“Wormholes” Author is a Liar and Thief. . . But Says It’s O.K.

27 09 2013

As the author of the new sci-fi adventure novel Wormholes, I’m a liar and a thief. I’ll explain why, and the reasons I think it’s O.K.

Some background: The idea for the novel had its beginning years ago in a simpleWormholes cover question “What if holes were to suddenly open up into other universes?” As is perhaps the case with most novelists, from that seed of an idea, I began to build a story. And in the process, I invented all kinds of physics. That’s when I became a liar.

I had to invent a scientific-sounding explanation of why, in its travels through the galaxy, our solar system enters a region of lurking wrinkles in spacetime. These wrinkles, I fabricated, constitute weaknesses in the spacetime fabric that cause holes to seemingly arbitrarily open up from our universe into other universes. So on Earth and on other planets, holes suddenly appear that might intrude into other universes’ interstellar space, into the fiery centers of stars, or onto the surfaces of alien planets. To drive my fictional story, I also invented some exotic physical properties for these “transdimensional apertures” that enabled me to plunge my characters into all kinds of perilous adventures. (I won’t reveal details, because that would give away the plot, and I’d like readers to be surprised.)

I was a bald-faced liar because my physics was all scientific poppycock.

Then I became a thief. I misappropriated the term wormholes to name these apertures, because it was popular and would attract readers. Again, it was poppycock, because scientifically, my “wormholes” are nothing like the theoretical wormholes of real astrophysics.

So, why should I care that I was propagating poppycock? After all, other sci-fi authors devise scientifically ridiculous stuff all the time, from Star Trek to Dr. Who. And sci-fi fans are perfectly willing—like the Queen in Through the Looking Glass—to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

However, I felt guilty because in my profession  as a science communicator, for decades I tried to write accurately about real astronomy and astrophysics, working at three of the country’s top universities in the field—Caltech, MIT, and Cornell. Was I betraying my own principles, and incurring the scorn of scientists whom I greatly respect?

Fortunately, I’ve been able to bury that nagging guilt beneath some pretty substantive—and I think interesting—rationales.

Wormholes sources 2 (300x276)For one thing, I wanted to grab readers and lure them into exploring real science, just as I was captivated as a boy by the imaginative writings of legendary science fiction writers Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke. Their books, which launched flights of fictional fancy from real science, inspired me to want to know more about science, and ultimately to write about it. To give readers a path to that science, I even added a this list of sources of real science and engineering that inspired the book to the Wormholes web site.

My lying and thievery was also justified because I sought in the novel to reveal some greater truths about science and scientists.

For one thing, they’re an incredibly courageous and indefatigable lot. Few lay people realize that the vast majority of scientific experiments are failures. Scientists only advertise their successes, in scientific journal articles and news releases. But despite failure after failure, scientists persist, laboring away until they achieve success. And so, in Wormholes, my characters—including intrepid geologist Dacey Livingstone and iconoclastic physicist Gerald Meier—suffer failures that are sometimes deadly, resolutely learning from each failure and trying again.

The novel also portrays another greater truth—that scientists have been censured and censored for their theories, even in the face of good evidence. Among the most notorious modern examples is the censorship of climatologist James Hansen for his assertions that global warming is caused by human activities like burning fossil fuels.

I also experienced censorship in my career as a public information officer, which is a particular reason I wanted to portray it in the novel. At Caltech for example, in 1983 the administration killed a news release I’d written about economist Roger Noll. He had analyzed the organizational structure of large government R&D programs, including the then-new Space Shuttle. He declared the Shuttle program a “catastrophe,” because it rushed headlong into a massive construction program without carefully evolving the technology over multiple generations. Roger Noll’s criticisms were borne out by the Shuttle’s massive cost overruns, under-performance, and of course the subsequent, tragic Challenger and Columbia disasters. When my release was killed, I suspected it had to do with Caltech’s ties with NASA, via its Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But I thought maybe the administration knew something I didn’t about Noll or the Shuttle program.

