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People aren't dumb.

14 July 2018 12:00AM scicommrantshighlight

A science writing manifesto.

People aren't dumb
People aren't dumb.

a clock
They're efficient, but they aren't dumb.
(They care about their time, just like you.)

a monocle
They're discerning and/or picky, but they aren't dumb.
(They have specific interests, just like you.)

a venn diagram
They're differently specialised, but they aren't dumb.
(They've chosen a career, with its own knowledge and skills, just like you.)

And if they're motivated, they are 100% capable of learning all about a thing if they need to, or even if they just want to.

Your job as a communicator is to support that, because academic communication isn't designed to.

It's not that it's bad, it's just not fit for purpose.

an expert
It's not designed for use by non-experts.

a shiny
It's not designed for a competitive reading environment.

a smiley
It's not designed to tap into people's intrinsic motivation.

And that's where you come in.

Cavitation Bubble

30 June 2018 12:34PM scicommrants

I went into this degree surprised that scicomm was a field. Leaving it, I think maybe it shouldn't be.

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

The Mantis shrimp is a deep sea creature with a remarkable special ability. It can pull its claws apart so quickly that it leaves a void in the water around it. As the water rushes in, it creates a brilliant flash and a bang, and which the mantis shrimp uses to stun its prey.

That bubble? That flash and bang? That's science communication.

Just about the most profound comment I got on my thesis was right near the top. I'd used the phrase "science communication" somewhat flippantly, and without really defining it. My supervisor jumped on this, and left a comment saying she wasn't really sure there was such a "thing" as science communication. There was only science, and different audiences for it.

the comment in question

I, to use the vernacular, was shook. I certainly wasn't prepared to have the existence of the entire field I was studying questioned so flippantly - in a Microsoft Word comment, of all places. But I thought long and hard about this, and I decided that I'd sidestep the entire definition debacle by saying just that. I wasn't researching science communication. I was researching science writing, for a non-expert audience. It's simple. It's direct. And it gets the point across to a non-(scicomm)-expert much more clearly. Always practice what you preach, folks.

That comment stuck with me though, and the more I think about it, the more I think it's true. Science communication isn't a field of study. It's an interface, between the knowledge and processes of science, and the broader community of non-experts. It's got no substance, no content of its own. It's just about different audiences for something which already exists.

But wait - if science communication isn't a thing, how can you study it?

Well, in a perfect world, you wouldn't. The interface where the experts meet the non-experts would be seamless, pressed together so tightly that you'd have a hard time sliding a sheet of paper in there, let alone a field of study. And once upon a time, probably back around the Renaissance, they were.

But today, for a whole bundle of reasons, they're not. Science moved faster and faster and faster, pulling away into the future, branching, specifying, specialising, faster than anyone but those who were part of the movement could keep up with. And instead of looking back, or - god forbid - slowing down, the scientific community just sort of... forgot that their work had any audience beyond themselves. Instead of pulling up, they cut and run.

So the experts are heading off one way. And lately, the rest of us aren't just staying behind. We're recoiling in horror as our data is used by computer scientists to do things we never signed up for, or sticking our fingers in our ears and running the other way because we don't want to believe the planet is warming. For better or for worse, we're actively pulling in the other direction too.

When two surfaces pull apart that quickly, a vacuum forms - and with a flash and a bang, science communication was born.

In a perfect world, this field wouldn't exist. It didn't to start off with, and it might not again. Whether our little bubble collapses in on itself and leaves everyone stunned and further away than ever, or whether it pulls together two things which should never have been separated and winks out, only time will tell.

For now, I'm just happy to be along for the ride.

Hi. My name's Rockwell, and I am a science communicator do science for the rest of us.

You are what you rate

21 May 2018 07:30PM introspectionrants

We live in a hellish dystopia where we rate everything and everyone around us.

Well, not quite yet. But maybe we're getting there.

The technology we use shapes the way we interact with the world. In a world where everything you do is trackable and rateable, the things you choose to keep track of has an outsize influence on the way you see things.

Here's what I track, and why.


