As a former Editor-in-Chief of a major scientific journal, I heartily endorse the following wise words from Stephen Fry. This can be just as well applied to scientific writing. There is no reason scientific papers must be dull, dry and boring. Tell me a story, a glorious story!
Category: Science Communication
I’ve been teaching Science Communication this term to graduate students, trying to help them become better at making their science more vivid, clear and accessible to everyone. This has made me reflect on who are the people that have inspired me in these kinds of endeavors. To me, the master was Carl Sagan. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky, Cosmos was broadcast on PBS (all the episodes can now be seen on Vimeo – episode one is here). I was fascinated with how someone could make all that complex physics, astronomy and cosmology so simple and interesting. I still remember how clearly and elegantly he explained why we know the speed of light is constant in Episode 8 of Cosmos (starting at 14:00 in the episode).
Here’s a great video that was his statement about the Earth and our place in the universe. The Pale Blue Dot.
This week Dartmouth formally partnered with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, Stony Brook University, in our efforts to teach scientists how to better communicate their science to the public and to each other. To celebrate the establishment of this partnership, Alan Alda visited Dartmouth as a Montgomery Fellow, along with Elizabeth Bass, the Director of the Alan Alda Center. Their approach uses improvisational exercises to teach scientists how to be aware of their audience, make a more direct connection with their audience, and understand the language that is needed to make that connection.
Last spring, Nancy Serrell (Director of Science and Technology Outreach) and three Dartmouth faculty took one of the Center’s courses. This motivated Nancy to bring this approach to teaching communication to scientists at Dartmouth. This term, Nancy, Christian Kohn (Lecturer in the Department of Theater), Gifford Wong (a graduate student in the Department of Earth Sciences), and I are teaching the result of her vision – a graduate course in Communicating Science that is modeled on the courses and workshops offered at the Center at Stony Brook. Mr. Alda taught our class during his visit. He also taught a Master Class to Dartmouth faculty, and visited two undergraduate classes while here, among other activities during a jam-packed two-day visit. (I think he also attended the Homecoming Bonfire on Friday night.)
Here are a few photos from his leading the Master Class with faculty and our graduate class.
Scientists too often think that what they’re doing has to be “dumbed down” to a non-science audience. We argue about constitutes “dumbing down” all the time. Much of science is about communication. We write papers that are published in peer-reviewed journals, we write grants to potential funding sources, we give presentations at professional meetings. Any scientist who has been at this for any amount of time will tell you that each of these forms of communication requires a different form and structure. Explaining science in everyday, common language is decidedly not “dumbing down” science. The language one uses must be appropriate for the audience, but the message and meaning does not have to change at all.
It’s no different in conveying science to non-scientists – or other scientists who are not in your specialty. It’s all about using the correct language for your audience and the goals for the communication you are trying to accomplish. In fact, when a scientist can explain their work or ideas in their field to non-specialists, they almost invariably find that the process of struggling with that communication makes them understand what they are trying to convey at a much deeper and more profound level. You never really understand something you’re working on until you have to explain it to someone else.
That’s why I find Alan Alda’s Flame Challenge so fascinating. The idea is to explain a common, everyday scientific phenomenon to an 11-year old, and 11-year old’s get to judge which explanation is the best. The idea is to take a common phenomenon that everyone knows and explain the scientific basis of the phenomenon. This is really hard, but really important stuff.