Another egregious example: At Caltech, I’d written a news release about a paper by geochemist Clair Patterson on the health hazards of global lead pollution. The head of his Caltech division killed that release, even though Patterson’s evidence was solid and widely accepted. At the time, I believed that the censorship was due to some scientific issue I wasn’t aware of. Today I believe it might well have been fear of offending the powerful oil industry. Patterson’s advocacy ultimately led to a removal of lead from gasoline and other products.

So, perhaps I am a liar and a thief. But I can live with it, because not only have I tried to spin an entertaining sci-fi adventure tale. I’ve also tried to inspire readers to explore real science, and given them some real insight into scientists and their quests for discovery.





“A Bee in a Cathedral” Offers a Trove of Science Analogies

14 02 2012

Tired of writing clichéd science analogies like “…the size of a pinhead,” or “…the distance from the earth to the moon”? The new book A Bee in a Cathedral and 99 Other Scientific Analogies, by Joel Levy, can rescue you from the slough of triteness. How about these?

  • A human being consists of as much energy as is found in the matter of 30 very large H-bombs.
  • Every cell in your body, except red blood cells, contains roughly two meters of stringlike DNA molecules.
  • The energy released by a single hurricane could power the entire U.S. for six months.
  • Even a normal thunderstorm generates power equivalent to the energy consumption of the entire U.S. for four days.
  • A chunk of neutron star the size of a sugar cube weighs more than the human race.
  • All the hominid bones ever discovered could fit in the back of a pickup truck.
  • Every day the heart expends enough energy to drive a truck 20 miles. Over a lifetime, it could power a truck to the moon and back.
  • To see what it’s like to be your own heart, try using a teacup to empty a bathtub in 15 minutes—then do it again and again, without stopping, for the rest of your life.
  • The sun burns through matter at a rate equivalent to a million elephants every second.

And finally, of course, the title analogy: “If an atom were blown up to the size of a cathedral, the nucleus would be no larger than a bee buzzing about in the center, while the electrons would be ‘orbiting’ near the outermost edge.”

But A Bee in a Cathedral is more than a collection of neat analogies. It also explores the power of analogies, and it uses its analogies to explain some of the major concepts in science. Writes Levy

…analogy is so powerful that it is central not only to the communication of science but also the process of scientific advancement itself. Analogy is a key element of the mysterious phenomena of scientific inspiration and creativity, and the history of science is filled with examples of breakthroughs achieved by analogous reasoning.

He cites, for example, how Robert Boyle was inspired to develop his theories of gases by imagining gas particles as coiled springs; and how August Kekulé came up with the ring structure of benzene when he dreamed of a snake biting its own tail.

Levy’s writing exemplifies the use of analogies to explain dozens of concepts in physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, earth science, the human body and technology. So as a reference, the book is a great cheat sheet for science writers trying to explain phenomena as diverse as entropy, gene function, supernovae and volcanoes.

Levy also champions analogies as a means to make science more accessible and fun, declaring “science is like a houseplant—it needs to be taken out of its dingy corner and put in the sunlight once in a while if it’s to flourish.”

And that, of course, is a delightful simile to explain why compelling science writing is so important!





Nifty Web Sites Offer Online Communication Training

29 01 2011

The Web boasts a wealth of good sites for training in communication skills—from writing, to creating PowerPoint presentations, to making videos. And for most of them, the price is right: free!

Here are some of my favorite sites for online tips and training, and you can find links to many more communication-related Web sites in the references and resources section on the Explaining Research site.

Of course, online training can’t  place of an astute editor or a formal course, but they are an excellent way to introduce yourself to new skills and to brush up on existing ones.

Writing and editing

The World Federation of Science Journalists offers an online course in science journalism that gives a good grounding in the basics of the craft, World Federation of Science Journalists online courseincluding finding and judging science stories, interviewing, writing the story and reporting on controversies. And remarkably, the course is offered not only in English, but in Arabic, French, Portugese, Turkish, Spanish, and Chinese.

To train scientists to write more clearly, NIH has developed its Plain Language Training course. Although aimed primarily at NIH employees enrolled for credit, the site also allows outsiders to explore the course.

