Scientific Scribbles

The voice of UniMelb Science Communication students

Newspapers, Dictionaries and the Internet: A digital shift.

Printed media such as newspapers and magazines are changing as we move further into the 21st century. Some will warmly embrace it, and others will continuously object; shrouding the new age of communication in a well-rehearsed fog of pessimism and doubt.

Yes, you’re correct – I’m talking about the increased digitalisation of information on the Internet.

It would take a brave person to freely affirm that the state of written communication will be identical to how it is today, in the next 20 to 30 years. The times are changing and I will aim to explore why.

From the very beginning of William Caxton’s printing press in the late 15th century to today, where there has been an opportunity for an opinion or thought to be conveyed in words; the newspaper has formed the backbone to any societies’ need to communicate in this way.

Although the Internet – a tool enabling any form of online content to be easily viewed by millions at the click of a (hyper)link is now commonplace in the average home, and has been for the last decade; the printed word, in my opinion, has been able to coexist without much fuss. (Although some people would beg to differ)

However, I feel that with invention of the iPad – coupled with Apple’s seeming monopoly on the ‘impulse buying’ sector of the human brain, written communication is destined for change.

In fact, News Corp. is already planning the release of a national digital newspaper – available only as paid content on tablet devices such as an iPad, and mobile phones.

In contemporary society, many people lead busy lives. Intertwined within a person’s drive to successfully complete a task is also a need to complete many tasks concurrently.

I’m sure it can be agreed upon that juggling multiple IM windows and numerous internet browser tabs whilst attempting to piece together an assignment eight hours before a due date is fairly commonplace… or at least… I perceive it to be.

However, this is no different with online newspapers and magazines.

Readers are becoming more inclined to just glancing at a few lines of an article before moving onto the next – courtesy of RSS Feeds (Digg, a personal favourite) and Readers (such as Google Reader) becoming more widely used.

Does this mean our attention spans are starting to wane?

…Quite possibly, but the average person has become accustomed to being able to get the current, most up-to-date news at any time from any online resource; something which the daily newspaper simply cannot keep up with.

What I am proposing is not the demise of the notion of the newspaper, but merely a technological shift to a platform which allows the distribution of content to a much greater target audience (at of course, a much lower cost).

Another recent example of digitalising information deals with none other than the Oxford English Dictionary. Since 1879, the Oxford English Dictionary has been an authoritive guideto the English language; that is, in its written, hard copy format.

Its next edition however, may not have the chance to grace our bookshelves.

An internet only future for the OED seems more than likely based on recent reports.

On one hand, the ability to have immediate access to the wealth of information that the OED provides at the click of a button is nothing short of mind-boggling.

However for purists and hard copy lovers everywhere it will mark a sad day when this new content goes live, as the OED has no other choice but to embrace the largest communications tool in the world and ‘get with the times’.

Personally, I’ll be continuing to walk for an extra few minutes each morning to the University Newsagent or local milk bar to pick up my daily copy of the newspaper. As for spending a good minute or so locating an unfamiliar word in a dictionary heavy enough to be used as a tool for self defense… I think I’ll just make a note of it and look it up online later.


Science, Crackers and Baseball….

Hello everyone,
Going back to the question asked in our lecture a couple weeks ago, “Is communicating science different?” I do not believe that communicating science is different than communicating any other subject. We only see it as different because we have the higher knowledge base for it.

I say that it is no different because I have had some experience trying to communicate other subjects, and I have been on the receiving end of them. I am an exchange student, and although English is my first language, Australian culture is not.

I remember being in one of my first immunology lectures, and the lecturer gave an analogy of opsonisation, that the antibodies covering the bacteria to increase phagocytosis (cell eating) are like the red and green sparkles on BBQ shapes. I was completely and totally lost. What in the world was a BBQ shape (I’m thinking a real BBQ here) and why in the world does it have red and green sparkles, and what does that have to do with phagocytosis. As I looked around however I seemed to be the only one with a confused look on my face. After class I had my housemate explain what it was. After that the analogy made a lot more sense. It was a simple assumption from the lecturer, that everyone was familiar with an Australian brand cracker, it had nothing to do with science, simply culture but I was lost from that moment on.

Another example, again from when I first arrived here. I think moving to a new country you realise just how much you assume the knowledge of those around you. We’ve been surrounded by scientists for most of our education. We can’t forget that non-scientists are in a foreign country when we are talking science to them.
I’ve played softball all my life, so has the majority of my family and friends. Softball is not that big of a sport here, played or watched on TV (baseball). One of my friends here asked me how my game went. Before I started I asked if he knew baseball, he said yes, so I jumped right into my explanation of the game. How I batted thousand, with 3’ribbies’ and even one sac bunt which I was safe on anyways, no errs, a double play; second and one, and we mercied them before the fifth. The look on his face was priceless. He had me slow down and explain each term separately, which I’m pretty sure confused him even more but he would not admit it. In the middle of my explanations his brother walked in declaring he knew about baseball. My friends just turned to him and said “Trust me man, you don’t”

I was so shocked. All of my friends and family at home would have known exactly what I was talking about. And if they didn’t, they definitely would not have said they knew baseball.

