Science Home Movies and Technical Ships in a Bottle

By Carl Zimmer | February 25, 2011 11:27 am

I’ve had a long-running email conversation with Randy Olson, a biologist-turned-film-maker, about what works and what fails when you are trying to convey science to the world at large. In his documentary Flock of Dodos, Randy looked at how creationists made inroads in his home state of Kansas. Randy argued in the movie that evolutionary biologists needed to learn how to do a better job of talking about their work to the public, especially when there’s a well-funded publicity machine operating on the other side. Otherwise, they end up sounding obtuse and high-handed.

Olson makes a similar point in his book, Don’t Be Such A Scientist. In one chapter he takes a close look at how his fellow ocean scientists worked long and hard on a massive report on the state of the oceans (it’s in a bad way), convinced that the sheer poundage of the report would send ripples through the country and lead to concrete actions to deal with the crisis. After the report made its great thunk, nothing of the sort happened. The scientists simply didn’t have any way of talking about their message in less than several hundred pages.

Olson and I send each other new examples of this failure to communicate. In November, for example, I sent Randy a link to a new site called ClimateEngage.org. It consists of nothing more than a letter some climate scientists wrote to the journal Science about the need to communicate, with a list of endorsements. “We call for the science community to develop, implement, and sustain an independent initiative with a singular mandate: to actively and effectively share information about climate change risks and potential solutions with the public, particularly decision-makers in the public, private, and non-profit sectors,” they wrote.

As I wrote to Randy at the time, “That’s sure got zing.”

Randy replied, “Indeed, like a nudibranch sprinting across the top of a kelp frond.”

A year ago, Randy started writing a series of essays at The Benshi on this problem. I find them worthwhile and provocative, even if I don’t always agree with them. His most recent one especially resonated with me. He likens the way scientists talk about science to the way parents have subjected their friends and neighbors to home movies of their children. Of course they love their children. Of course their children are wonderful. (Well, most of them.) Nevertheless, their movies can be exquisite torture. For the parents, every scrap of film is equally precious. And if someone kindly suggests trying to shape their footage into a narrative, the parents are outraged. It sounds as if you hate their children.

From my own experiences teaching science graduate students about writing–and suffering through ultradense powerpoint presentations–I’ve come up with a similar image: a ship in a bottle. If scientists have only 15 minutes to present a year’s worth of research, or if some sadistic journalist challenges them to explain a paper in 500 words, many of them feel compelled to talk about every facet of the work. Just as a ship in a bottle has tiny portholes and capstans, articles and talks by scientists often include miniaturized representations of every twist, turn, and digression in a particular topic.

Unfortunately, language and stories don’t scale down like wood and sail cloth. In my most recent workshop for grad students at Yale, I asked them to write about a charming paper last year by Roman Stocker of MIT and his colleagues on how cats drink. The most common error was the urge to include every jot and tittle in the article, despite the fact that the paper and supplementary material run over 3700 words, and the article could only be 500. There is simply no way you can just shrink that down to less than a seventh its original size.

Nevertheless, some students felt compelled to take the final paragraph of the paper:

The subtle use of the tongue in the drinking process of F. catus is remarkable, given the tongue’s lack of skeletal support (28). Complex movement in the absence of rigid components is a common feature of muscular hydrostats, which in addition to tongues include elephant trunks and octopus arms (28, 29). The functional diversity and high compliance of these structures continue to inspire the design of soft robots (29), and a fundamental understanding of their functionality can lead to new design concepts and is essential to inform biomechanical models (29, 30).

…and turn it into passages like,

Stocker would not have been able to convince his colleagues to study how cats lap if there were not larger implications for this type of research. He viewed the problem as a question of biomechanics from the start. As it turns out, understanding how the tongue works to transport water can serve as inspiration in designing soft robots that can handle liquids.

As I pointed out in class, this sentence–the closing sentence in this particular story–leaves the reader in limbo. And it’s a lost opportunity. Soft robots–even in hypothetical ones–are exquisitely cool. But just referring elliptically to “soft robots” is meaningless. In order for soft robots to achieve coolness in the minds of readers, a writer has to actually explain what they are, and how cat tongue biomechanics can help guide their development. Doing so takes time–or, more precisely, words. And that means that a writer has to make some choices. The writer must ask, “What part of the study am I going to leave out. What is the story I am going to tell?”

This seems to be a very hard lesson for scientists to learn. But it’s a crucial one. Leave the ships in a bottle on the mantelpiece. Put your home movies into Final Cut Pro and learn how to cut and splice. Think about what it takes to tell a story.

[Images-- Dad at the projector: The Benshi, Ship: Photo by Roni G/Flickr, Cat: Photo by tanakawho/Flickr, Soft robot: Wiley]

[Update: Apologies for the typos, now fixed.]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Meta

Comments (4)

  1. johnk

    Nice example.

    Some suggestions:
    #1. start with a question that people would like to know an answer to.
    #2. play with the sequence of presentation. The sequence does not have to follow the experimental sequence.

    #1 is really tricky, but essential. If you can pull the reader in with the question, your half-way home. There was an excellent segment on NOVA last week about how scientists use the molecular clock of lice to estimate major changes in human evolution and culture. I thought the show posed the question beautifully: they made the question seem significant, and made it clear what the major obstacles were to getting an answer.

  2. There’s maybe one singer-songwriter on Earth who has successfully written a song about songwritting that is worth hearing. There aren’t any social media writers (yet) who have written a piece about producing social media commentary worth reading. But it appears that we’re making progress in science journalism. Science should be an easy sell.

    Here’s a small contribution. I have a monthly astronomy TV program. I’ve been doing a segment called “Term of the Month”. I’ve been improving the quality of the segment rapidly, probably because i’m not fond of dictionaries. When was the last time you read one? Great vocabulary, but the plot is hard to follow. My approach until recently has been to write five minutes of content, and when it’s time to shoot it, i cram it into the three minutes i have, mostly by sacrificing the humor. It’s a bad idea. The humor is hard to write. I mean, the only astronomy joke i know is “Astronomy is looking up!” Sigh. The new idea is to sacrifice content. Horrors! And my very first attempt had my cameraman doing everything he could to keep from laughing out loud. He hadn’t seen my rehearsal, so it was new. This was the response i was looking for. I’d be willing to bet real money, maybe a dollar or even fifty cents, that people watching this bit will remember something from it. And the term of the month was “Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation”. An abstract and humorless idea if i ever heard one.

    Humor isn’t the only way to do it. I was struck by the unlikely idea that i could feel sorry for cockroaches. That’s a great story for the kids at the dinner table.

  3. I think this is so important, and you do well to bring it round to your students at the end. I think it’s something like reporting on a football game. Lots of intricate things may be going on, but you’ve got to find a narrative and tell it well. The irony is that when writers fall into the obvious narratives that would work for sports,, they look hackneyed for science.

    I think it really is more challenging to write science well.

  4. Well said, Carl. As a university science magazine editor, I get suggestions for topics as though the stories should be obvious. Undergraduate research. The oceans. A grant to study X. In some cases, the stories become obvious, but only after enough reporting and interviewing to understand the tensions, the actors, the scenes and the action.

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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