Also aimed at scientists is Bob Grant’s article in The Scientist, “Right Your Writing: How to Sharpen Your Writing and Make Your Manuscripts More Engaging.” It’s not a training course, but constitutes a good collections of savvy writing tips.

Explaining statistics in a meaningful way is one of the thorniest problems faced by scientists, journalists, and public information officers. Fortunately, the UN Economic Commission for Europe has produced an excellent set of  Making Data Meaningful guides. The guides, in English, Croatian, Spanish, and Japanese are

Public speaking

Although MIT researcher Patrick Winston’s series of “How to Speak” videos is aimed primarily at teachers, any public speaker will benefit from his wisdom. Here’s the intro video, which leads you through the series:

Also, the Wired How-To Wiki “Deliver the Perfect Presentation” is a handy introduction to good speaking practices. Follow its advice, and your talks will be immediately better. For more extensive speaking tips and techniques, explore the public speaking blogs

PowerPoint

Just about every speaker on science depends heavily on PowerPoint for visuals, and here are my favorite sites for learning both the basics and some of the program’s neat tricks:

You can find scads of other PowerPoint tips, templates, backgrounds, and videos in the Explaining Research references and resources for the chapter on giving talks.

Beyond PowerPoint, there are also new Web sites that offer presentation capabilities well worth exploring. For example the presentation program Prezi enables speakers to create large “pages” containing their presentation, which the presenter can maneuver around during the talk.

ZohoOther new sites enable not only production of shareable Web-based presentations, but also foster online collaboration. These include Zoho, 280Slides, Google Presentations, and Google Wave. The last enables groups to share pictures, slides, graphs, and other interactive elements in one long chatlike discussion thread.

Video

If you’re planning to create your own videos—or you just want to better understand what the pros you hire are doing—here are some good sites:

Finally, two other communication training sites well worth exploring are the Adobe tutorials on creating multimedia projects and Nikon’s MicroscopyU tutorials on creating dramatic microscopy images.





“Am I Making Myself Clear?” Absolutely!

12 10 2009

Cornelia Dean’s new book Am I Making Myself Clear?: a Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public does a great serviceamimakingmyselfclear to scientists, as well as journalists and the public. For one thing, it offers a concise guide for scientists to public communication from one of the country’s most distinguished science writer-editors. Dean brings to the book her extensive experience at arguably the world’s premier newspaper for science coverage, The New York Times.

Dean makes a compelling case for scientists’ involvement in public issues, declaring that “if they participated more in the public life of our nation, if they dropped their institutional reticence and let their voices be heard beyond realms of scholarly publication, they could … inject a lot of rationality into our public debates.”

Her chapters on the nature of the news business and the worsening state of science journalism not only help scientists understand what is an alien realm to most of them. Dean also offers a valuable inside look at the thinking process of a professional communicator wrestling with how to responsibly communicate hot-button scientific issues. For example, she writes how she developed a concise statement on the issue of evolution: “I eventually worked out the wording that allows me to sum up the situation, I believe accurately: there is no credible scientific challenge to the theory of evolution as an explanation for the complexity and diversity of life on earth. I use this language often when I write about evolution. But I am criticized for it. On some Web sites, creationists call it ‘Cornelia’s Creed.’”

The book also offers a wealth of insightful journalists’ tips on working with an editor, interviewing subjects, writing op eds, crafting letters to the editor, working with editorial boards, and writing accessibly about science. My favorite writing tip: “when writing in English, a language derived from German, strive to use words with German roots in preference to words with Latinate roots. Talk about cats not felines, or water that is safe to drink rather than potable. Don’t inhale and respond, take a breath and answer.” Also valuable is her perspective on how to effectively and responsibly work with public relations people to disseminate news of one’s research findings.

Her chapter covering the bumpy road from print to online journalism offers readers a cautionary road map charting the hazards, warning that

online journalism is developing standards that differ, sometimes wildly, from what some journalism scholars call “the discipline of verification,” a hallmark of the mainstream media. That discipline can give way to a “journalism of assertion” in which people post, often anonymously, erroneous, defamatory, vulgar, or mindless observations that would rarely, if ever, gain attention at a respectable news outlet.

