Archives for : Science Online 2013

Short and sweet

Every since Science Online 2013 ended, I have been very busy with a variety of things including work, developing some super-secret side-projects and more. But being busy is often a double-edged sword.

While these projects are developing and turning into some fantastic stuff that I am sure you all will enjoy – it has left me with little time to read the ever-increasing amount of books I endlessly accumulate and post on this blog.

But, take heed loyal reader, as I have not forsaken you.

Over the past week and a half, I’ve been communicating with experts in various fields, and asking them questions that can come up in normal conversation – for example: How can black holes exist if we cannot see them? Or, how hot is magma locked in the Earth’s core?

The process is simple – I ask an expert in a field four questions. They pick two and answer each in four sentences of less so that anyone can understand.

I hope to continue this series going, so if you have any ideas for experts or questions to ask, please do so in the comments!

Man, that’s heavy
The first expert is David Shiffman, a shark conservationist and ecologist graduate student in Florida. He blogs regularly at Southern Fried Science and tweets at @WhySharksMatter.

Question 1: Since it is right there in your Twitter handle, I must ask – Why do shark matter?

Answer: Many species of sharks are top predators in their food chains. Top predators can influence their ecosystem both by regulating populations of prey, and by influencing the behavior of prey. In short, they help keep ocean ecosystems healthy.

Question 2: How can whales grow so big in the water, but the biggest animal on land (the elephant) is only a fraction of that?

Answer: The answer to this is simple- gravity. There’s a limit to how big things can get on land because after a certain point they get too heavy. Water provides increased buoyancy. Blue whales are bigger than the biggest land dinosaurs ever were.

Short, stocky and strong

This leads perfectly into our next expert, Brian Switek, a freelance science writer who spends his life getting to know anything and everything he can about dinosaurs. He blogs at National Geographic and is on Twitter as @Laelaps.

Question 1: Who would win in an arm wrestle, an average man or a T. rex?

Answer: There would be no question. Tyrannosaurus rex would win. Estimates based on bio-mechanics indicate that the arm of T. rex was about three and a half times more powerful than that of the average person. The arms of T. rex were short and stocky, but very powerful.

Question 2: How did mammals survive the extinction event 65 million years ago and the dinosaurs didn’t?

Answer: Actually, dinosaurs did survive. Avian dinosaurs – birds – escaped extinction and carry on the dinosaur legacy today. And even though mammals also survived, many mammal lineages died out in the catastrophe. Exactly why birds, mammals, and other creatures persisted while the non-avian dinosaurs died out, however, is a mystery that hinges on how climate change, volcanic activity, and asteroid impact translated into pressures that changed the world.

Invisible doesn’t mean it’s not there

The final expert is Matthew R. Francis, a physicist and science writer who writes at Bowler Hat Science and tweets at @DrMRFrancis.

Question 1: How do we know black holes exist if we cannot see them?

Answer: We can’t see black holes directly, but many of them are surrounded by matter – mostly gas stripped off stars or from other sources. When that gas falls toward the black hole, it forms a fast-rotating disk, that heats up and emits a lot of light in the form of X-rays and radio waves. So, even though black holes don’t emit any light of their own, they can be some of the brightest objects in the Universe.

Question 2: What does E=mc^2 actually mean in terms of everyday life?

Answer: “E= mc^2” literally tells us that mass is a form of energy, and anything with mass will have that energy even if it’s not moving. Most of the mass of your body is in the protons and neutrons in its atoms, but those are made up of the smaller particles known as quarks. The mass of a proton is a lot greater than the mass of the quarks that make it up; the rest of the mass comes from the energy that binds the quarks together. In other words, “E=mc^2” is responsible for most of the mass of your body!

Thank you very much to Brian, Matthew and David for all their help, time and effort – and remember, if you have any ideas for experts or questions to ask, please let me know in the comments.

Journalism’s RISK-y Future

In the weeks since Science Online 2013, a lot of discussion has been taking place over how exactly science is communicated to the public and how we (as scientists, journalists, reporters, etc…) can improve it.

