Category Archives: media

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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Pondering medium and “The Cave of Forgotten Dreams”

replica of a Chauvet Cave painting from a museum in Brno, Czech Republic

I’ll admit a kind of mixed relationship with 3D movies. Done well, I love experiencing the depth, but it seems to me that 3D should be an artistic choice for its ability to convey an experience, rather than just a way to make sure that people see a movie in the movie theater.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog‘s new documentary, is the perfect match of its subject, Chauvet Cave in southern France, and the medium. A 2D film would not do this 30,000 year old cave and its intimate, yet expansive space, justice. The 3D glasses aren’t a gimmick, but a window to a moving diorama, a museum experience, a sacred journey.

This cave and its paintings were buried in rock slides thousands of years ago, only to be rediscovered about 15 years ago but closed to nearly everyone except the scientists who study it. So this space is mysterious, exclusive, and wondrous. Science meets art on every level: stalactites, stalagmites, natural artwork from above and below. But the undulating walls of these caves mesmerized me as they must have mesmerized the artists who drew on them. Cattle, bears, and even a mammoth, simple forms integrated into the movement of the walls, ancient, but fresh as if they were painted just a few years ago.

The film is an experience, well worth the money. But I found Herzog’s chosen coda to the film jarring. He talks about crocodiles that live in the warmed waters next to nearby nuclear plants. His comments were about the passage of time, how humans have changed the world and what life on earth might be like in another 30,000 years, and how those crocodiles might experience this world. Those could be worthy topics, but it’s unsatisfying information that leaves a giant question mark, with little context, at the end of a beautiful film.

With such a perfect match in the film, I’ve been thinking about subject and medium more in my work. I primarily work in printed words: the dizzying choice of nouns and verbs etches clear lines, subtly shades or brings out a new color. Words change color on radio or accompanied by video. When I spend hours in the pottery studio, I shape emerging forms from clay, add detail, think about designs on a surface.

Herzog matched his medium to an amazing subject, a cultural gift and a way to share the experience of this delicate space with a much wider audience. It’s a museum piece (in the best sense of the word) as much as a film. Ancient painters depicted their world, animating their world on a waving canvas of stone. I hope to channel an iota of that creative synergy.

Image Credit: The Adventurous Eye on flickr

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Treating a reporter well: a case study

Scientists wear many hats, and taking the time to talk to a reporter adds one more task to their day or week. So I’m especially grateful when scientists make it easier to do my job and get the facts right.

Here’s the backstory from earlier this week: I had some particularly thorny questions and wasn’t quite sure who my best source might be for a story I was working on. I’ll fictionalize the topic– I needed to know whether pixie dust might be a good alternative for fueling rocket ships. Although one scientist didn’t respond by either phone or email, several others provided me with what I needed by doing a few simple things, ones that didn’t take a lot of time or effort– at least they didn’t seem to.

  • Point 1: Speak with authority on what you know but admit what you don’t.  When Scientist A called me back (promptly– serious bonus points), he said, “Look I’m an expert on pixie dust but not rocket ships, so I can’t really comment on the paper as a whole. But when you consider the pixie dust, you have to consider several issues.” Although a partial answer, it helped me look for what I really needed, a rocket ship expert.
  • Point 2: A response that says you don’t have time is better than no response. A couple of researchers got back to me and said, “Sorry, I’m swamped. I really can’t help you.” If you do that promptly, that helps me: I know that I need to find someone else right away rather than waiting and hoping that you will get back to me. A couple others got back to me with answers after mentioning that they were traveling or out of the office. I don’t expect that scientists will check in with me while they’re on vacation, but it’s great when they’re willing to take the time to do it.
  • Point 3: When you can’t answer my question but you know someone who can, I’m grateful for a name I can stick into Google. Another scientist– who wasn’t a full expert on alternate rocket ship fuels– forwarded my email to a colleague on another continent. I’m grateful when a scientist, particularly one I’ve never talked to before, is willing to go out of her way and do that. But even if you’d rather not stay involved in my question, if you know of someone off the top of your head, I appreciate learning about someone whom I can chase down on my own.

Fellow science journalists, what would you add to my list?

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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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Making sense of 200,000 gallons per day

View of the Gulf Oil Slick from the Terra satellite Credit: NASA/Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen, using data provided courtesy of the University of Wisconsin’s Space Science and Engineering Center MODIS Direct Broadcast system.

How much? It’s one of those basic journalism questions, but when it comes to many science stories, it can be a tough one to answer in meaningful way. In most of my writing and reporting, I’m trying to find analogies to describe features smaller than the eye can see. But on the macroscale– like with the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico– comparisons are equally challenging.

This weekend, NPR’s On The Media looked at how reporters have characterized the size, scope, and political implications of this environmental disaster. Here’s a piece of the size discussion:

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jackie Savitz, a senior scientist with Oceana, an international ocean conservation association, says that describing the scale of the leak in geographical terms, or how it looks from outer space, gives the public an incomplete understanding of the spill’s true dimension.

JACKIE SAVITZ: It may paint a picture of an area on the surface of the ocean that’s the size of Delaware, to the exclusion of all that area down below the surface, where lots of fish and other marine animals live who are also being exposed to the contamination. It might be more telling to think of it in terms of volume, like how many Olympic-sized pools is that or how many stadiums would that be, or what lake might that be equivalent to.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Does the fact that can see it from space actually convey anything meaningful?

JACKIE SAVITZ: Most people don’t really have a sense of how far away space is, and even when you say it I’m not really sure how far away you’re talking about. Is it a satellite that’s circling the Earth or are you seeing it from the moon, right?

Yet another reminder to think carefully about analogies to thread that needle between cliche and useful comparison.

Listen to the whole segment here.

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Five great science blogs

Blogging is tricky and developing a good one requires both a command of the topic and a unique and entertaining angle. That’s a tough balance, but as far as I’m concerned, each of these five science blogs get it right.

  • Not Exactly Rocket Science: Written by British science writer Ed Yong, the majority of these posts are based on a single scientific study. Yong finds some new quirky finding and describes what it means for the everyday person. Though science journalists often lament that science news is disappearing, this is one format where reporting on new studies is alive and well.
  • I think of Pillownaut as the classic weblog. As an astronaut for NASA, she has a fascinating job and she’s entertaining. As a result, the journal concept works. I want to hear exactly what she’s thinking about.
  • Cocktail Party Physics: I’ve never met Jennifer Ouellette, but anyone who writes about both science and Buffy the Vampire Slayer gets serious props in my book. This blog involves a few other contributors, too, but it really is my favorite type of conversation, the rambling type that you might have at a bar or party with a smart new friend.
  • Science journalist Carl Zimmer has won a major science journalism award for his blog, the Loom. It’s exactly the right mix of telling his readers where he’ll be appearing next, new science information, and a wonderful gallery of science-based tattoos.
  • At Smithsonian’s Surprising Science blog, Sarah Zielinski also serves up news along with analysis. I particularly like a recent post where she picked up on a  study in which a researcher argued that animals filmed in documentaries have a right to privacy. I tend to agree with her that any violation of privacy is probably outweighed by the increased public awareness for the needs of animals, but I’m glad she highlighted it.

With so many great science blogs out there, what are your favorites?

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