Science Monday

candle flame

The story of a simple flame reignited my science passions

After two straight weeks of working every day, I am finally catching my breath, and catching up on things, including TJT. I trust y’all didn’t miss me too much. There are still a bunch of things I need to tell you about AAM (the best interviews and sessions are coming up, I swear!), but this morning I think I’ll change things up. Let’s get Monday off to a good start with some science outreach stories.

I’ve known of the Alan Alda “What Is a Flame?” challenge since it was first announced, and though I didn’t submit anything, I eagerly looked forward to seeing the other entries. The story behind the contest highlights a lot of our current problems with science education in schools. When Alan Alda was 11, he asked his science teacher what a flame was, and received the one-word explanation of “oxidation” in reply. You can imagine how such a dissatisfying answer might turn kids off of science. I mean, why should kids make an effort to study, explore and understand scientific concepts if no one is making the effort to communicate in ways they can understand? I can say “it’s an oxidation reaction” and explain how electrons are exchanged all day long, but those words feel more immaterial than a flickering flame. Luckily, Ben Ames, a Ph.D. candidate in quantum optics at University of Innsbruck, is here to explain the science behind flames in a way that an 11 year old can grasp, and he makes it fun to boot. Watch the full explanation below, and try singing along with the song at the end.

Ben Ames: What Is A Flame

So after watching that video, I immediately tweeted about it because only good things can come from more people knowing why flames are yellow at the top. Whist on the twitter machine, I learned about the Science Illustrators Guild conference and had a total Liz Lemon moment. Through a series of further clicks I ended up on a nifty blog from Scientific American called Symbiartic, about the science of art and the art of science. If you’ve ever met me, you know that these are my main passions in life. Well, aside from pie. Anywho, the post I landed on was all about communicating science, and the role of illustrators in this modern day and age. The author, Kalliopi Monoyios (who worked on Neil Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish“), made two excellent observations that I’d like to emphasize here.

Scientists on the whole are intensely capable, ruthless do-it-yourselfers. The nature of scientific inquiry requires a doggedness and self-reliance that attracts independent thinkers. But as Kate and Sci deftly point out, scientists are human, and if they want a semblance of balance in their lives and careers, they can’t do everything, at least not well.

I know many scientists, and this is a pretty spot-on assessment of the type of personality that goes into research science. However, I don’t think you can isolate “type A personality” as the reason why many scientists insist on doing their own outreach despite not being particularly adept at communicating or not having the time. In many cases, it’s not so much that scientists want to do it all themselves, but that they don’t trust someone else to handle the material. There’s often a high risk/low reward to communicating with the public. It’s incredibly easy to have your findings misquoted and blown out of proportion (thereby losing you credibility with your scientist peers if not the public), and for what, a chance to have your name in the paper for a day? No wonder scientists don’t collaborate on their public communications, for fear of being misunderstood. Yet as Kalliopi points out, in the long run, the only way to get support for your research is if the public values what you do, and value comes from understanding.

The good news is, there are more opportunities now to increase public understanding of science than there were in the past. The avenues for public access to science are changing, such that the science sections of newspapers won’t be the only places people turn to for science news. Think about all those great science podcasts like Radiolab and Science… Sort Of, about the blogs, twitter feeds, pub lectures, museum exhibits (both real and virtual), and projects like the Flame Challenge. I feel that I’m already seeing a shift in how scientists communicate about the things that interest them — they’re making it more personal, more creative. The newer generation of scientists seems to be more comfortable engaging with others about their work. I mean, they already have practice with creating an online presence in their personal lives, so it’s easy enough to extend that presence to a more public sphere. Ok, so it sounds like I’m directly contradicting the above quote and advocating that scientists need to do everything themselves, but I’m not. A big part of having an online presence is having a large network of people with similar interests, people with whom you can collaborate on various projects. As a scientist, you don’t necessarily have to communicate your work all by yourself, but you do have to invest some energy into creating a network of people who can communicate on your behalf. Now, who could those people be…

Science illustrators used to be fixtures in every museum and paleontology department in the country, as indispensable as the curators of the collections. But as technology has changed and our skills have expanded, our titles no longer reflect the variety of services we offer. Many of us have learned web design, 3D modeling, the fine art of science writing, photography and other lab-specific specialized techniques. Most of us share an intense interest in science, an ability to communicate it to non-scientists, and a strong distaste for the shark tank that is grant-writing, paper-publishing, and jockeying for a handful of academic jobs. More than just science illustrators, we are science communicators – passionate about the science and equipped with the tools to reach out beyond the Ivory Tower.

This description of a science illustrator is what I strive to do and be (when I’m not too busy eating pie, of course). Every time I read such an eloquent, passionate description of science outreach, it’s a little “Eureka” moment. If you ever find yourself wondering “what on earth am I doing, how did I end up here, why oh why is everything going to the dogs”, go read blogs and articles by your peers. It will renew your conviction in your career path, and you’ll feel ready to take on the world again. And on that note, I’m off to work again.

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