Imagine the game of RISK, the game of world domination, where warring fractions of different colours try to conquer the world through brute force and military strategy. The same can be said to showcase how some people think of the future of journalism.

See, the people in Print Town believe that “print is king,” while the denizens of the Online Realm believe theirs is the fastest and therefore superior method of getting a message across. The citizens of Radio-ville think their way of communication sounds superior, while the folks in TV Land believe they look the best.

Everyone is fighting everyone else for which area is the best and which will be able to survive the longest.

But who is right? Who is wrong? And is there a middle ground?

The short answers are, at least from my perspective: Everyone. No one. And yes

I used to identify myself as a “text monkey,” just science writer extraordinaire Ed Yong stated proudly during the conference. And I still mostly do, as I work in print and have had some success in that realm. However, I took a course during my Masters program that introduced me to online journalism – a field where I blogged, Tweeted and Facebooked regularly, but didn’t give much journalistic credence to.

But I quickly fell in love with it.

A professor once described online journalism as the great mixing pot, taking the best (or sometimes worse) of each discipline and displaying it all for people to see. And I quickly became proficient in it, even doing my Masters thesis in multimedia. I was able to use print, but also radio and TV to supplement what was written, and the resulting product was quite impressive.

I was still ever the resident of Print Town, but my allegiance was quickly shifting.

Despite my reservations about which medium I wanted to use in my future career, I knew exactly what field I wanted to go into – science journalism.

Science journalism, however, is an all-together different beast than straight-up news. Every genre of writing has jargon, experts and a certain amount of background knowledge to understand – but science also has a distinct stigma as being extremely complicated, hard to digest and simply, I hate to say it, boring.

That’s not to say it cannot be done well!

There are plenty of examples of good science writers out there – just look at the work from the Scientific American Blog Network (especially Scicurious and Kate Clancy, who blow my mind on a near-constant basis), as well as Maryn McKenna, Deborah Blum, Maggie Koerth-Baker, DeLene Beeland, Cara Santa Maria, Brian Switek and the list goes on and on and on. Everyone listed here and the countless others I did not name are doing fantastic things in print, radio and multimedia. Every time I read something of theirs, it makes me realize how far I have come and strive to go even farther.

But with the good, there is also the bad.

I’ve given lectures in the past on how to communicate and write about science effectively for the general public. In so doing, I’ve read through countless good and bad articles with the goal of helping advise researchers, public relations people and more on how to avoid common problems associated with science writing. Recalling these lectures naturally lead me to my store of examples, one of which I will share.

This here ( is a piece from The Guardian, which magnificently lampoons traditional science journalism.

What Martin Robbins does so expertly is show how shoddy and Mad Libs-esque science journalism can be when it is done poorly. Take practically any science piece in your local newspaper and you will various methods Robbins described in full view for all to see.

There are a large number of people that struggle for a career in this industry (myself included), and every bad piece placed on the news, read in the paper or put online tarnishes what hard-working writers are trying to achieve.

How can this be solved?

I am no expert, but supporting good science writing and communication is a great way to start. The same can be said for pointing out when science (or really any discipline) is tortured on the rack of bad reporting or writing. Read and share good articles with others, be aware of what constitutes good writing and/or reporting and never stop discussing about the fantastic science that is constantly going on around you.

Take a breath, relax and think to yourself – is this worth the effort?

If so, don’t be afraid to roll the dice and take the risk.

Is the juice worth the squeeze? Source

Science Online 2013 – The Return to North Carolina

Another year, another Science Online conference under my belt, but this year’s was quite a bit different than last year.

To the uninitiated, Science Online can seem like a daunting experience – 450 scientists, journalists, bloggers, social media hounds and more discussing science communication. It’s very intimidating, even for veterans that have been to every single one of them.

But, it is a good group. Everyone is incredibly friendly, accommodating and willing to talk to you. As we were told on the first day, as soon as you get here, your associations leave with you. Reporters mingle with scientists, bloggers talk with accomplished writers and the passion from each and every one of them is almost palpable.

