Scientific Scribbles

The voice of UniMelb Science Communication students

You learn something new everyday…

The number of times I’ve uttered those words…

It seams that not a week used to go by when they weren’t spoken, back in the days when speaking to our parents about school was still cool. Then of course came that sad sad phase in our lives when “conversation” meant lots of “isn’t he just gorgeous!”, “yeah…”, “mmm hmmm” and “whatever”, with many an ill placed “like” making up the rest of our sentences. In those times, talking about school was taboo, talking about things we’d learned there even more so, and talking about things we’d learned at school with our parents would have made headlines for the next “Extra, extra, read all about it!” if they were discovered.

Thankfully, however, I at least have left this phase behind me, with the last vestiges of  teenage-hood stripped from me with my coming into the tween years earlier this year. I’ve found myself enjoying more and more the convos I’ve had with other adults, my mother especially, on the things I’ve learned during my degree.

Discussions on all things geology and physics have greatly increased in number this year especially. My older sister is currently writing her thesis for her Masters in Astrophysics, her project is investigating the magnetic field produced by pulsars, the remnant of a star gone supernova (which by the way, is very cool). I have been writing essays and presentations on my own studies, such as a recent field trip. We are usually chattering away at mum about what we’re studying, without even wondering if she understands half the stuff we mention (her background isn’t in Science at all, its in History and Criminology). But, she always shows interest, I’ve rarely seen her eyes glaze over when I mention jargon, like Ediacaran (see Steph Ludekens’ glossary).

I asked her once in first year (while I was still under the influence of teenage-hood-ness and wasn’t thinking perfectly straight) whether or not she enjoyed hearing about what I was learning. “Of course!! What you girls are learning is really fascinating, and I love hearing about it!” was her reply. I was relieved, for this meant that I would be able to talk to her for the rest of my life, knowing she wouldn’t think me as too much of a nerd.

Communicating science to our friends and relatives may also seem like a bit of a taboo: if they aren’t in the know, they don’t want to know. Sometimes this is the case, but most often its not. Many people really are fascinated by what we have to say, we just need to learn how to say it right.

These new snippets of information don’t go in one ear and out the other of the listener (unless of coarse you’re speaking in a monotone…then everything you say does that). Instead they often say “Well now, I never knew that! You learn something new everyday…”


Evolution

Being an international student, with English as my second language, I have a great passion to learn how to communicate science to different audiences especially effectively communicate in English. I am a Science student in my second year, intending to do a major in Biotechnology specialization in Biochemistry and Cell Biology. After studied Science for years, I believe this subject might offer a good platform to bridge Science and Communication. This blog post might sound little bit scientific and the language that I used might not be effective enough. I could say that this is my first science communication piece ever. So, I am hoping people will give me constructive comment throughout this task for this semester. Let’s Communicate Science!!!!!

Inspired from Patrick’s first post, I believe average people should know more than ‘men are related to monkey’ about evolution. Evolution is a pretty common basic knowledge that a life sciences student should know. This is because most of the subjects thought in life sciences major, be it Biochemistry, Microbiology or Cell Biology, you will come across that Theory of Evolution is the basic ground to explain certain biochemical mechanisms and understanding the how live come to exist as it is.

Quite number of scientific breakthroughs have been made base on the understanding of Theory of Evolution. For example, the recent discovery of Malaria parasite to possess a plant-like structure, secondary plastid, has given scientist a new option/ alternative way to target drugs and eliminate this deadly disease. (I found this is really cool. Malaria may be treated with herbicides!!!)

Evolution, in a simple term, means changes in inherited genetic constituent in a population through the next generation. As time goes by, the changes become dominant and crucial for survival.

Evolution act on a population through natural selection.

Nature allows the survival of the fittest individual. Fitness of an individual can be the way to find food, to avoid and survive from predators, and be attractive in order to mate and produce offspring. Not going too much into the biological details, natural selection means the one that strong will survive to the next generation. When an advantaged population mates and produce offspring, they will retain this characteristic in the population.

