Scientific Scribbles

The voice of UniMelb Science Communication students

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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