Last year, I was new. I had no experience at such a conference and I was dreadfully nervous about meeting people that I had been conversing with on Twitter for the past few years. But, my fears were ill founded. The friendships I had made with people online easily transferred to in person. Even “big” names in the industry, such as David Dobbs, Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer are just people (impressive as they may be).

As great as the sessions are, the best part of this conference is the socializing and reconnecting with what is almost an extended family. Last year was like meeting old friends I never knew I had, but this year was like reuniting with old friends – yes, friends.

All of the sessions I attended were quite good, and I tried more of a varied selection from last year. I attended sessions on how to explain difficult topics, improving press communication, issues of identity and the Internet and more.

My session, co-moderated by the lovely Jeanne Garabino, went extremely well. Our talk on using first-person narrative to communicate science fostered a lot of discussion and interest – I even heard from many people that they wished it could have go on for even longer! For a full report on what was said in my session, please see my wrap-up post here.

I also actively tweeted a lot more during this conference, which helped me chat with more people at the conference, sometimes without even seeing them. I was even asked to live-tweet the “online identity” session by some friends of mine, in order to have a record of the topics covered. And I was honoured to do it!

A few memorable moments:

  • Talking with Ed, Liz and Erik about infectious diseases 
  • Engaging in a live-tweet battle with a worthy adversary, which lasted the entire conference. And even though I conceded, we have become very good friends (though a new rivalry has been born) 
  • Having far too much fun joking and tweeting with my Twitter nemesis 
  • Learning from a mathematician how to calculate if a number really is prime (only at Science Online, folks!) 
  • Celebrating Lou Woodley’s birthday with a large group of friends 
  • Trading stories with Kiley
  • Meeting a fellow Canadian at lunch who went to the exact same High School!
  • Dancing with Melanie like nobody’s watching, even though they were
  • Singing and shouting “She blinded me with science” on stage at the open mike night and practically ruining my voice on day one
  • Watching an insurance salesman hit on a friend of mine and fail miserably
  • Singing Broadway songs with SciCurious, a pseudonymous blogger
  • Asking to sign copies of “The Best Science Writing Online 2012,” where my twin article was featured (STILL shocked and honoured about that)
  • Coming up with two different session ideas with two different people for next year before the conference was even over 

 Science Online 2013 was an amazing time and a special thanks to Karyn Traphagen, Bora Zivkovic and Anton Zuiker who organized the conference and everyone I met or didn’t have the chance to – I am already counting down the days until next year!

What is your story?

[View the story “Wrapping up #MySciStory” on Storify]

