As part of a seminar this week, we are discussing “science on the radio” as a means of communicating with the public. We listened to three pieces—one on ice, the estrogenic compounds leached out of plastics, and stem cells—as examples of how scientists interact with the public through the radio. Even though many people claim to not read poetry often, I think the vivid images that are brought to life by poetry are used in the every day.
The program on ice served as a good contrast in ways of conveying scientific information. The scientist who was most successful communicating to the public from all these programs was Dr. Eugene Stanley, a physicist from Boston University. He used a series of analogies to convey scientific ideas—he was very poetic and enthusiastic. He describes the chemical structure of water as a pyramid of positive and negative charges, with oxygen at the center “where the mummy might lie,” rather than the boomerang shape we often learn in school. He describes the bonds of water, hydrogen bonds, like a jungle gym when the bonds get stronger (when the temperature goes down), but if you sawed the jungle gym up, it would take up less space and become more dense, as water is more dense as a liquid. That’s great! In contrast, the author of the book Ice: The Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance, Mariana Gosnell, is the person you would most expect to be bursting forth with metaphors and analogies; but, she had no magic in her language. While Stanley had been invited back on the show from a previous visit, I doubt the author will be invited back.
Part of the unexpected discrepancy in ability to convey science to the public might be related to how authors and scientists interact with the public. Authors might be in their element alone with their page; they do not necessarily spend a lot of time interacting with the public and being a good writer does not make you a strong public speaker. Even though we might expect scientists to be, on average, comfortable doing isolated tasks like experiments in the lab or field, or writing papers and grants, many of these activities involve a lot of people and explaining the science behind the tasks in understandable terms. Scientists also spend a decent amount of time teaching (often) and giving talks at scientific meetings as part of our work; as a result we learn to communicate our science to these audiences. The act of teaching in a lot of ways sets the stage for scientists to effectively communicate with the public, because we must explain often complex functions or ideas to students who for the most part are not familiar with them—not so different than talking to the public.
I teach introductory biology with two other scientists, one of whom dresses up like “Euglena Man” during the topic of the evolution of protists via endosymbiosis. Euglena Man is the human personification of a protist with very few apparent super powers, but with a flagella which is, in a word, ominous. The professor dresses up like a Euglena (Man) to highlight the number of membranes in his Euglenid plasmids, which differ between protists and non-protists as a result of algal cells swallowing bacterial cells that began to be associated with these cells (the endosymbiotic hypothesis), leaving in many cases an extra membrane or two. He uses a bit of drama to drive home the point, memorably. Now if only he could only acquire some super powers, he may be able to go public or at least make his debut in a comic book.
If he's going to go on a science tour, I think he'll need a leisure suit
worthy of a super hero.
In contrast, a radio program on embryonic cells required the producers of the show to apparently coach the scientist on talking with the public. He used an analogy which he said one of the producers came up with—that “pluripotent” cells (like skin cells reprogramed to have the potential to become any kind of cell) were not a blank canvas the way embryonic cells were (meaning they could become any type of cell), but they were more like a painted canvas that had been painted over where some bits still come through. Now that is a really great analogy, but likely one the producers came up with because the scientists had a tendency to use acronyms like IPS (induced pluripotent stem cells) rather than using the King’s (and Queen’s) colorful English.
Communicating with the public will require us scientists to sit down and think outside of the box about other ways of looking at our study system. I’m thinking about my research with insecticides in aquatic wetlands. When you add insecticides in an environment to eliminate a target pest, it sometimes affects other components of the ecosystem and can change the function of food webs. So, insecticide exposure is like taking an antibiotic—it has a targeted problem, like a sinus or skin infection, but it also affects other parts of the body and can leave you with a bit of diarrhea. Is that poetic enough? Well…I can work on it.