectives, people are set up to look at their work and assumptions from a new perspective. I’m still a journalist, but I’ve always benefited from my past and seeing the scientist side of the equation. Because I’m still an educator at heart, Science Online brings me into a fold of people who make that their life’s work.

So other than coming back to my home office with a renewed sense of enthusiasm, what did I take away from Science Online?

Nuggets of writing craft:

  • In a session about assembling book research, David Dobbs (Twitter: @David_Dobbs) offered an incredibly low-tech tip for a high-tech meeting: keep a journal. At the end of each day, sum up what you’ve learned and what you found intriguing in that day’s work. Trust nothing to memory, he says, and those summaries will help you find key thematic connections.
  • He and Deborah Blum (Twitter: @deborahblum) also led an amazing session about writing structure with both visual and audio analogies for crafting stories. Structure is visual, musical, and a bit like a chess game. That mix of beauty and strategy keeps me coming back every day. (If I find a link to audio or video from that session, I’ll follow up and post it).

Nuggets of Tech and Traffic:

  • For techie tips from the book research session: check out Maryn McKenna‘s tumblr post here. (Twitter: @marynmck)
  • Explainers, articles that offer background, are great tools for providing more context on your site. Not surprising. They’re also great tools for driving traffic. If you point out an explainer, those links get more hits. If you point out an explainer and directly encourage your reader to click on it, even better. I believe that nugget emerged from a back and forth between Maggie Koerth-Baker (Twitter: @maggiekb1) and Bora Zivkovic (also known as the Blogfather, Twitter: @BoraZ).
  • The e-book world is exploding, and I love reading on my Kindle (I don’t mean that as a product endorsement. I had fun playing with my dad’s iPad over the holidays, too.). The ways for writers to publish their own work for these devices are expanding. There’s Apple’s iBooks Author, but read the fine print about being locked into their store. The Atavist, publisher of long form e-journalism, is also beta-testing software that would allow people to publish their work in any of the current e-formats. See more on that here, and learn more from this blog post by Christopher Mims over at Technology Review. (Christopher is on Twitter at @mims). The conference wiki also has an incredible list of links and information on e-book publishing.

My post conference thoughts are still simmering, but I’ll continue to use those 3 days as motivation NOT  to box myself in. And I also just solidified my connections with people I can call on when I want to think outside my comfort zone.

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A Glimpse of our Space Future

Sputnik1
Sputnik 1, the little Russian satellite that launched the space race in 1957

The American Museum of Natural History‘s new exhibit, Beyond Planet Earth, which opened last Saturday through August 12, 2012, provides a window through the past and an optimistic glimpse at the future of space exploration. As I moved through the historical portion at a press preview last Tuesday, Russian spacecraft pinged, and news reports captured the excitement and enthusiasm of historical moments, press conferences that opened up the world beyond our atmosphere.

I grew up in Florida in the Space Shuttle era, but I never saw a shuttle launch. My family tried to go once, and we thought we’d miss it because of traffic, only to arrive just in time to have the launch scrubbed seconds before scheduled liftoff. Years earlier I’d watched the TV enraptured in my elementary school library as the first Space Shuttle launched. I remember slipping on ice between two of my middle school classes  on a frigid morning in January 1986 — within a couple of hours word spread through the hallways of the Challenger explosion. So my personal piece of space nostalgia came when I walked by the case with the frangible nuts– the piece of the space shuttle that released the engine and rocket boosters and allowed the spacecraft to be reusable.

In many ways, the Space Shuttle was my window on exploration, on space, on science. The  future of understanding worlds beyond Earth seems far less focused, and though exciting and innovative, far less certain.

Sarah with rover
Sarah with the AMNH's Mars Exploration Rover

I paused at the Mars Exploration Rover long enough for a photo. Spirit and Opportunity launched the same year that I started my science writing career, and that mission marks a very personal milestone: a new career, a new adventure, a personal exploration.

But the real meat in this exhibit comes through the journey into the future, a world of Kevlar-sided Moon-homes the size of camping trailers, liquid mirror telescopes, the technology to provide enough water to drink on the Moon or beyond.

The Virgin Galactic Spaceplane: the future for astronauts and space tourists?

I had never thought about mining asteroids, but space mining for rare elements for cell phones and electronics seems plausible, maybe. After our recent near-Earth asteroid experience within the last two weeks, one interactive game that allowed me to use various strategies, bombs and mirrors to divert such disasters.

My asteroid diversions probably line up with Dennis Overbye’s inner 6-year-old boy delight at bombing Mars (see his New York Times review). The exhibit includes a touch table that allows you to terraform Mars, by building factories, setting off bombs. It took me a while to get to a point where such effects might make Mars warm enough to be comfortably habitable. And I couldn’t help but wonder, is this a good idea?

I spent the most time looking at the new Curiosity rover that’s heading to Mars next weekend and learning about the prototype for a Mars spacesuit. Dava Newman of MIT talked about the suit that uses mechanical pressure against the skin instead of a pressurized dough-boy look. The resulting suit works like high-tech athletic gear, sleek and far more streamlined for moving and climbing.

