Monthly Archives: March 2013

One step beyond wonder

March, it seems, is the month of wonder. At least, it is if you’re a science communicator or run in those circles as I’ve found at least three years’ worth of blog posts and articles about science and wonder that seem to be written solely in March. Perhaps it’s the Equinox’s strange pull that makes us ponder the relationship between science and the unknown and our reaction to it*.

The latest spate of wonder-related articles were kicked off by a Guardian article by Eliane Glaser linking Brian Cox’s ‘misty-eyed’ appearances on shows like Wonders of Life to religious spectacle and calling out atheist science enthusiasts on their hypocrisy. There has been plenty of reaction to the article, with most parties dismissing the criticism, but again it’s provoked thoughts on science communication’s use of ‘wonder‘ when engaging with people, and how it can be used responsibly.

To begin I’d like to say that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the idea of wonder in either a scientific or religious sense – surely it’s better to face the unknown with a sense of awe and curiosity rather than fear. Cultivating wonder (or magic, or awe) can allow people to approach things they don’t understand as phenomena to seek out rather than avoid, and the aim of good science communication is as much to encourage a connection with the subject as it is to explain it. It’s certainly preferable to the other extreme, wherein science and technology are said to leech all magic out of the proceedings and ground them in dry, boring facts. No, wonder is a good starting point. The problem lies in the next step. Where do we go from there?

One blog points out that TV scientists (which seems to be where the ‘wonder’ issues forth from most often these days) rarely give a complete picture of the science behind any issue, nor do they accurately reflect what science is all about.

“I can’t say I get much of a sense of what the intellectual exercise of science is really like from popular science TV. And unlike with history TV, I can’t fill in the gaps myself. I’m guessing most of the people snarking at the above article on Twitter can fill in those gaps, so no wonder they know how to “wonder” in a constructive fashion. They take the wonder as shorthand for something else…”

So rather than dwell on the wonder, perhaps the job of the science communicator is to explain this shorthand to their audience. This also helps to dispel the worst-case scenario where the sense of wonder is projected onto the scientists, building them up into figures far above the average person, making them into preachers instead of communicators. This disconnect helps no one and fosters a divide that no amount of panning landscape shots, regardless of how stunning, can overcome.

How do we tackle this problem, though, while keeping the audience’s attention? Launching into a detailed explanation of the often confusing and frustrating world of theories and research could quickly turn even the most  receptive listeners off. Good communication catches the attention, enthuses and then explains. It’s not enough to do just one; one must follow through to the end to really make an impact.

There’s no need to avoid wonder, to hook people in with the big picture, the awe-inspiring camera shot, the inexplicable magic of the stars or cells within us. What science communicators need to do then is take the next step and enthuse people with the process of science, explaining how scientists tackle the unknown and how in this way science is accessible to anyone. Perhaps you may not have access to a laboratory or state of the art equipment, but you too can be a scientist if you ask questions, test and retest and continually wonder: ‘what if?’

*(There’s even a tumblr dedicated to it –

Radiation and the Cookie Test

When I think of scientific scare words, the first one that always comes to mind is radiation. Although, when radiation and the radioactive processes that generate it were first discovered, there was actually a lot of public excitement about it, and many radioactive products were sold to give people the vital health force of radiation! But the development of nuclear weapons and greater understanding of the dangers of radiation, plus the lengthy Cold War and accidents at nuclear power facilities, have led many people to fear radiation without necessarily even understanding what it is or how it interacts with matter. But  the best way to deal with a hazard is to know how it works!

There are lots of physical phenomena classified as radiation; the term itself just implies some form of energy which is radiating out from a source. Energy is carried by waves moving through a medium, and the waves can be subdivided into quanta or packets of energy, which is to say particles.

Visible light is one of the more familiar forms of electromagnetic radiation. Photons carry electromagnetic energy through space, and since our eyes are equipped to detect that energy at certain frequencies, we perceive it as light. Electromagnetic radiation can occur at many frequencies that the eye cannot detect, but visible light is actually fairly low-energy, and is called ‘non-ionizing’ radiation because it’s incapable of separating atoms into ions (positively charged nuclei and negatively charged electrons). Ultraviolet light can cause some damage to tissue, as a sunburn, but this damage comes from the heating of the tissue that occurs rather than ionization. UV light can also damage DNA, which affects the ability of any cell to reproduce itself without errors. UV light damages DNA both directly, by breaking bonds, and indirectly, by generating free radicals that chemically alter the DNA. But it takes a lot of UV exposure for the organism possessing the DNA to notice any effect.

Ionizing radiation, however, is much better at removing electrons from atoms, and can damage DNA at a much lower dose than UV light. How harmful any specific dose of ionizing radiation will be to an organism depends on the energy and amount of the radiation, as well as the sensitivity of the tissue exposed. And there are certain forms of matter, types of nuclei, which are ‘radioactive’: this means that they emit ionizing radiation, usually during a decay from one configuration of nuclei to another.