I believe that anything you and your audience have different levels of knowledge is potentially difficult. You have to know the level of your audience and try not to make assumptions.


Taxi!

A couple of weeks ago Jenny gave a lecture encouraging us to engage people of all walks of life to investigate their science knowledge. So, a couple of weeks ago, despite my rather inebriated state, I asked my taxi driver on the way home from the Commerce Ball.

To my surprise he was a qualified nurse from India from a family of doctors, and was currently engaged to a beautiful Indian doctor. Wow.

So what do you think about the Australian medical system?

I think its good but the quantities they prescribe are so small, he replies with conviction in his voice.

They don’t give you enough antibiotics to get better, I would normally take twice as much at home. And everyone seems to hand out panidol. What good is that going to do eh?

Roughly 25 minutes, $38 and an in depth conversation later I arrive at my doorstep with lots to ponder.

Not that long ago I remember reading in the New Scientist statistics that correlated countries that have high levels of antibiotic prescription with high levels of bacterial resistance. I remember Spain being the top of the list of culprits.

Do Australian doctors prescribe too much, not enough, or is the current method flawed? This is a topic I have battled with for years on my path of deciding whether to study medicine.

Antibiotics have been around for so long, and saved so many lives, are we now abusing this medical magic because we have forgotten what it was like before it came along, or just because we think that medicine is going to step up and save us yet again?

It is something I battle with everyday, and  it seems, so does my taxi driver.


Technological Illiteracy

The current situation with Climate Change, genetic engineering, stem cell research etc and more can all be associated with the majority of the public not understanding these scientific issues. The need to bridge this lack of scientific knowledge (and in some cases incorrect knowledge) within the public is why most of us decided to take part in this subject.

But what about the lack of knowledge in technology?

Sure computers are ingrained within our lives and we can all tune out a plethora of essays and reports each week, but how well do we really know our machines? Or even with other devices, the ipod or phone? With the onset of smart phones we will all have instant access to the internet anywhere and anytime (cellular coverage dependent), are these devices being used to their full potential?

In most cases only using (or knowing only) 5-10% of the functionality of the technologies available to you is by no means a bad thing. However it is the thinking that this 5-10% is all that is needed and that anything further then the everyday word processing and Facebook usage is too difficult and unnecessary is a problem. There is a mentality that the technology should just work and when anything out of the ordinary does appear the first action to take is to just click at anything that resembles a cross until the object disappears. There is little or no attempt at trying to understand the cause and therefore no sight of the consequences.Using an analogy it is like a maths student knowing the times tables and ignoring anything further onwards because they are happy with being able to multiply even though the next question requires division.

This technological literacy may not seem to be as a grand of an issue when compared to that of great scientific dilemmas that are thrown around each week within the seminars and tutorial, but actually I would say that it is of far greater importance.This is because many of the problems that the public sees and hears about with regards to technologies are in fact a direct cause of their illiterate usage and actions. The pop-up that you are frantically trying to get rid of is in fact a message telling you that your virus detection is out of date. The reason that your ex can see you chatting with someone new is because you didn’t update your privacy setting after the brake-up.

The solutions in getting people to realise this and getting them to be more educated faces all the same difficulties in which science knowledge face, however there are some extremely trivial actions that can be taken:

  • It is at times as simple as actually reading the pop-up box.
  • Checking that the virus waring message is actually from the system that you have installed and not a fake.
  • That once you have posted something anywhere on the internet, that is is now accessible by anyone on the internet even if what you have posted was for a private audience.
  • Read the words on the screen.

Illiteracy is a seen as a disability within our society and with the ever increase in society’s dependence on technology, the inability to effectively use and understand theses technologies will lead to both major disadvantages for those individuals and the stalling of further advancement for society.


Gnome Theory 101

Hearing Maurice’s lectures the last few weeks about the nature of science, and the models we use to think about scientific concepts reminded me of a funny theory I’d encountered a few years back. The internet is a many splendoured thing, and it’s full of wacky and wonderful content, and this is one of my favourite bits.

It goes something like this: everything you think you know about physics is wrong. Electrons? Hardly. Waves? Not on your life.

Behind each and every physical phenomenon is the work of miniscule gnomes. All matter is made of these gnomes (which surprisingly enough are made of billions of super-gnomes, which in turn each consist of just as many hyper-gnomes). Electric currents can be explained through a long line of gnomes within each wire, who high five each other, or pass messages along the line from the socket gnomes, to the (for example) kettle gnomes who then fart, causing the water to boil.

For further information, you can check out this website:
http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/Physics_doesn’t_exist,_it’s_all_about_Gnomes

But for me, the interesting thing about this “theory” isn’t the many different funny explanations for “simple” phenomena, but that the theory itself is actually fairly sound.

Most, if not all of the proposed explanations, and the model itself, are sound. Assuming these gnomes are so small we have no instruments currently capable of identifying them, the gnome theory is actually a viable way to explain the world. Yes, it’s not easy to prove via experiment, but nor can it be disproved simply.

So next time you’re reading a textbook, or even just turning on your computer screen, or driving your car, stop and think of those billions of tiny gnomes who just might be doing all the hard work. Screw particle physics, THIS is how my world works!


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