The Seven Wonderers of Beakerhead: Telling stories about science

The Seven Wonderers of Beakerhead (Photo courtesy of Raj Bhardwaj @RajBhardwajMD, used with permission)

The Seven Wonderers of Beakerhead (Photo courtesy of Raj Bhardwaj @RajBhardwajMD, used with permission)

In the warm glow of vintage stage lights, with a full house packed into worn leather and velour seats, a woman approaches the mic almost tentatively. “I used to be a dancer”, she says, “and I would probably be a lot more comfortable on this stage if I were dancing”[i]. It wasn’t a typical opening line for a science talk. (more…)

Please don’t blindly follow PopSci’s lead and get rid of comment spaces

A tiny explosion happened in the online science communication world yesterday. Popular announced that they will be closing off opportunities to post comments on their news stories: no more public comment spaces. Why? They argue that uncivil commenters have an overly negative effect on readers, so negative that it isn’t worth maintaining the comment spaces. They make some scary claims too about a small number of negative commenters poisoning the way readers perceive the stories and about a war waged on expertise. They use an New York Times Op-Ed written by Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele to back up those claims.

I must, however, respectfully disagree. (more…)

How do students figure out whom to trust in a scientific controversy?

Scientific literacy is a difficult idea to pin down.[i] To some people it means having a basic level of scientific understanding, though nobody fully agrees on how much understanding is needed or even which specific ideas should be understood. To others, it is more important to understand the core processes of science, which can be applied to any area of science. Again the problem exists of figuring out exactly which processes are most important (and which are distinctly scientific).[ii]

Even when people disagree about what it means, there is almost always this common thread: scientific literacy somehow involves preparing students and adults for the science they will encounter outside of school, very often in media reports. George DeBoer highlighted this in his history of scientific literacy: (more…)

“The power to predict your world”: interviewing Samuel Arbesman and Mark Daley

Here’s a new one for the coincidences-leading-to-cool-ideas file: Who would have guessed that stacking up old journals in someone’s office could inspire a new field of research! For my latest Skeptically Speaking episode, I spoke with applied mathematician Samuel Arbesman about his book The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date. He filled me in on the many ways that mathematical modeling can be used to better understand scientific knowledge, from predicting how the number of scientific studies will grow to how quickly different types of knowledge are overturned or modified.  One of the fields that is most concerned with these questions, scientometrics, got some of its first inspiration when Derek J. de Solla Price was asked to store some journals on the floor in his office. The library at Raffles College (now part of the University of Singapore) was undergoing renovations and they sent various volumes out to staff offices for safe keeping. De Solla Price wound up with the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society from 1665 to 1850 stacked up in piles on his floor. The piles looked suspiciously like an exponential growth curve, and he was struck with a great idea. During our interview, Samuel shared many more stories like this of unexpected patterns that are found in everything from operas to how cities grow.

Continuing on that theme I also chatted with Mark Daley from the Brain and Mind Institute at Western University. Mark is a professor of both computer science and biology (and a musician and composer!). He uses computational modeling to understand the network connections in our brains and how different areas work together on tasks. Much to my delight, he also surprised me with some cool examples of how his work applies to popular music, but I’ll let you check out the episode to hear more about that one.

So why do an episode about why mathematical and computational models are so valuable? Mark expressed it perfectly:

Math is a tool for helping you understand the world. It’s by far not the only one, but it’s a very useful one, a profitable one. So when kids ask “Why should I learn math?” — because it gives you power to understand your world, to model your world and maybe even to predict your world.

You can find the episode on the Skeptically Speaking website: Episode #224 The Half-Life of Facts

When it comes to scientific words, simple is harder than it seems

[Yes, it’s been a long time since I posted something new. One reason is that I’ve been busy preparing for a big move. You can read about it here.]

After our discussion about using dry ice with 8 year olds had died down, this year’s crop of space camp counsellors asked a question that plagues almost everyone who teaches, writes about or in any way works to share scientific information: what are the right words to use to explain difficult concepts?

Questions like that come up every year in my undergrad science ed classes and in almost every science communication workshop I’ve ever attended. And they’re hard questions to answer. The answers always depends on exactly who the audience is and on the purpose of the article, video or lesson. But the message often boils down to: Scientists and science communicators of all kinds need to cut the jargon and explain things simply.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. (more…)

On the “grandeur and scope of the largest machine ever built”: Interviewing physicist Sean Carroll

Due to what is starting to feel like an overwhelming teaching schedule*, I didn’t get a chance to properly share how excited I was to chat in December with Sean Carroll about his book “The Particle at the End of Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World.” Sean is not only a top-notch physicist, but a passionate storyteller and communicator. I’ve wanted to interview him since I  heard him speak at the 2011 Science Writers conference in Flagstaff. As a former high school physics teacher, I was in awe of how he moved effortlessly from the simplest to the grandest ideas in physics and not only held the audience’s attention but challenged us to think. So getting an hour to talk to him about Higgs Boson was a pure treat.