Eventually, there are some possibility of random mutations accumulate in a small number of individual which, in the future, might be the source of natural selection. Variation in a population plays a very important role in natural selection. To cause the evolutionary changes, the natural selection force must be strong enough and the changes must be essential for the survival.

The emergence of the new species is partly because of the natural selection. In the old days, the emergence of new species may have been occurred as the result of earth geographical changes. When a population was separated to locations of different environment, and over the time, without inter-breeding between the populations of different geographical location (no migration), speciation tends to occur. This happens due to the accumulation of certain beneficial genetic component in the populations and their adaptation to their own environment.

Talking about human, does the concept of natural selection is applied to human population? Yes, it is!!Frequent traveling across the continents and meeting people are some of the reasons why human does not undergo speciation even if we are leaving in geographically isolated places.

Those were some basic concept of evolution. So, does really human being related to monkey? From my understanding, scientists classified human to be related to monkey, or to be exact the chimps, is based on genetic similarity of human and chimps. The construction of taxonomy (the evolutionary relatedness measurement) is practically based on this genetic similarity. Inheritance and the degree of similarity of genetic information may be the evidence of evolution. The exact mechanism has not been understood clearly yet.

Glossary

Genetic :Science of heredity and variation in living organism (inheritable information from parents to child)

Herbicides :Or commonly called weed killer, chemicals that kill unwanted plant

Mutation :Error in genetic information

Parasite :The organism that benefits at the expenses of other organism

Species :A group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring

Speciation :The process of new species emergence

Taxonomy :Science of classifying organism in the certain category according to particular trait


Loving too much.

In our lecture yesterday, in amongst some rather complex philosophy, Maurice (our lecturer) mentioned that in science communication we need to find a balance between loving too much and not enough; in addition to that, the amount of care should be equal between the communicator and their audience. This really struck a chord with me, because Maurice had just made me realise something really important (even slightly embarrassing!) –it dawned on me that I loved waaaaay too much and my audience care factor? Yeah… somewhere around zero.

Now, let me backtrack a bit. I’m a Science student, majoring in Geology. When I tell people, they’re usually like “Oh, yes. Geology… Rocks.” (and before anyone makes the “Geology rocks” pun, I’ve heard it a billion times). Pause. This is where I go wrong every single time – I proceed to tell them that there is so much more to Geology than just rocks and begin explaining everything from the concept of geological time, the stratigraphic record, mineral habits, volcanoes and plate tectonics through to Snowball Earth glaciations and mass extinction events. It is at this point that peoples’ eyes tend to glaze over and/or they pretend to be really interested while secretly thinking that I’m a massive rock geek and that I need to get some other hobbies.

This is where Maurice’s revelation fits in – I have failed to moderate my level of love (extremely high. I love what I do!) to match peoples’ level of care (most often low to moderate)! Most people probably have only the vaguest idea of what Geology is – I’m often asked if I learn where all the different countries are for a living – and if they do, they definitely didn’t sign up for a crash course in the (approximately) 4.55 billion year history of our planet. What’s worse is that all the terminology that I have learnt over the years has slowly wormed its way into my everyday vocabulary – I seem to have forgotten that not everyone speaks Rock (check out the glossary at the end of this entry!)

I can only anticipate that people will expect me to be able to communicate what I’m learning more and more as I begin post-graduate studies and eventually enter the workforce, so I’m setting myself some new goals:

1)      I will be more conscious of my audience – I highly doubt that the girl that is scanning through my purchases at Sportsgirl cares about Ediacaran fossils.

2)      I will cut down on my Geology lingo when talking to layman, therefore, “Ediacaran” becomes “really, really old. Around 575 million years old, in fact.”

3)      I will refrain from attempting to cover every area of Geology (that I know of) in one conversation, unless asked otherwise.

4)      I will try to talk slower. This is partly related to my verbal science communication, as I talk extremely fast when I get excited, but will most likely be of benefit in everyday life.