And for those scientists contemplating writing a popular book, Dean offers the pithiest piece of advice I’ve ever encountered on the subject: “Don’t think about writing a book unless you really cannot help yourself.” If, indeed, you cannot help yourself, Dean’s guidance on navigating the publishing world and working with a collaborator are invaluable.

No scientist should consider plunging into the messy arenas of the courtroom or Congress—testifying as an expert in court, or before a congressional committee—without reading Dean’s chapters on those subjects. Her clear explanations of the pitfalls and techniques in such endeavors will no doubt rescue many scientists from missteps and make them far more effective.

It is fortunate that the publishers decided to make the book’s cover a distinctive orange, so that it will be easily locatable on the great many scientists’ bookshelves where it deserves to reside.





Disney Can Teach Lessons in Communicating Science

3 05 2009

You might think of Disney World as merely a vacation destination, with or without the requisite kids. But I’ve found that Disney really has much to teach researchers about communicating science and technology. And I don’t just mean tricks to hold the attention of squirmy school kids during a school science talk.

Disney World offers lessons about communication research that can make your seminars, Web content, and articles more engaging and thus effective. I really didn’t come to appreciate what Disney World can teach about explaining research until my latest trip. So, I dedicated the visit to exploring science communication Disney-style and how it offers take-home lessons that researchers might find useful.

Disney communicates science so effectively because its “imagineers” understand that just providing information is not enough. In creating Disney World, they understood that audiences need more than just information; they also need motivation to take in that information. And wherever possible, the imagineers offer audiences an involving experience that makes the information memorable. Researchers attempting to explain their research usually miss out on the benefits of motivation and experience because they neglect them in their communications.

For example, you likely see your departmental seminar as purely an informational event meant to convey as clearly as possible your latest experimental results. But because your audience comprises real people, reaching them most effectively also means motivating them and giving them an engaging experience.

To show what I’m talking about, here are examples from my Disney World visit, along with ideas on how you might apply them to make your research communications more effective. First, how Disney uses motivation:

As you might expect, Disney effectively motivates by injecting whimsy and humor into its science communication, especially using its cartoon characters, For example, in EPCOT’s The Land pavilion, for example, the “Circle of Life” movie uses characters from The Lion King to engagingly convey the need for environmental preservation. And in “The Seas with Nemo and Friends” pavilion, the entry ride superimposes cartoon characters over the real-life aquarium in the facility. (By the way, Disney offers useful Web pages giving an overview of its “Environmentality”  and Education programs.

In motivating visitors, Disney also knows how to take advantage of teachable moments to explain science. For example, bathrooms in the Animal Kingdom’s Conservation Station have “Whiz Quiz” plaques posted over the urinals and on the stall doors. The Whiz Quiz over the men’s room urinals asked “How much do elephants pee?” (20 gallons), and How far can rhinos and tapirs pee? (15 feet).

Waiting for Animal Kingdom’s Dino-Land Dinosaur thrill ride, visitors hear a concise explanation of the meteorite impact believed to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. The ride itself is introduced by scientists including a black woman. And during the ride, the narrator calls out the species names of the animatronic dinosaurs as they menace the riders. The Dino-Institute also displays the science-friendly slogan “Exploration, Excavation, Exultation.” (Unfortunately, there was a mildly anti-science sign in the Dino-Land Chester & Hester’s Dino-Rama carnival rides. The sign showed a cartoon dinosaur ejecting a white-coated scientist, with the caption “Scientific? Nope. Terrific!”)

In Downtown Disney, the T-Rex Café offers another good example Disney’s grasp of the motivating teachable moment. Diners are surrounded by a collection of animatronic dinosaurs that periodically erupt with roars and movement, giving them a feel for what real dinosaurs must have been like. The cafe also offers the educational “Paleo-Zone,” which includes an archeological dig and educational video games.

Certainly, in your communications you can’t summon animatronic dinosaurs to create teachable moments. Nor would you probably want to post your research abstracts on bathroom stalls. But you can create other teachable moments to offer audiences information about your work. You could post articles or displays in the waiting rooms, hallways, and cafeterias of your building–and not just leftover posters from meetings, but displays tailored for important visitors, from students to donors.