I've been keeping track of the beers I drink since December 2016, when Grace and I went down south with her family. There's a bunch of breweries down that way, and I was still fairly new to drinking beer. While we were down there Grace's brother Michael got me into Untappd, and it completely changed the way I drink.

Untappd is ostensibly a social network, but I don't really use its social features at all. The point of Untappd, for me, is self-discovery.

You see, there are a lot of different kinds of beer, and a lot of names for those kinds of beer. Beer is consumed in social situations, where you need to choose what you want quickly and without a lot of prep. And beer is a thing where if you get the wrong one, it'll completely ruin your experience. If you're part of a social circle which does drink beer, in other words, it's very useful to know what kinds of beers you like.

When I got on Untappd I was learning this the hard way. Keeping track of which varieties and which flavours I liked (and, possibly more importantly, didn't like) is hard. There's so much terminology flying around. Untappd let me aggregate all of that data to look at later, and focus on whether or not I liked the drink, rather than whether or not I'd read the label correctly.

And at the end of that process, I'd give it a rating. Three stars is the threshold for "I'd drink this if you put it in front of me". Four stars is the threshold for "I would actively seek this out again." And I've yet to give out a five, although Four Pines' Honey Green Almond Ale came pretty damn close.

So it's thanks to Untappd that after almost a year I can say pretty confidently what kinds of beer I like. I prefer dark beers to pale beers, malty beers to hoppy beers, and pretty much any other beer to pretty much any IPA. Yes, that means sometimes I gave highly-rated award-winning beers three stars and a "meh just another ipa". Don't @ me.


Books are another matter entirely. I already know what kinds of books I like. The problem was remembering which ones I'd read.

I like to know where the stuff buzzing around my head comes from. There have been so many times that I could remember a quote, or a passage, or a character, or a scene, but not which book it's from. Maybe it's relevant to something I'm writing, maybe I enjoyed it and want to read it again, or maybe I just want to know where it came from so I can safely forget it again. I can't do any of those things if I can't remember the book.

Whatever the reason behind it, remembering the idea but not the source is just about the most frustrating thing in the world.

Now, tracking the books I read doesn't help with that directly, but it does at least tell me where to look. The risk is less of thinking I did read a book I didn't, and more of forgetting I've read one which I have.

So that's why I track them. It doesn't explain why I rate them.

I can tell you just by looking at the title whether or not I enjoyed a book. Maybe if I read hundreds of very similar books a year I'd need to rate them to remember what I thought

Rating is more much about sharing what I thought. And in so doing, making passive recommendations as well - along the vein of "I enjoyed this, and you know how our tastes intersect, so perhaps you might enjoy it too". It's really subjective, but that's where its value is. The aggregated ratings on Goodreads are pretty useless, but one or two ratings from people whose tastes I know well - that's actually very valuable data.


Before visiting the frozen north, I bought myself a camera. Over the course of that trip I took about two thousand pictures. It was kind of a trial by fire, an exercise in learning on the run. And an essential part of learning is self-reflection, especially if you did a bunch of learning on the road without much downtime.

So I sat down when I got home and catalogued all my photos. Most of them got three stars. That, to me, meant they were competent - they were technically correct, but not particularly interesting. If they were competent and actually good they got four stars, and if they were outstanding - as in, they literally stood out, they got five stars. On the other hand, if there was just one or two things holding them back, they were flawed at two stars, and if they were horribly broken and clearly a mistake, they got one star.

Out of thousands of photos I got just a handful of outstanding ones, and just a few dozen really good ones. Sorting them let me find those, so I could show them off or bury them forever. But it also let me learn from my successes and my mistakes.

So what?

So: Discovering. Remembering. Sharing. Reflecting. Learning. These are all good reasons to rate things. And more importantly, they're all reasons I've chosen to rate things.

What these have in common is that they're not for the world at large, they're for me, and my friends.

This is the problem with something like Uber ratings. Cause under most of these systems - mine, at least, an Uber that gets you from point A to point B with no complications is a 3. A 4 might be friendly and you had a great conversation. A 5 would be if they went out of their way to help, carrying you on their shoulders the last hundred metres or something, I don't know.

