Before I began working at TRIUMF, I knew that science communication was a thing; much in the same way that I knew that there was someone, somewhere manufacturing tissue paper. It was just something that was. Reading an article in Scientific American or, to an extent, Wired, I never paused to consider who had written the article and what made an effective piece of science writing. I simply read it and moved on. Now that I have written a few articles that discuss science—nothing too long or in-depth, mind you—I have caught a glimpse of the harrowing plight of the science communicator and it is one fraught with frustration and self-doubt, but it is not without hope.
I, along with the majority of the communications team at TRIUMF, attended a talk at UBC called, “STORYOMICS: Proof that Scientists Evolved from Humans,” presented by scientist and documentary filmmaker, Randy Olson. I won’t go into too much detail about what he talked about because, to me, it was somewhat commonsensical. (Note: This may be because I’m an English major, whose sole purpose is to be painfully familiar with the components of a story.)
After the talk, a man named Dave Ng joined us for lunch. While we were chattering away, he said something that, initially, seemed like just an insightful observation. However, It has been ricocheting around in the damp recesses of my brain ever since. The observation was this: when news broke about the faster-than-light neutrinos, everyone covered it. Everyone. Of all the people who covered it, what percentage do you think knew—without reciting the Wikipedia entry for it from memory—what a neutrino actually was? Very few, I would bet. Judging from what I had read at the time, it seemed that everyone had reposted chunks of CERN/OPERA’s press release with bits of fluff around it to make it look like an original work. The main thrust of my scattershot thought process, the philosophical question that has me wandering the desert of my psyche looking for an answer is: can you ever effectively report on/write about something that you don’t have a deep knowledge of?
I used to write for a university newspaper and, while I did write about current events and physical fitness (which, if you know me, is not my forte), I gravitated towards the Arts and Life section. I wrote about books, movies, television, and video games. What do all of these things have in common? I know about them. When I wrote about books, I was in my natural element because I understood the underlying principles that govern narrative and I knew the significance of things that the woefully uninitiated don’t pick up on (I once wrote an entire paper on the use of en and em dashes in a play, so don’t even dispute me on this). The writing was full of verve and wit (if I do say so myself). It had a confident, singular voice behind it. Confidence is the key to communicating anything effectively, but it is rare to find someone who is confident speaking about something they are not knowledgeable of. That’s why we see this paradigm: The head of the communications department at TRIUMF, Tim Meyer, is an excellent science communicator…who has a PhD in physics. Randy Olson is an effective science communicator…who has a PhD in biology. The list goes on: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, etc. The point is that there is no doubt that scientists can become communicators. Can communicators communicate science, though? That seems to be a point of contention for scientists and communicators alike.
Before we go any further, I should probably establish my credentials: My background in science is less than negligible. I took Physics 11 in high school and Biology 100 in university. One of my (many) problems is that I was born with the curiosity of a scientist but without any of the skills to back it up. My interest in science is what made the opportunity to work at TRIUMF so appealing. It promised the opportunity to write about science, which is something that scared me, still scares me.
I recently wrote about the controversy surrounding the CERN/OPERA faster-than-light neutrino experiment and I was nervous the entire time. The prose was shaky, too reliant on quotes, and meek. It was listless and gray, devoid of all effervescence or joie de vivre. It was a passable science article. I felt how I think many science communicators feel in the beginning: gutted. The lack of “myself” in the article called into question whether I could communicate effectively, or if I had ever done so.
Science communicators are in the enviable and rare position to be attacked from every angle: from scientists for not being thorough enough and from communicators for being boring and ineffective. Both parties are assailing disparate aspects of the work and no one is pleased. If you heard a funeral dirge in the back of your mind while reading this, prepare for the tinkling, inspirational piano number because, in my mind, there is hope. I’ve only been at TRIUMF for three months, but I already feel like I’ve learned a great deal about science communication.
1.) Always collaborate, when possible, with someone who is deeply familiar with the science you are discussing. I know it’s easier to Google, but this is the Internet. I’m a doctor on the Internet. This way, when you cite your sources, you don’t have to cite Wikipedia, you can cite a professional, which will confer a lot of credence to whatever you wrote.
2.) Metaphor is your new best friend. You already have a best friend? Too bad. You might not know the dictionary definition of metaphor, but humans have been using it forever (hyperbole) to communicate complex ideas to the many. The more complex the concept, the more important the metaphor becomes.
3.) Don’t be afraid to imbue the work with a sense of style. This is what I see most often. People think that because something is about science, it needs to be antiseptic. It doesn’t. If you’re a communicator, you have a unique voice, or I hope you have, anyway.
With the modicum of experience that I have in communicating science, I realize I’m no professional—yet—and this is by no means an “answer” to the questions posed earlier. These points are, however, a jumping off point for people who may be thinking about communicating science, but are afraid it has to be the written or verbal equivalent of gruel. They are also for the people who are communicating science but it has become so mechanical for them that they can’t see themselves in their work anymore.
My time at TRIUMF lasts five more months, and the journey will, without a doubt, involve more frustration and failure in the face of this nigh-rhetorical question. Instead of gently weeping into that good night, I will use the words of Charles Kettering, an engineer I just Googled, to give me hope: “99 percent of success is built on failure.”
–Written by Jordan Pitcher (Communications Assistant)