Wrapping up #MySciStory

Storified by David Manly· Thu, Feb 07 2013 08:04:53

Jeanne Garabino and I did a session at Science Online 2013 focusing in on the uses of first-person narrative storytelling to communicate science. Why don’t more journalists and communicators uses personal narrative (namely, using “I”) to discuss science? Why are they trained so stringently against its use? What are the pros and cons of using it?
Now it’s time for #myscistory with @JeanneGarb and @davidmanly #scio13Matthew R. Francis
Scientific storytelling. This looks promising. #myscistoryAlex Warneke
In a session now to learn about using narrative to communicate science. Might try this out. #MySciStory #Scio13Katie Mack
The #myscistory session at #scio13 starts with one of those storytelling Vonage commercials–as example of personal narrativeEmily Gertz
We chose this commercial from Vonage, because it really showcased the point of how a personal story (even a small one) can make what you learn a lot more interesting. While not strictly about science, the personal narrative on display really showcased our point.
Unlimited Calling to India with Vonage World – Customer Testimonial – Gitavonage
Using the commercial as an example, we asked: Why can’t you use first-person narrative to “sell” science?
If advertising psychology is using personal narrative to sell products, why don’t scientists? #MySciStory #Scio13Jessica Rohde
#myscistory #scio13 kicking off with a commercial – advertising psychology uses personal narrative to sell products – can science do it too?Haley Bridger
Can we sell science like a product? Taking lessons from a tearjerker vonage commercial. #myscistory #scio13Rachel Dearborn ϟ
If advertising psychology–telling stories–sells phone plan, why not use it to “sell” science? #myscistory #scio13Emily Gertz
But why do first-person narratives make such an impact?
Humans are story driven species says @davidmanly #myscistory #scio13Laura Wheeler
@davidmanly “We’re human, we tell stories.” #myscistory #scio13Matthew R. Francis
The things people remember the most are the stories that impacted them – learning without being aware you are learning #myscistory #scio13Erin Podolak
#myscistory #scio13 the things you remember most are the stories that impact youHaley Bridger
Stories in commercials are very targeted to a demographic. We can use similar targeting questions for our own narratives #myscistory #scio13Dr A Roehrich
So, we came up with our own definition of personal narrative:
On now – #myscistory session at #scio13. “blending the reporting of facts with the writing style of fiction”= personal narrativeJulie Henry
Jeanne and I came from different education backgrounds (lab researcher & communicator and a scientist turned journalist), but we both noticed that first-person narrative was actively discouraged in both our fields. But why?
“Don’t use I – we are story makers not story tellers” is a common theme #myscistory #scio13Dr A Roehrich
“We are storytellers, not storymakers” said @davidmanly’s journalism prof. Don’t rewrite history, don’t use first person #myscistory #scio13Lou Woodley
Idea is to blend reporting of facts with writing techniques of fiction…”like spending time in someone else’s head” #myscistory #scio13Emily Gertz
Academia actively discourages use of the first person in scientific papers. Scientists therefore not used to using it? #myscistory #scio13Lou Woodley
If you want someone who is “not looking for your science,” grabbing them with narrative can them into the science. #myscistoryAfternoon Napper
.@davidmanly: Personal storytelling helps engage audience’s emotions, which helps them remember, better #MySciStoryJessica Rohde
Using personal narrative in science allows readers to spend time in another person’s head. @davidmanly #myscistory #scio13Nicholas Mallos
All throughout our session, the utterly fantastic and amazing Perrin Ireland (@experrinment) “science scribed” to the right of us, taking notes using pictures and words. Was amazing!
Cool real-time story-boarding by @experrinment during the #MySciStory session. #scio13 Mack
Science is often told in the third-person, but WHY?
#scio13 #myscistory a lot of science writing is done in the third person! Even courses tell students not to write in the first person!Laura Wheeler
Why shouldn’t technical writing be a little less boring and science writing be really exciting? Use “I” #myscistory #scio13Erin Podolak
Yes! MT @LouWoodley: Stories can evoke emotional responses…gets the reader involved & makes the message more memorable #myscistory #scio13Meg Rosenburg
