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Cavitation Bubble

30 June 201812:34PMscicommrants

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.

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