So what kinds of radiation can ionize atoms? Well, although low-energy light is non-ionizing, very high-energy light with wavelengths below 200 nm is considered ionizing. This includes X-rays, which are widely used for medical imaging, and gamma rays, which are produced by reactions that occur in atomic nuclei. Gamma rays can penetrate very deeply into most materials and require a lot of shielding to stop.

Energetic charged particles interacting with an atom can also cause ionization, by attracting or exciting electrons from the electron cloud. This can be done by high-energy electrons, which are emitted during ‘beta decay’ when a neutron decays into a proton. And other atomic decays can emit energetic alpha particles, which consist of two protons and two neutrons (the same as the nucleus of helium). While both alpha and beta particles are ionizing, both are easily absorbed by a small amount of shielding. However, if you think about the relatively high mass of protons and neutrons in the alpha particle compared to the very low mass electron in the beta particle, you’ll realize that the alpha particle has much more energy and destructive capability than the beta particle. So alpha radiation is very harmful if a radiation source is placed close to tissue.

Neutrons on their own can also ionize atoms, by causing reactions in the nuclei. High-energy neutrons can travel through very thick shielding, because they have no charge and don’t feel electromagnetic forces from the charges in matter. However, they combine easily with hydrogen to create heavy forms of it (isotopes), so any hydrogen-rich material makes a reasonably good neutron shield. This is why large amounts of water are used for shielding in nuclear reactors, because of the large amount of neutron radiation emitted. As shown in the image below, while neutrons (n) are absorbed by nuclei, gamma rays (γ) can only be stopped in dense materials, beta particles (β) can be stopped by an aluminum plate, and alpha particles (α) can be stopped by a sheet of paper.

So if we are concerned about radiation safety, how do we treat different sources of ionizing radiation? The cleverest way I’ve heard it summed up is by the ‘cookie test’: imagine that you have four cookies. One is an alpha emitter, one is a beta emitter, one is a gamma emitter, and one is a neutron emitter. You can throw one cookie away, but you have to put one in your pocket, hold one in your hand, and eat one. How do you pick which cookies to do what with?

Well, remember that alpha particles are particularly bad when they get close to vital tissue, so that’s a good one not to eat. Both neutron and gamma radiation are tough to shield against, but of the two gamma is more likely to pass through you without causing issues. Beta radiation can be damaging but is also easily blocked. So you can throw away the neutron emitter, and if the gamma emitter is anywhere near you, you may as well have eaten it. The alpha emitter should be further from your vital organs, so put that one in your hand, which leaves the beta emitter to go into your pocket and be blocked by your clothing.

Of course, you might say that ideally you’d throw all the cookies away, because who eats radioactive cookies anyway? But the thing to remember is that all these radioactive processes occur naturally, so while there are dangerous levels of each kind of radiation, you are receiving a low-level dose of radiation all the time from chemical processes in the materials around you. And in fact, radioactive processes occur inside your body! So while radiation can be dangerous, it’s also an important part of the natural world.

Incentivising science communication

As discussed in previous articles, the idea of science communication is nothing new. And yet there is still resistance from certain quarters to the idea that communicating science research to the public ought to be as high a priority as the research itself. So how do you counter that, or better yet, enact a lasting change in the resistant areas?

One idea getting attention is that of the ‘flipped academic‘  – that is, someone in academia who focuses on public engagement and communication first and traditional markers of academic success – such as publishing papers – second. The flipped academic endeavours to maximise the impact of their work, ensures their work addresses specific problems rather than theoretical ones, and rearranges traditional teaching structures into something more effective and engaging for their students. While this may be easier for academics in some fields than others it’s still a robust blueprint for any school wanting to update their outputs to embrace.

Another necessary requirement for any meaningful change is research into the effectiveness of science communication and outreach. Asking scientists and academics to adopt a wholly new and sometimes vastly different way of working cannot come without proof that it’s worth doing, and right now proof is surprisingly thin on the ground. STEM researchers need to link up with social scientists to document and analyse the impact different outreach activities has on things like public opinion so that there’s a concrete reason to be pursuing it. Most grants in the UK seem to be good at requesting evaluation as part of the funding requirements, but science communicators should go one further and publicise these evaluations, and expand on them.

Though to argue against the existence of specifically-trained science communicators would be to put myself out of a job, now is also the time to instill the importance of public engagement in the ‘next’ generation of researchers and academics – though that isn’t to say currently-existing researchers can’t get on the bandwagon. But students are in an excellent position to build up a skillset that includes the ability to both do good research and good communication about said research. I would be thrilled to see universities moving towards offering science communication courses for undergraduates and for postgraduates and doctoral students to be allowed to specialise in public engagement – a benefit for both the researcher and the institute they represent.

Lastly, more support for public engagement from governing bodies would go a long way towards convincing universities of its growing importance and therefore incentivising them to value it more highly. This is a bit of a chicken-egg scenario, as more people doing good science communication and researching its effects would make it much easier for it to gain public support, so ideally these things would all grow together until there’s a well-balanced network of monetary support, good data, and well-trained professionals engaged in it. I do think we’ll get there one day, but with all the exciting research and discovery going on in the world today, the sooner the better.