Under Uber's system and expectations, 5 is the minimum. If you have less than a five-star rating, you very quickly fall off the platform. The effect this has isn't to bring everyone's standards up to outstanding, it's to lower the value of five stars from 'Outstanding' to 'Acceptable +- some guilt'. To get a four-star rating on Uber you have to do something wrong. To get three stars, you have to completely mess up. One and two stars, as I understand it, are reserved for creepy vibes and non-consensual physical contact respectively.

These ratings aren't useful for you. They're not useful for your friends. They're, arguably, not really that useful for the drivers. But they're very useful for Uber, because they keep the drivers in a state of constant, compliant fear.

Think about the things in your life that you rate. Think about why you do it. Think about where that data goes, and who benefits from it. Are you getting anything out of it? Or are you contributing to a data mill so abstracted from human experience that the only possible incentives it could generate are perverse?

Reflection is a powerful thing. Maybe it's time to reflect on how we apply it.

A Tale of Two Wars.

18 May 2018 06:20PM review

This is not going to go the way you think.

take five everyone - we'll be back shortly.

I don't think Infinity War is the cinematic masterpiece everyone seems to think it is. It is competent. They pulled it off. But there's so much about it that fell completely flat.

One is that it completely undoes all the good stuff that came out of Ragnarok. Eyepatch? Gone. Redeemed Loki? Gone. Nomadic Asgardians on a badass spaceship? Gone. Thor moving on from needing Mjolnir? Gone. And that sucks, because I really liked the way Ragnarok set up the future of Thor stories.

Two is that all the big reunion story beats were just completely flubbed. Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanov should've been this intricate, emotional thing - instead, we got a literal 'hey'. Same for Steve and Bucky. Just a 'sup'. These are characters who care about each other and who have been separated for years and they just completely flattened them.

Three - and this is the kicker - is that it's now blindingly obvious that Marvel's head is buried quite a long way up it's own butt. Don't try and sell us on killing half your characters being brave and emotional and a cliffhanger when we know for a fact that there's a literal magic resurrection stone out there which you're going to spend the next film finding. That robs the character deaths earlier in the film, and in the franchise, of any meaningful weight whatsoever.

Look, I've definitely got a taste in Marvel movies at this point, and that taste is pretty firmly in what you'd call Marvel Cosmic. It's colourful, and not too serious, and has a killer soundtrack. So really... all I want from Marvel going forward is more Guardians of the Galaxy.

Thor can come too, I guess.

join me, and we'll rule the galaxy in moral ambiguity.

I realise I'm a little bit late to The Last Jedi. Mostly, that's because I was really sick when we went to see it, so up until a couple of days ago, I hadn't really processed the last third. But now that I have, I love it.

Star Wars has always been a pulp romance. It's not hard science fiction. It's not a complex political drama. It's basically just feel-good pop entertainment.

The problem is, people want more than that from their entertainment these days. They want Game of Thrones, or House of Cards, or Breaking Bad. Star Wars is from a simpler time - perhaps too simple.

So how do you keep making Star Wars in the 21st century? As that generation grows up, as the world becomes more complex? As their heroes turn out to be flawed, and their problems turn out to be more complex than a villain in a mask and a cape? You can't just keep making Star Wars the way you used to. It just won't work. So what do you do?

Do you burn it all down to the ground, and start again? With shades of grey, and angst, and politics, and complexity? Do you go for the gritty reboot?

Or do you save what you love, instead of fighting what you hate?

Take a moment. Read those last paragraphs again. That's not just a description of the cultural situation, it's a plot synopsis for The Last Jedi.

This film is Rian Johnson saving what we love about Star Wars. At the end of the day, Rey can't be a grey jedi, and remake the galaxy in her image. That would make sense in-universe, sure - and in the current cultural landscape too. But it's not what Star Wars is about.

So we save what we love. We pile it into the Falcon and handball it into the future to fight another day.

Cause at the end of the day, that's what Star Wars is. It's not armies and politics - arguably, that's what the prequels got so wrong. It's a band of plucky rebels out there, fighting the bad guys. Everything else can be - has been - stripped away, leaving us with pure, Star Wars essence.

