Russell's Blog

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Science, the practice of

Posted by Russell on July 25, 2010 at 6:40 a.m.

This is the first in a series of articles I plan to write over the next three weeks covering my field expedition to Uzon Caldera and attendance the 2010 International Workshop on Biodiversity, Molecular Biology and Biogeochemistry of Thermophiles. In this post, I'll outline my plans for the series and explain why I'm writing it.

If you would like to follow along, check in here, or subscribe to my RSS feed. Or if you would like to follow the series and not the rest of my blog, I will be tagging all of the posts in the series kamchatka. At Uzon Caldera, I will be posting updates to my Twitter feed by satellite phone (you can also subscribe to my Twitter RSS feed.)

Before I leave on Tuesday, I will post articles introducing the natural history of Kamchatka, my plans and preparations for getting getting there and working there, and maybe a few other things.

I have two broad goals :

  • Study the biochemistry, genomics, and physiology of thermophilic organisms in their natural habitat.
  • Document and share the experience.
These are two fairly distinct missions. First of all, I'm looking for material for my thesis, particularly a metagenomic target suitable for the technique I'm developing. For the hard science, I will try to confine myself to observations and avoid drawing conclusions. I'll save that for the journals.

The second mission is to bring you along. I've been asked by my thesis advisor to write about, photograph, tweet and film as much of the field expedition and the workshop as possible, and present it as an example of what it's like to actually do science. My goal is to present the company, the food, the work, the travel, the joys, the annoyances, the surprises, the good, the bad, and the ridiculous.

Science remains firmly misunderstood by the public. My personal experience suggests that the public actually understands the products of science -- powerful theories and key facts -- a bit better than polling data suggests. The core of public misunderstanding, I think, rests in how people believe science works as an institution and as a profession.

A couple of years ago, Fermilab invited a group of seventh graders to visit the laboratory to check out the various awesome things they have available for the public to see. Before the visit, the students were asked to write about what they thought scientists were like, and to draw a picture to go along with it. After the visit, they were asked to repeat the exercise. The results eye-opening. Here is an example I particularly liked, from a girl named Rachel :

before

after

Most of the before pictures feature lab coats filled by older, white men without much hair. Many of the kids mentioned that they thought scientists were "a little bit crazy," and most represented their scientist as some sort of authority figure. The after-visit results are equally interesting; many of the comments seem astonished that scientists have families, and that they enjoy things other than science.

The phrase "regular people" comes up again and again in their after-visit writing. Students are usually pretty good at ignoring phrases that are deliberately emphasized. When you see a bunch students incorporate exactly the same phrase into a free-form writing assignment, it's usually something that an adult mentioned without anticipating the impact it would have. The concept that scientists could be "regular people" was evidently a bit of a shock.

Obviously this is anecdotal, and it's important not to read too much into it. It is, however, a useful example of the sort of challenges we face if we want society to understand science itself, rather than simply memorizing the things science produces. None of this is original to me. If you want an entertaining treatment of science in the media, check out Christopher Frayling's Mad, Bad and Dangerous?: The Scientist and the Cinema (I apologize for the bizarre question-mark colon thing).

I've written about this before. Last November, I wrote :

The problem is that scientists do not spend enough time talking with the general public. Only a small minority of scientists take the trouble to arrange their findings in a form digestible by the lay audience, as Darwin did. When they do, it is almost never cutting-edge research that fills the pages. Very few scientists go on television or the radio. The practice today is to bring research to lay the audience only when it is neatly tied up (or, the research community feels that it is, anyway). There are those who do otherwise, but there is a negative stigma to it; scientists who announce their findings with press releases instead of peer-reviewed papers are usually regarded with suspicion.
Scientists have a responsibility to share what they do.

Over the next three weeks, I'm going to put that thought into action.

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