As far as science communication goes, I have a lot of improving to do. I plan on adding more goals to this list as I have more epiphanies. I leave you now, mortified as I think back to the HUNDREDS of people that I have bored over the past three years and optimistic that by the end of this course I will be equipped to share my knowledge with others in a way that could get them to love Geology as much as I do.

Glossary:

  • Geological time: Geologists describe the history of the earth in geological time, which is measured in millions of years and billions of years (this blew my mind when I first learned it).
  • Stratigraphic record: Sequences of rock layers (vertical). When these sequences are correlated with other sequences around the world, scientists can define events within a particular time period.
  • Mineral habit: The general appearance that crystals have when they grow. They vary between different minerals and even within the same mineral they can be very different.
  • Volcano: Where there is a break in the crust (surface of the Earth) and melted rock (magma) from deep within the Earth can escape to the surface. E.g. Mt. Vesuvius.
  • Plate tectonics: A scientific theory which describes the large scale motions of the continents (well, really tectonic plates) over the history of the Earth.
  • Snowball Earth: A hypothesis that the Earth’s surface became mostly or completely frozen at least once between 650 and 750 million years ago.
  • Mass extinction events: Many species becoming extinct at about the same time. Usually due to a large event such as a meteorite impact or sudden climate change.
  • Ediacaran: The name for a period of time (like how the Jurassic was approximately 200-145 million years ago) that was between 635-542 million years ago. The Ediacaran fossils are the oldest known evidence for multicellular life found on Earth.

Why science communication?

This article is cross-posted to My Other Weblog™, the Patrick Operator.

Once upon a time, I was a computer science student. Computer science and programming were my passion: I liked other things, but if I otherwise had nothing else to do, breaking my computer was an excellent past-time.

Since then, I have branched out into physics and mathematics, broadly expanding my horizons to… well, two other fields very closely allied to computer science. This makes me a typical Hard Scientist™: abrasive, speaking in terse sentences chocked with cryptic jargon, strangely aroused by my particular esoteric discipline… and not really great with other, you know, people.

In an attempt to crack us out of our shells, the University of Melbourne has instituted a policy of requiring all students to spend a quarter of our degree do subjects outside our home faculty. My first though was geology (because rocks are awesome; so are volcanoes) but unfortunately that still counts as a science. Through a fairly improbable series of events, I have instead ended up in Communicating Science and Technology.

As with all subjects outside the focus of one’s degree, I am tempted very much to treat it as a bludge subject, through which one wafts and expects to receive a decent but not otherwise spectacular mark. Interacting with my species is not really my thing. However. I seem unfortunately to have been afflicted with an unexpected enthusiasm about science communication: for this I blame a good friend of mine, a desire to procrastinate from my “real” subjects, and a selection of group projects that actually look interesting.

But what’s the deeper reason I want to study science communication and, more importantly, learn how to do it well? Science and technology are now deeply woven into the fabric of our society. For better or worse, gone are the days where we could live in the same environment in which we evolved; we now need to interact with a technological society that’s the combined product of millions or billions of minds over merely hundreds of years (I think it’s really cool that for less than what it costs me to eat, I can get an Internet connection that gives me access to knowledge that makes the Library of Alexandria look like my bookshelf).

Since science and technology are so important to us, it’s vital that everyone in our society has some idea of why science specifically is so important to our society.

The average person on the street should know enough basic physics to tell when they’re being fooled by a perpetual motion shyster, or when politicians are trying to pull the wool over their eyes when trading sound bites on energy sources. The average person should know what the word “theory” means in the phrase “theory of evolution”, and more importantly should have a vague grasp of what it means: but a grasp more sophisticated than “men came from monkeys”.

More generally, everyone–regardless of whether they end up as a scientist or not–should not view science as something dull, scary and hard. It is something that gives us a profound connection to our universe, and should be seen as both a tool for bettering ourselves and an end unto itself.

Hopefully in there I’ve signposted some of things I’ll write about later: I certainly hope to learn something over the next twelve weeks, and maybe anyone reading this will learn something too.

So far I’ve missed out the reason for science communication that’s most important to me personally: I really, really love my little esoteric enclave of academia, and I hope to make you love it too.



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