I can't wait to see where they take this, but it also doesn't matter. Because now we know what the sequel trilogy needs to be. It's not a gritty reboot. It's not a slavish remake. Everything we need is right here.

how do we build a rebellion from this? everything we need is right here.

Check out Movies with Mikey for a very similar take. This movie is meta as heck, and the more I watch it, the more I love it. Don't @ me.

Chasing Aurora

03 February 2018 05:23AM viking-raidtravel

Why do we travel?

When I told work I wouldn't be available from the 27th of December 2017 until the 20th of January 2018, I said - and I quote - "I'll be in the frozen north, chasing the Aurora Borealis." Above everything else, that was what I wanted to see.

The surface of our planet is wrapped around a magnetic core, six sextillion spinning tonnes of iron engine, converting the slow burn of nuclear decay into heat, motion, and a sprawling tangle of magnetic fields.

Separated by six thousand kilometres of rock and metal, and another hundred and fifty million of open space, is our sun. That's a different kind of nuclear engine, one powered by creation rather than decay. Deep inside the sun, two atoms become one - well, one and some change - and that stream of leftover particles is our light, our heat, our solar wind.

Across the gulf of space and through an entire planet's worth of mass, these two engines lock together at our planet's poles. No - that's too mechanical. They dance together. The interaction of the impossibly deep and the unimaginably distant sets the the sky between them on fire.

A pilgrimage to the sublime

Every journey, I would argue, is about looking for something. Seeking something. In this case, I think I was travelling to feel humbled. Maybe even insignificant. To feel awe, and a little dread. Also, arguably, to feel cold. The Northern Lights were my shining example, but they weren't the only big impressive thing I sought out there.

Which is probably for the best, since I didn't see them. Not for lack of trying, either. Every clear night I got, I stayed up past my bedtime. I set alarms for midnight and went outside in subzero temperatures. It was never a sure thing - we were waiting for earth weather and space weather, two notoriously chaotic systems, to align. And this time they didn't.

So does that mean I failed?

I mean, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little disappointed. Especially since Lochie stayed up there, and saw them about two weeks after we got home. But that doesn't mean I didn't find that thing I was chasing. I found it in the mountains and the glaciers and the mist-shrouded geothermal vents. I found it in the rugged highlands of Skye and the winding roads threaded through them. I found it in an astonishing variety of waterfalls, lagoons, lochs, and other large bodies of water. I found it in the age of dying ruins and the vitality of living cities.

Travelling To or Travelling From?

Our Viking Raid didn't bring back treasure. It didn't bring back astonishing new discoveries. It didn't even bring back stunning pictures of the Aurora. But it did bring back the most important prize of all: Perspective.

Hold on, let me remove my tongue from my cheek.

Let's not labour under the illusion that this was anything more than a holiday. I've been trying to avoid that word, substituting 'trip' or 'travels' or 'adventure' - but that's what it was. A burning desire to get away from it all and feel dwarfed by the majesty of nature is just as much a holiday as getting away from it all and watching your troubles drift away on the beach. Wrapping it up in the trappings of adventure makes it more palatable, and it's an essential part of the illusion, but it doesn't change the nature of the thing. It's all escapism. This is just escapism with a Romantic twist.

I chased this particular brand of escapism because, after four years in the same job and two degrees at the same university, I wanted to be reminded that the everyday bullshit doesn't matter. Which is absurd. I'm so lucky to be able to do this. I have a job that won't mind me just not showing up during one of our busiest times. I'm lucky to live somewhere education is accessible enough for me to casually pick up another degree. There are people for whom comfortable stability is the thing you chase, and change and 'adventure' is what you desperately want to escape. Everyday bullshit isn't a curse, it's a blessing.

One day, I'd like to travel with purpose. I'd like to travel in a way that I can legitimately call it 'travel', maybe even 'adventure', and not 'holidaying'. I'd like to be making something, or learning something, or discovering something, or sharing something.

Until then, though, comfortable stability plus adventurous holidays is still a pretty freaking awesome thing to be able to do.

This has been Viking Raid. Thank you for joining us.

northern lights over a frozen lake. photo by lochie

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