Friday, February 1, 2013

What does it mean to write about science as a non-scientist and a non-journalist

This is my first year attending Science Online. It is pretty terrible that this conference has been running for quite a number of years (six?) and I only learnt of it sometime in the Fall of 2011. And it was at an open science talk by Michael Nielsen at Duke University, which I stumbled upon serendipitiously. However, after picking up the postcard with the whole Science Online thing that I knew nothing about and then sticking it up at the carrell of my office, I promptly forgot, busied with so many things grad school while trying to settle into the dissertation writing phase of my graduate career.
           Ironically, it was between the period I found out, but missing out in 2012 because I forgot to register early even as I was also a part of the organization team for another conference hosted by my department that same weekend, and then getting myself a spot this year at the last minute (thanks Karyn!) that an increasing amount of my writing began using science objects (physics, more specifically), for examination from the perspective of a humanist angle. However, I am not merely content with treating these objects as metaphors or as objects that I subject to critical examination without also conducting a full examination of these very objects within their own territories and at their point of epistemological genesis. This may have to do with the fact that I have loved science for as long as I could remember, probably due to the fact that I used to, in my naive childhood, associate it with the likes of magic and sorcery. Even though I took a physics degree and did not pursue it further, formally, I found myself coming full circle as I went from writing code and indigestible sentences about physics as an undergrad, to learning how to lace my sentences and turn of phrases with more grace and elegance as an English MA graduate student, to becoming this interdisciplinary faux-polymathic humanist in my current state of PhD Candidacy who attempts to connect the world of frontier-end physics with humanistic engagements. Talking to scientists and humanists equally made me realized just how little do they understand the content of each other's work and discourses, leading to much misconception and even reductive assumptions.
              I know I am not alone in such thoughts, as there have been other humanists such as myself who work within the periphery of such engagements, viewed with some level of suspicion by some of the more orthodox humanists as being possibly too 'sciency' or 'scientistic' in our outlook, even if our work attempt to critique these same ideologies. Or that we working with ideas considered too abstract or self-preoccupied with their cleverness, connecting to nothing that is natural and intuitive in real life. I am fortunate to have the support of my committee, though they are probably finding me increasingly difficult to keep up with (in terms of my stubborn attempt to pursue my areas of inquiry even if this means forever locking myself out of any traditional academic humanistic profession). However, I have arrive at this stage of my career where I finally understood where I want to be, in terms of my work, and will work myself out of any acceptable academic career if it means I get to pursue it (I can always try for other jobs). And my virgin foray in Science Online this year came at just the right time. I hope one day I can organize something along the lines of Humanities Online, because humanities also needs to make itself known, understood and relevant to the larger populace beyond those who are majors, graduate students, professors, and a few cultural/literary critics, even though the political structure that shapes the humanities, even in terms of its pedagogy, is quite different from that of the sciences.
             Because of my work and class schedule, I regretted missing the preconference that came the day before the start of the official sessions. Therefore, my 'official' introduction began yesterday morning, when I arrived a little late, but not too late, to catch the Convergence sessions (they are like a panel of keynote speakers), who are the communications people from the Jet Propulsion Lab. It was great to hear the excitement that they bring in talking about their work, and what they love about their work, and their desire to communicate what JPL does to a larger public. As all space geeks would know, NASA has been sharing their inanimate material since internet became part of the public domain, the whole idea of podcasting space flight by connecting to the computers on a space shuttle/vehicle is definitely the invention of this century. The first session I attended was about how statistics can be misused or abused in the communication of scientific information, which is something that is relevant for my own work since I have to work with mathematical ideas, albeit applied ones to physical spaces. As I was on duty that first day afternoon, I missed out on attending most of the afternoon sessions. However, I did manage to talk to various individuals let connected me to key information on science writing and science outreach activities that I had a vague notion of but did not quite understand, previously. At the same time, I was able to attend the last session where the majority scientists in attendance were talking about the politics of publishing and peer review, and how to find alternative ways of getting their work out that can circumvent the politics of publishing (there is this continuous talk about the process of what gets counted as publishable in the science, which is certainly quite different from that in the humanities).
            However, today is definitely important, because, I finally get to hear experienced science writers, scientists who are also science communicators, science communicators who did not have that formal science training but still managed to do remarkable work in communicating ideas well to the larger public, and a sundry of other people with definite strong interests in science. In fact, the Convergence session was great because we got to see how one can set up a stargazing party world over using google plus (incidentally, a group of physicists doing foundational quantum theory have also been using google plus for their 'international' virtual conferences) and a medievalist/renaissance scholar turned rap artist who popularizes evolutionary biology in his music (he was also the first musician to win a science communication funding from the Wellcome Trust, which seems to be going all out to promote the biomedical sciences in everyway possible).  The first breakout session I went to for today was about how to go beyond complete dependence on the textual to be able to communicate intricate and complex ideas in the sciences, while also doing a good and professional job of that. The session was rife with discussion on the collaboration process between different science enthusiasts of varying technical and creative skills can come together and work on furthering a specific science communication project. I observed a couple of people in the room who were making notes of the session by drawing out the ideas thrown about, color coding them and inserting snippets of texts and captions to accentuate the points (in fact, in the main break room, there were big boards of drawings done by one of the participants that attempted to synthesize all the sessions that she had attended into visual points).
             During the blitz sessions, that is remarkably similar but also with some diference, from the ThatCamp sessions in the humanities,  were presentations by various platforms (I met the founders of and Math Overflow!) as well, as well as sessions that attempted to problem-solve, for the hour leading to lunch time. I was disappointed that I missed out on the science film screenings, since there were just too many parallel sessions ongoing. Then I had to miss lunch-networking session and an afternoon breakout session to rush home for class, which I ended up being late for anyway.  Then it was another half- hour trip back to Raleigh to attend the final session of the day, as I would not want to miss a session helmed by two experienced science writers, with a roomful of other science writing luminaries, who can offer interesting insight into the art of explanatory science writing (actually, as of now, I am not yet completely certain as to what a non-effective explanatory writing would look like, but I am sure I will understand better once I look through the recommendations here).
           Nevertheless, explanatory writing ranges from being able to explain, in limited words, the key concepts in the sciences that were less known by the general public to be able to provide a background and historical narrative that combines different sources to the story (something akin to investigative journalism) to make it exciting yet simple. Of course, being able to explain any scientific concept to a child is always a good way to start. The most important thing is to find analogies that can possibly work, and also take the time to interpret the science even as one is describing it, which is what I am trying to do in my own work, though I am still working on the presentation. I like the idea of being able to speak to a diverse audience, even to an audience that may not originally care about the topic of what you are writing about, but who started to care because you make that topic come alive for them. I definitely would love to learn how to writing about theory in both science and the humanities, come alive, since much of the more abstract materials, however, interesting always read like deadwood (I can name, but will not, a long list of scientific and humanistic luminaries who fall into that latter category).
       The other interesting thing about being at ScienceOnline were the things you can attempt to engage in between sessions, all the books on display and to be given out during the lottery on the final day. Then, another set of free books to be given out to attendees. Various platforms trying to reach out to researchers (I found out about some new platforms I did not know about previously). Interesting keynote sessions that can rival TedTalks.  I look forward to seeing what I can learn more tomorrow!

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