Tag Archives: scicomm

What science communicators can learn from #ThatDress

If you were on Twitter, Facebook, or any type of social media last night you were probably inundated with one of two things: the live llama chase in Arizona or #ThatDress. As fascinating as I find camelids, I’m going to talk about the more polarising of the two memes.

that dress

So if you haven’t seen it, there it is. What colour is it? Families, classrooms, and friends feeds are divided on the answer, and it’s sent countless people onto the Google results page for colourblindness. Various experts have weighed in with their opinions and technology has been rolled out to tweak, correct, and perfect the picture. Already there are comprehensive scientific articles and videos about why we perceive the colours differently and the fascinating subject of how humans process and interpret light hitting the back of our eyeballs.

What I find interesting about the phenomenon is the completely organic way it came about, and how a few smart cookies jumped on it to do some science communication. The original post went up on Twitter and within hours it was circulating around the world, drawing comments and creating debates among friends and strangers alike. ‘Experts’ (who have now been proven wrong) shared their opinions and amateurs griped and argued in the comments section of various articles. So what made this such a widely-spread discussion?

Firstly and most importantly, I think it was because it was something everyone could have an opinion of. If you could see the picture, you could form an opinion (based on what the rods and cones in your eyes told you), and that was all you needed to join the fray. Experiences that relate to inherent human perception are great jumping-off points for science communication because they are shared among many backgrounds and profiles. There’s a reason sex, death and food are common popular science subjects – they’re rather unavoidable topics and ones we all share!

Secondly, the potential opinions were so different from one another. Blue and black or white and gold are quite distinct, hardly the difference between ‘is this reddish-pink or pinkish-red?’. Once you stated your opinion you were firmly in one camp or another, and you needed no prior knowledge or expertise to back it up. The debate was accessible, something everyone felt comfortable taking part in. Sometimes science engagement can require a level of knowledge of a subject that is off-putting to non-experts. #ThatDress has no such problem.

So what can we learn from this? I’d say it’s the fact that the most gripping science communication is relatable, approachable, and adaptable. It needs to have a topic that interests people, that relates to experiences or knowledge they already have. It needs to be something they feel comfortable forming opinions and talking about (engagement is a two-way street, after all, and a conversation is far better than a lecture!). And most importantly, it needs to keep its finger on the popular pulse, ready to jump on the zeitgeist of the moment. Sure, a sustained campaign of building interest is important, but there’s nothing like hooking into a meme to reach millions of people who might otherwise not have time for a bit of science communication.

The History of Public Engagement with Science – Part II

Slightly further along from Newton science began to get really exciting for the public – Evolution! Electricity! The periodic table! Science seemed to be travelling along in leaps and bounds, and what’s more, the scientists doing the discovering were also the ones bringing it into the public sphere. Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859 sparked debate worldwide – journalists and fellow scientists alike publishing their own reactions to the work and spurring discussions both logical and theological.

Throughout the Victorian era public lectures on scientific topics grew in popularity – the Royal Institutes Christmas lectures began in 1825 and have continued to this day, exploring a wide range of topics from  ‘The chemical history of a candle’ to ‘Wireless messages from the stars’ and ‘The release and use of atomic energy’. Lecturers such as Michael Faraday and William Thomas Brande were both pioneers in their field but also engaging public speakers and educators. John Tyndall, a well-known Irish physicist, progressed through various posts to become Professor of Natural Philosophy (Physics) at the Royal Institution. Not only was he leading research on diamagnetism and thermal radiation but he was also an insanely popular lecturer who drew huge crowds at lecture halls in both the UK and the States. He also wrote 17 science books, some of which were translated into languages such as German, French, and Chinese, and some of which are still in print today. In the foreword to his 1867 book Sound he says:

“In the following pages I have tried to render the science of acoustics interesting to all intelligent persons, including those who do not possess any special scientific culture. The subject is treated experimentally throughout, and I have endeavoured so to place each experiment before the reader that he should realise it as an actual operation.”

Other scientists and engineers filled theatres and lecture halls with their talks – names such as Tesla drew in fascinated, terrified audiences, and venues such as the Crystal Palace hosted the Great Exhibition, dedicated to showcasing the most recent technological and social advancements. Onwards from that scientific communication began to branch into other types of media as well;  radio shows and television programmes were produced detailing the wonders of the world, and scientific films and public health advertisements flourished.

Moving into today’s media it is easy to see the veritable saturation of sources with scientific information, from online newspaper articles and journals to webcomics, television programmes and podcasts. Over the coming weeks I’ll be looking at some of the more noteable examples of each of these, highlighting the achievements and drawbacks of each and exploring the current ‘public’ relationship with scientific discovery and information. In other words, I’m giving myself an excuse to do what I like best – reading about science and the people who do it. I can’t wait!

The History of Public Engagement with Science – Part I

The act of science communication is a prime example of two great hallmarks of humanity – the desire to discover and explore and the desire to communicate with those around us. It’s not too hard to imagine early man discovering fire and then excitedly – or perhaps in a bit of a panic – hooting to his fellows about what he’d found. Throughout history there are examples of men and women undertaking ground breaking research and then enthusing their peers with their discoveries and what they might mean for the future. And often, those that are best at communicating their enthusiasm and passion for what they do – and why it’s important – are the ones that gain the recognition and support to go further.

Any ‘big name’ scientist from history – that is, one you’ve probably heard of – has left a mark in history because of the discoveries they’ve made. That’s not all they’ve left, however. There’s likely also letters, publications, and other evidence of their processes, their thoughts and ideas. Isaac Newton published numerous treatises on his various areas of studies, including the Principia Mathematica, which lay the foundation for an entire technological revolution to come. He was also a subject of popular science writing, both for adults and for children, as in John Newberry’s 1761 The Newtonian System of Philosophy starring Tom Telescope explaining a wide array of subjects.

All our ideas, therefore, are obtained either by sensation or reflection ; that is to say, by means of our five senses; as seeing, hearing smelling, tasting, and touching, or by the operations of the mind. Before you proceed farther, says Mrs, Twilight, you should, I think, explain to the company what is meant by the term Idea.?

Not only did Newton and his fellows desire to explain their findings to the public but also the scientific mindset itself – important to grasping the concepts and ideas they were exploring was the notion of inquiry, of curiosity, of meticulous experiments and proof. Robert Boyle was devoted to the Baconian method, Gottfried Leibniz advocated the setting up of scientific societies across Europe and encouraged the cataloguing and indexing of titles from across the globe. as well as the creation of an empirical database across all of the sciences. Coffee houses, debating societies, salons and lodges all sprung up around the idea of allowing people to come together to hear and discuss the great ideas of the day, and it was in such venues that the Enlightenment truly took off.