Category Archives: Scientists

The incurables

I’m working on the most interesting article ever right now. There’s nothing that gets me going like digging into a sector of really specialized science.

I was 19 when I decided that I wanted to be a science journalist. I’d been told by a guidance counselor my freshman year of high school that as a woman with a high aptitude for math and science, I would make more money than any of my peers if I went into engineering. But I’ve always been a writer and, when I got to engineering school, was quickly disgusted with the way writing was used. We were told to “forget everything you ever knew about writing, because you’re only going to write technical papers now.” And I thought, What? Science is already hard enough for people to digest as is, now they want us to use language to obfuscate it even more form public understanding?

After two years in the biomedical engineering program, I transferred to the Literature Science & Arts college and ended up majoring in psychology because I’d already had a ton of credits from taking those classes for fun. I joined the student newspaper the summer before my junior year. They’d just scrapped their weekly science section because nobody wanted to write about science. So I single-handedly covered all the science I could in this massive research university.

In my run at the Michigan Daily, I tried other kinds of journalism too—political, academic, cultural. I hated all of it, and I suspect the editors used to give me dull assignments like covering the student government’s meetings in retaliation because they would get frustrated trying to edit me on science. They would always try to change my language to make things more sensational or dumb stuff down, but often times it would change the meaning and make a statement inaccurate so I would insist they change it back. I did, however, take in interest in legal and political journalism, and got quite involved in covering a multimillion dollar lawsuit the University was facing for attempting to violate the American’s With Disabilities act to renovate The Big House, the football stadium. I enjoy debating, and the University’s plot was rich with semantical holes and numbers that didn’t quite add up, which I just dug into. I made quite a few enemies, one spectacular one who told me I should be a lawyer. I’m still considering this advice.

What I eventually concluded though is that science journalism is my calling. I never get bored. I never run out of ideas. I rarely get stressed because I can’t find a route to understanding some concept that I must then find a way to explain. And the best part is the scientists. While most people journalists need to interview spend a tremendous amount of effort figuring out how to side skirt questions and hide the truth, the truths that scientists have is already hidden. They are hidden in concrete basement laboratories, behind the wild eyes and bizarre mannerisms of people who care so deeply about one tiny sliver of the physical world that they sometimes find themselves locked away from the rest of humanity behind the same communication walls I saw myself approaching and decided to James Bond it around the ledge instead. Scientists are thrilled when someone has a genuine interest in unearthing their secrets. They are my favorite.

Why Dave Munger’s passport fail made Science Online London better

There's Dave! Next time though, you should dance or juggle while you present.

There's Dave! Presenting from Second Life at SOLO09

Twas the facepalm heard ’round the science blogging community when news traveled that Dave Munger, who was slated to present at Science Online London, neglected to renew his passport and would not be attending the conference. But while this may be a high-ranking fail for Dave, it should be documented as a notable win in Science Online history.

I’ve been to more than a few scientific conferences in my day, and at almost every one there’s some kind of technological mishaps that stalls the flow of events. I always notice because, though scientists are typically highly intelligent, they can still make some pretty novice errors with whatever new technology is supposed to enhance their presentation — the kind of errors that leave me wiggling in my seat debating whether I should get up and help or mind social norms. Technology provides remarkable opportunities for enhanced communication in conference settings, but often times these opportunities are not explored for fear of something malfunctioning at crunch time.

But from what I’ve witnessed, technological experimentation is rampant at Science Online conferences (which is one of the many reasons I enjoy them so much). At Science Online London, while the conference was underway, a virtual conference was being held simultaneously in Second Life so that anyone around the world with an internet connection and the Second Life software installed could virtually attend by visiting the Elucian Islands, Nature Publishing Group’s archipelago of scientific wonder in Second Life.

I’ve never really gotten into Second Life, though I have attempted to explore it on two occasions. The first, my old laptop didn’t have enough space on the hard drive to run it; the second, I successfully installed the software and built an avatar, but within the first five minutes of gameplay she got stuck in some kind of vortex. Based on my failures, I will admit I was a bit skeptical that the plan to broadcast in real-time could be executed.

Multiply that by roughly 20 and that’s how skeptical I was when I heard that the new plan for the session on Blogging for Impact was for Dave Munger to beam himself into the conference via his Second Life avatar and actually conduct his presentation through Second Life. It’s not that I have ever doubted Dave or his abilities, or those of the very competent individuals who were in charge of the SL control panel. I guess I’ve just been jaded by my experiences of witnessing technological mishaps.

BUT IT WORKED!! After a few minutes of suspense while the SL techies tinkered around with settings and relayed instructions, Dave’s audio came in loud and clear and everyone in the conference hall — as well as in Second Life — was able to listen to Dave give his part of the presentation. It was like the conference audience was NASA when the Apollo 13 spacecraft came back online after all that dead air time (right around 8:35 in the video). Yep, pretty much exactly the same situation.

SOLOMunger

I think this was actually the coolest part of the conference for me, because I got to watch technological evolution in action. If it wasn’t for Dave’s passport fail, it wouldn’t yet be demonstrated at a Science Online conference that it is not only possible, put potentially just as entertaining and effective, for someone across the Atlantic to present in an auditorium full of people. It would still be just a theory waiting to be tested by a brave individual willing to risk technological malfunction.

Now that we know if can be done, the sky is the limit, really. Why keep conference presenters limited to individuals who can physically attend the conference when you could have anyone in the world beam themselves in for 15 minutes? Money and time have ceased to be limiting factors, so at Science Online 2010 this January, why not beam in the big names? (/crosses fingers for Nick Denton)