You could add to your Web site a category of links to interesting background articles, FAQs, Q&As, videos, and other content. This material could come from your professional association or funding agency. The Explaining Research Web site has a list of such sources.

Also, consider creating a Facebook page or blog on which you record interesting news about your work, as covered in Explaining Research.

In looking for places to create teachable moments, think like Disney. Ask yourself what venues your audiences frequent, and what kind of information might be appropriate to for those venues? Now, on to examples of how Disney uses experience to communicate:

For many visitors to EPCOT, their first experience is the Spaceship Earth ride inside the giant geodesic dome. This “dark ride” takes visitors past animated tableaus depicting the history of communication – for example an animatronic man pounding papyrus into a flat sheet and printers using the first printing press. However, the most involving experience, comes near the end of the ride. Visitors see on the computer screen in their ride pod an image of their face inserted into a scenario of life in the future. When the ride ends, they then emerge into an “interactive playground,” in which, for example, they can assemble a human body in 3D.

The Animal Kingdom also includes a multitude of science-related experiences. Besides such rides as the Kilamanjaro Safari through the park, visitors walking the pathways might encounter an explainer carrying an animal–we saw a caged spider–who can answer questions about its biology and behavior.

Visitors can also see how the park’s animals are cared for. They can peer through a window into the veterinary center in The Animal Kingdom’s Conservation Station in the Rafiki Planet Watch to watch animals get checkups and medical procedures.

Disney also makes its experiences multisensory, for example effectively using sound. “The Song of the Rainforest” comprises a set of dimly lit booths in which visitors don headphones to hear ultra-realistic rainforest sounds of animals, insects, chainsaws, and falling trees. The Planet Watch also offers information on projects visitors can do to create their own backyard animal habitats.

While you can’t bring such elaborate experiences to your audiences, you can come surprisingly close. When you give a seminar or talk, bring along an organism, mineral sample, instrument, or other object your audience can see, or even handle. If your work involves an interesting sound, include it in your presentation. Perform an engaging demonstration; or if there is some relevant, experiment your audience can do on their own, offer a handout or Web URL describing the experiment. Show a video of an experimental procedure. Even if that procedure is relatively mundane, the show-and-tell will make your talk more memorable. Direct your audience to an interesting place in the area where they can encounter an aspect of your work, for example a rock outcropping in a park or a museum exhibit. Ask for a volunteer from the audience, and use them in a demonstration, preferably a non-destructive one.

Also, think about ways to make your laboratory building experiential. You might install display cases with examples of your work. Or, if there is a public window into your laboratory, you might post information on the instruments and procedures that take place there. This assumes that your lab techs don’t mind having people peering at them.

It has always surprised and disappointed me how bereft laboratory buildings are of information and exhibits on the work going on there. This educational sterility has its consequences in making for an unfriendly atmosphere for audiences who might be interested in the work. Creating a version of a motivational, experiential “Disney World” in your laboratory has definite value in advancing your work. You never know when it might attract a passing student, colleague, administrator, or donor to become involved in your research.

In stressing Disney World’s use of motivation and experience, I don’t mean to imply that it fails to provide information. For most visitors, that information is packaged as modest nuggets embedded craftily in the fun experience. However, for those who want in-depth information, Disney does offer more extensive encounters. For example, most visitors in the Land pavilion are content with the short boat ride through the greenhouses, sliding quickly past displays of farming techniques such as aquaculture, hydroponics, and aeroponics. But visitors who want more can take the in-depth Behind the Seeds tour to learn about those techniques in more detail.

We took the Behind the Seeds tour, and besides learning more about the farming methods used, our enthusiastic, articulate agronomist guide showed us techniques of integrated pest management and tissue culture. We also tasted hydroponically grown cucumbers, and smelled samples of coffee, vanilla, pepper, and other crops grown in the giant greenhouses.

Disney certainly has far more resources than you do at their disposal to motivate visitors and give them memorable experiences. But with even a modest effort, you can make your talks, Web sites, articles, and videos more than just a Mickey Mouse production.








Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 386 other followers