We the each shared a successful example of using personal narrative – Jeanne on pregnancy (read here) and me on being an identical twin (read here). Sharing personal information makes a story memorable, as you can tell from the tweets below, I don’t think anyone will forget Jeanne’s!
And now for a moment of TMI brought to you by @JeanneGarb #myscistory #scio13 #mucousplug #yuckPamela L. Gay
We’re hearing about a giant gelatinous ball of booger. #myscistory #scio13 #yumNadia Drake
Audience laughter as @JeanneGarb recaps the story of her mucus plug – also a popular blog post that people related to. #myscistory #scio13Lou Woodley
@JeanneGarb just set the record for the number of times a person said “mucous plug” in a 5 minute period. #Scio13 #myscistoryJohn Romano
#scio13 #myscistory @JeanneGarb talking about mucus and how she tricked people into learning science with her gross story!Laura Wheeler
I wouldn’t say tricked …
Where’s the line between self-indulgent memoir and cautionary tale? A healthy dose of self-deprecation? #MySciStoryJessica Rohde
#myscistory #scio13 the “real” first person can be electric – grabs the reader by the shirtHaley Bridger
We then brought up author of “Superbug,” Maryn McKenna, who wrote a personal post on her Wired blog about the time she ate contaminated peanut butter (read here). Since Maryn never writes in first person, I asked her why she decided to shift for this particular piece – because she “became part of the story.”
First person telling grabs the reader and lets them know “it can happen to you” @davidmanly discussing @marynmck post #MySciStory #scio13Dr A Roehrich
Currently comparing CDC report on tainted peanut butter with @marynmck version on how she contaminated herself #myscistory #scio13Erin Podolak
Ordinary reporting is dry, detached; personal narrative (ex. @marynmck ‘s food-poisoning story) engages the reader. #myscistory #scio13Matthew R. Francis
“Everybody has eaten something from the back of the fridge that you shouldn’t have, but you didn’t want to go shopping.” #myscistory #scio13Emily Gertz
#myscistory #scio13 Trick to first person- don’t let it be a self indulgent memoir. Balance the TMIHeather Reiff
There is nothing wrong with using third- person days @davidmanly be exciting & use humour #scio13 #myscistoryLaura Wheeler
#myscistory #scio13 Would you rather hear about a friend of a friend or YOUR friend? Power in the “I”- Do you want to BE Kevin Bacon?Heather Reiff
“Being the bat shit crazy scientist brings it up a level in impact” There is something special about writing with “I” #myscistory #scio13Erin Podolak
Being bat shit crazy makes things interesting, to say the least. And, we’re all a little “Bat shit crazy” aren’t we?
RT @LouWoodley: Does writing in the first person require more words? Could this be one reason it’s not used more? #myscistory #scio13Christie Wilcox
The only way to find out how much you’re really willing to share is to try sharing #myscistory #scio13Erin Podolak
@davidmanly : how much to share? The only way to know is to try it. Humor is easier for many, but comfort is key. #myscistory #scio13Matthew R. Francis
As useful as writing in first-person is, you should always focus on the story. If you think using first-person will help, give it a try! If not, don’t.
RT @DrMRFrancis: real question: does this serve the story? Sometimes taking yourself out is best for the story. #myscistory #scio13skullsinthestars
Use yourself as the frame but don’t become the story- cautions @davidmanly #myscistory #scio13Julie Henry
@ScienceOnline Caution: Don’t become the story. Ask yourself: Is this serving the message [about science]? -@davidmanly #myscistory #scio13Katie Mack
“Nobody gives a shit about you” but if the you moves the story forward, then use it #myscistory #scio13Erin Podolak
On being careful with 1st person: “Nobody gives a shit about you.” “Except our moms!” “Not mine!” -@huler #myscistory #scio13Eric Bowen
But if it is so successful, why don’t scientists use it?
@ScienceOnline One of the problems we face in outreach is convincing scientists they’re interesting. -@BenLillie #myscistory #scio13Katie Mack
Cosmos was a very successful science TV show that used personal narrative. Scientists hated Sagan for it, everyone else loved it #MySciStoryJessica Rohde
But, in using first-person, you do need to be careful …
.@davidmanly: Make sure you never outshine the story you are trying to tell. #MySciStoryJessica Rohde
Your own memories can be different than the facts, so how you fact check yourself? #myscistory #scio13Erin Podolak
#myscistory #scio13 memory is malleable – thin line between creative license and fabricationHaley Bridger
Caveat of 1st person narratives? RT @DrMRFrancis: Memory is fallible; how does one fact-check one’s own experience? #myscistory #scio13Lou Woodley