BioSuit by MIT Aeronautics

At the press conference before the  preview last Tuesday, astronaut Mike Massimino talked about his early interest in space exploration that came out of his childhood visits to the American Museum of Natural History: “There were no astronauts living on my block in Long Island.” This exhibit is a lovely tribute to explorations past and a look at the best possible future. I hope that future generations have the same chance to explore worlds beyond Earth.

Photo credits:

Sputnik: © AMNH\R. Mickens

Sarah and Rover: Carol Milano

Spaceplane and BioSuit: © AMNH\D. Finnin

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Biology on a Dinosaur Scale

Titanosaur nest

Last week, along with a group of other journalists, I got a sneak peek at The World’s Largest Dinosaurs, an exhibit that opened on April 16 at the American Museum of Natural History and will be open until January 2. This exhibit departs from the traditional dino-formula of towering skeletons by asking questions about the biology that supported the growth and maintenance of those massive bodies.

That’s not to say that there aren’t big dinosaurs. The model of the Mamenchiosaurus strains the room proportions, but the best part is her double-role as a screen for videos that describe how she breathed, the hundreds of liters of blood coursing through her body and 30-ft-long neck, and how she digested hundreds of pounds of food each day.

But though Mamenchiosaurus is daunting in size, she’s positively awe-inspiring once you get to the exhibit where you push a pump that simulates the heart that would pump her blood. I managed to keep her going for a few heartbeats, but I soon got a warning message: “The dino is dizzy.” I didn’t last much longer.

Mamenchisaurus at the AMNH's The World's Largest Dinosaurs

In a quick conversation with respiratory biologist, Dr. Steve Perry, I learned about their über-efficient lungs. Like birds, these dinosaurs likely had lungs with two chambers. As a result, they could absorb oxygen both as they inhaled and as they exhaled, boosting their ability to extract oxygen from the air to 35 percent from the 20 percent that we mere humans manage.

By making all kinds of connections to large animals that currently walk the Earth—elephants, giraffes, and even large egg-laying birds—it became a little easier to wrap my head around these large creatures roaming the Earth. It was fun to get some biology to add some meat to those bones.

More on the research that formed the basis for this exhibit in Science and in the New York Times.

Want to follow a dinosaur on Twitter? @Giant_Dino

Image credits: © AMNH/D. Finnin

 

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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.

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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

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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!

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Almost Saturday Science Videos and more: Playing with the periodic table

Somehow Facebook, Twitter and my ongoing addiction to NPR have all pointed to fun chemistry science media today. This morning, I was just about to get out of bed when I heard this segment on NPR’s Morning Edition: Planet Money: Why Gold? Planet Money and a Columbia University chemical engineer play bingo with the periodic table to cleverly explain the origin of gold as the metallic basis of wealth.

Then there’s chemistry at a party: a fun little promotional video for science career put together by Marie Curie Actions at the European Commission Research (Hat tip: The Scientist‘s Naturally Selected blog). My favorite segue:  Hydrogen and Neon have  “No Attraction,” but Carbon enters the room to attract four happy Hydrogens. Those poor noble gases are just destined to die alone.

Finally, I picked this up via Facebook: your periodic table tie-in to Harry Potter mania this weekend. Enjoy “The Elements” courtesy of Daniel Radcliffe. Awesome.

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Wondering like an Egyptian

Fascinating pendant from King Tut's tomb from the Egypt Archive via Wikimedia Commons

Just over a week ago, I finally fulfilled my inner 9-year-old’s wish: to see artifacts from King Tutankhamen’s tomb. In this case, it was a relatively short journey, to Times Square rather than Egypt. One of these days, I’ll actually see the pyramids and the Sphinx.

My fourth grade teacher, Mrs Hairston, introduced me to both science and the wonders of King Tut. After learning about ancient Egypt in class, I came home and dug through my parents’ back issues of National Geographic that included the layered cellophane images of nested sarcophagi all the way down to Tut’s shriveled mummy.

I was too young to see Tut when he last came to the United States, so I decided to visit while the artifacts were in my backyard, at the Discovery Times Square Exposition. I’m guessing that the 1970s show was a bit less commercialized. The kicker for me came in the amusement park style photos taken as we arrived that we could buy for a cool $20 at the end complete with digital Egyptian backgrounds– so tacky that they crossed the barrier to amusing. And, yes, it’s overpriced.

But the artifacts are still stunning– the artistic detail, the materials. And I was struck by some of the old photographs of the tomb when Howard Carter opened it: these priceless items were piled up like old furniture and knickknacks in a storage unit. And the exhibit space has done a 21st century upgrade of my old National Geographic magazine, using light and projection and space to show how the nested sarcophagi fit together, even without the coffins themselves.

Considering the wealth of history and culture in Ancient Egypt, the attention lavished on the decade of Tutankhamen is out of balance with the thousands of years of Egyptian history. And I live in a city with two wonderful Egyptian collections: the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum. But the Tutankhamen artifacts hold a kind of magic: they inspire wonder, curiosity, and creativity. Partly, they carry the illusion of being shiny, new and untouched despite their age. I walked out a little awe-struck.

As my husband noted as we left, “we’d know a lot less about the Ancient Egyptians if they’d believed in cremation.” The 9-year-old me is glad they didn’t.

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