science online 2011

Every science writer has their own reasons for getting into science communication—their own goals and purpose that drives them. Some are focused on science literacy—their aim to take a complicated research paper and break it down so the average non-scientist can derive its importance. Others target more of a peer audience, bringing newly discovered research to light in a format that can be quickly absorbed and applied in specific scientific arenas. And some write about science just because they like to discuss things they find interesting in a non-structured environment with other scientists or science enthusiasts.

These are all wonderful and perfectly valid methods of science communication, ones that are greatly needed and should be highly valued for the audience they serve.

But, it's just not why I'm in this thing.  My particular goals are a bit different. I didn't start writing about science just to simplify complicated material or translate data, or even just to share something cool that was recently published. I would say my goal is more educational, but it goes beyond even that.

My main purpose in science writing was beautifully explained by Radio Lab's Robert Krulwich during his keynote address at the Science Online 2011 conference a few weeks ago. He discussed the various ways we, as science communicators, can bring science to the public, touching on a number of things—how to make science accessible to the non-scientist, the importance of making the information relevant to each person individually, and different ways to draw people in who otherwise might not be interested in science by creative use of medium, such as sound and film.

But there was one point he brought up that I found paramount to the others, and best explained why I personally chose to be a science writer. Krulwich began by saying:
"The world is a rich, fantastic place, and all you have to do is scratch anywhere, and there it is—but it starts with a belief in wonder and curiosity."
Wonder and curiosity. Those two simple words exquisitely describe what drives me in my work, and what keeps me readily tangled in my love affair with research. Wonder and curiosity is what fuels me in my relentless pursuit of answers, hours upon hours of searching, just for the potential reward of finding something out that has yet to be discovered.

How do we share this wonder and curiosity with others? Through stories.

Krulwich went on to say,
"You can use plain language, you can use a conversational voice, you can use theater, you can use metaphor, you can use humor, you can use music. BUT—the best way to sell a science story each and every time, is to give the audience the experience, if you can, of actually making a discovery on their own—the 'oh, wow' feeling."
You know that moment—some call it the "Ah-Ha!" moment of creative insight, when a solution or a discovery hits you all at once. When I'm working on a problem, and I come upon that moment—when everything comes together for the first time, I finally see the big picture, the completed puzzle—the exhilaration transcends words. When we are sharing that knowledge with our audience, we should allow them to feel that sense of discovery as well. As Krulwich says, we should "allow the rediscovery of wonder".

That experience—the one of initial discovery, of fulfilled curiosity, is what I aim to communicate through my writing.

I had a very inspiring conversation with fellow science writer Ed Yong at Science Online, where we discussed the idea of taking the science "beyond the paper". This means not just translating one paper or one set of data and explaining it in a blog post, but taking the knowledge derived from that paper, combining it with other related concepts, and putting it together in a way that shows the reader a whole new way of looking at that problem. You are telling a story—one that begins with a scientific finding, and ends with a brand-new perspective on that problem, offering new solutions. You aren't just repackaging information, you are creating new ideas. You are presenting new concepts, that perhaps have never been conceived before.

Innovating solutions, offering novel insights, all in a blog post.  Yes, folks, it can be done.

When we use our blogs to share new ideas, you are allowing the rediscovery of wonder. The science story you are telling has never been told before—no one has ever put together those associations, or drawn that unique conclusion, or made that connection between two seemingly unrelated things in quite that way before. When they read it for the first time, they think "HEY! Now THAT'S interesting!"—you've created the "Oh-WOW" moment. That sense of surprise, and more importantly—a compelling ending to your science story—creates excitement. We love excitement.

I've had this approach to my blog from the very beginning. I've always aimed to share brand-new ideas—offer people things they haven't read before, haven't thought of before, or haven't understood before. Sharing an idea, and having someone understand a concept in a new way for the very first time, creating that sense of discovery—that's why I'm in this game.

I spoke with other "seasoned" bloggers some time ago, discussing our individual purposes in blogging. I was told by some that I was crazy for unveiling my original ideas in a blog post, rather than saving them for an academic publication. I asked why this wasn't more common; his answer—fear of being scooped.

I see this in a different light. When I unleash my little nuggets of golden insights and fresh perspectives in my blog, is there a chance someone is going to come along, take my ideas, and publish a paper or design a study around them? Sure. In fact, in the year and a half I've been blogging, it has happened already. But I really don't care about that. So I get scooped. I want to get scooped. It tells me I'm on to something good. When someone takes my idea and publishes it, great! Then I can take that idea to the next level, and so on. Progress is made in the evolution of that idea. And that is the main point here. I'm in this game to spread ideas, not rack up publications, and the more people that get involved—the more progress that's made.

Why hoard your ideas, locked away in a notebook, waiting for peer review, when you have an audience right here, waiting to hear what you have to say? When I make a new discovery or have an insight that helps to answer a problem that has not been answered before, I want to write about it. I don't want to wait months or years for peer review—I want to do it now, while I'm still wicked excited about it. Again, it comes down to why you are in this game in the first place. Not just as a writer, but as a scientist. I'm not doing this for prestige or awards, I'm in it for the pleasure of finding things out (as Feynman would say)—even more importantly, I'm in it for the joy of sharing those stories with the world.

I'm not trying to imply that my way is the only way, or that other science writers are doing it wrong—absolutely not. There are lots of different people in this world who need to be reached in many different ways, so a variety of approaches is good. However, I do wish more science writers were open with sharing new ideas on their blogs, instead of saving them for the journals. When you are constantly filtering and monitoring your ideas, fearing The Scoop, it hinders your creativity. I would rather free my mind, open myself up for creative insight, and use the input from others as scaffolding to reach even newer heights of scientific innovation.

If people valued pure innovation as much as they did prestige, it blows my mind to think of the progress that could be made. So here's my plea to you: Share your stories. Be open with your discoveries, your little insights. Allow the rediscovery of wonder. You never know—you may discover something pretty amazing yourself in the process.


*I know there are laws against revealing data from studies that involve patents and whatnot, but that's not what I'm talking about here.

**Photo courtesy of Louis Shackleton