The Higgs Boson surprised the smart money and seems to have shown itself in July, even sooner than expected, in the sensors at the Large Hadron Collider. “They had their own timeline, as the universe often does,” Sean laughed when I asked him how he managed to write this fascinating and highly readable book about the LHC, the history of the Higgs Boson, and –more challengingly–quantum field theory in the same year as its discovery.

The Higgs was surely one of the biggest stories of the year and our interview covered everything from his desire to see more popular writing about quantum field theory to the true magnitude of the discovery, which he didn’t shy away from emphasizing: “A hundred thousand years from now when they talk about the history of particle physics, they will talk about pre-Higgs boson discovery and post-Higgs boson discovery.”

The conversation was great fun and I won’t lie, I may have blushed a little in the booth when he complemented me on having read the book in depth and asking interesting questions about it. Coming from someone who’s previous two interviews were with the Colbert Report (sorry fellow Canadians) and the iconic Canadian science program Quirks and Quarks, it was my pleasure.

You can check it out at Skeptically Speaking.

*Shout-out here though to my great students in EDSE 401 Digital Media in Science Education and EDSE 451 Physical Sciences Curriculum and Pedagogy. Aside from scheduling, I’m not complaining at all!

Why is it so hard to give up on hoping that facts speak for themselves?

“Helvetica emerges in that period in 1957 where there’s felt to be a need for rational typefaces which can be applied to all kinds of contemporary information whether it’s sign systems or corporate identity and present those visual expressions of the modern world to the public in an intelligible way.”*

This is one of the opening descriptive passages of Gary Hustwit’s 2007 documentary Helvetica, which traces the meaning, history and importance of the near ubiquitous typeface. Think of a corporate brand that has a sleek minimal brand image? Chances are the typeface is Helvetica, from the AAs of American Airlines to the very recognizable G in the Gap, all Helvetica. Even the New York subway signs, designed by Massimo Vignelli, are Helvetica.  But what does that have to do with science communication and education? (more…)

Where are the Canadian media in analysing the Death of Evidence protest?

“Canadian scientists aren’t normally among the placard-waving crowd on Parliament Hill” wrote Janet Davison for the CBC, describing plans for the funeral-themed protest by scientists the next day. Her statement says a lot about the significance of the protest. Something has changed in the way that many Canadian scientists perceive their relationship with the federal government, and it has changed so much that they were willing to take the largely unprecedented move to protest. (more…)

“A love letter to engineers and taxes”: Interviewing Scott Huler & Tim DeChant about all things infrastructure

Curved potato rows, Hamilton, PEI

On Prince Edward Island for vacation this week, this view is everywhere. Rows of potatoes maturing in the early summer sun. Those rows look pretty perfect, though. And I’d have trouble drawing concentric curves, let alone driving a massive piece of farm equipment to get it just right. The answer? GPS. While I’m told there’s debate about its cost effectiveness, planting potatoes is just one of many tasks that has been automated with precision GPS tracking.

It caught my attention because I’d just read Scott Huler‘s On the Grid in preparation to interview him on Skeptically Speaking. The book is a thoughtful look at infrastructure systems in the city of Raleigh, and it surprised me in detailing the important role of GPS in planning of all kinds. It’s way more than a tool for lost drivers! (Okay, I knew that but didn’t know much about the specific uses). In one chapter Scott takes us on a surveyor’s tour of an in-progress housing development where GPS drives the bulldozers and takes the place of most of the stakes that would have marked the curbs, road boundaries, and water, power and sewer lines. Thanks to Scott I’ve also stood in parking lots wondering about transitions from asphalt to concrete, looked more carefully at storm drains that I ever imagined and started paying attention to urban streams.

For this week’s episode of Skeptically Speaking I had the chance to ask him all about the book, which he describes as his “love letter to engineers and taxes.” Given my own background, I couldn’t help but think that engineers are much deserving of the love. Along with Scott, I chatted with Tim DeChant, an environmental journalist who writes the density-themed blog Per Square Mile. Tim has done some fascinating writing about urban trees (who knew that cities might actually have a net positive effect on tree population in some areas?) and relationships between wealth and urban green spaces. You can listen to the episode or download the podcast from the Skeptically Speaking website.

Talking about theories with David Dobbs on Skeptically Speaking

“What is a legitimate theory? How do you know a legitimate theory when you see one? How do you generate a legitimate theory?”

During our April 1 interview on Skeptically Speaking, David Dobbs pinpointed these as the heart of his 2005 book “Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral.” It tells the gripping human story of Alexander Agassiz, growing up in his father’s shadow and dedicating himself to an evidence-based quest to disprove Darwin’s coral reef theory.  I often teach undergrad classes that ask similar questions. Next time, I might just send my students to read his book instead. It is a fascinating account of several scientific giants and those around them trying to sort of what science is. You can read the great serialized excerpts he has been posting on his blog at and find my interview with him at Skeptically Speaking.