Be careful of the boundary between taking poetic license with your narrative and outright fabrication #MySciStoryJessica Rohde
#myscistory “yes you can fact check your own personal narrative.” It’s not all willy-nilly. #scio13Clare Fieseler
Still, the people in this room are by and large pro-personal narrative in science communcation. #myscistory #scio13Chris Goforth
And Perrin never stopped throughout the entire session!
Fascinating watching the story of #myscistory appear live at #scio13. Merlin
First-person also helps shine a light and give the personal story behind the science, makes it human and relateable.
#myscistory #scio13 the case for first person: most people don’t know scientists – seeing the scientist/writer behind the piece has valueHaley Bridger
Sound advice, sometimes a fine line MT @amsciam: “Be sure u don’t outshine the story you’re trying to tell” @davidmanly #myscistory #scio13Sonia Furtado Neves
If we want students to become scientists, it’s easier if they actually know a few- great case for story-telling! #scio13 #myscistoryJulie Henry
For the love of God will someone say the word EMPATHY!!!! First person narrative. #Scio13 #MySciStoryJohn Romano
We then introduced an activity – we displayed a list of scientific terms and words for a variety of disciplines (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Math, Astronomy & Engineering) and asked the audience to share their stories. “Pitch us your narrative”
“Pitch us your narrative” activity: choose a science term from a list – what personal story can you tell to explain it? #myscistory #scio13Julie Henry
.@sciencecomedian’s pers.nar. pitch: why do you get cold when you step out of a pool? Evaporation is an endothermic reaction #MySciStoryJessica Rohde
What is the thing that brings the pieces together? Finding out is the “Eureka moment” #myscistory #scio13Dr A Roehrich
@cqchoi sez: Math is frikkin’ everywhere; recognition was a big eureka moment. #myscistory #scio13Matthew R. Francis
When you include yourself in a story, passion comes through and a reader will see that #myscistory #scio13Erin Podolak
Love hearing these anecdotes from people in the #MySciStory session! Keep em comin scientists!Jessica Rohde
Great closing exercise in #myscistory session – slide of science words, audience asked to recount the personal stories they prompt #scio13Lou Woodley
“I didn’t care about science until it directly affected me- personal narrative is all I have to get people to care.” #myscistory #scio13Dr A Roehrich
For some, the personal narrative is the only way to get people to care. #scio13 #myscistoryAnna Rascouët-Paz
“There is a market for bat shit crazy” #myscistory #scio13Erin Podolak
Ha – what is it? RT @ErinPodolak: “There is a market for bat shit crazy” #myscistory #scio13Kathleen Raven
Just watch any reality tv and you’ll know that there is, and probably will always be a market for, the bat shit crazy.
Know when to use empathy… It will help you better relate to your audience. #myscistory #scio13Alex Warneke
.@DrPeteEtchells Yep, and totally illustrates the point – people gel when they share #myscistory #scio13Lou Woodley
The audience seemed a little sad that it was over so quick, as there were still plenty of hands left in the air to share their stories.
Super session from @JeanneGarb @davidmanly #myscistory #scio13Laura Wheeler
Thanks @davidmanly @JeanneGarb for leading an important session on personal narrative in science! #scio13 #myscistoryJulie Henry
Storytelling at #scio13 #myscistory @marynmck gets first personal. #sciencescribe @davidmanly @JeanneGarb Butler
Personal narrative session : “you’re sharing a small, curated slice of yourself” #scio13 #myscistoryMelissa J Bodeau
Thank you everyone for a great session about #myscistory!David Manly
See #myscistory on 1st-person narrative! MT @JacquelynGill: Someone pushes back: “process is boring.” Doesn’t have to be! #scio13 #scioSDMKatie Mack
Watched Jurassic Park…fell in love with dinosaur..mammals ate dinoasaurs..Hominids ate mammals…Emily Became a scientist #MySciStory :3Emily Taylor
ScienceOnline day one #scio13 #myscistory #storify #scio13haulFrank Nuijens
You people and your stories: the #myscistory hashtag has way more tweets than some of the other sessions. *scrolling* *scrolling*Eva Amsen
And with that, our session was over! We got a big round of applause, but the biggest was for Perrin, whose finished Science Scribe was a sight to behold!
And now, it’s on to Scientific Storytelling, #sciostory! @jeannegarb and @davidmanly #sciencescribe #scio13 Ireland
#sciostory part 2: Pitch Us Your Narrative @jeannegarb @davidmanly #scio13 #sciencescribe Ireland