Category Archives: science communication

Scientifica radio

Scientifica Radio, a CKUT.ca (Montréal McGill [University] Campus Community Radio) radio science magazine has been broadcasting since October 2016. Episode 11 features a series of interviews held at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) 2017 annual meeting held Feb. 16, – 20, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. From the Episode 11 webpage (Note: A link has been removed),

On today’s [Feb. 24, 2017] episode, Bethany Wong follows Brïte Pauchet as she head [sic] to Boston to cover the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science  (AAAS). This is one of the world’s largest general scientific conferences, bringing together researchers, science communicators, policy makers and educators from around the world.

Brite Pauchet writes and publishes the Brite Sciences blog. Her blog, where I found the reference to Scientifica Radio, is written in French but the version of Episode 11 I’ve linked to is in English.

Why do objects feel solid when atoms are mostly empty space?

Roger Barlow (professor at University of Huddersfield, UK) has written a Feb. 16, 2017 essay for The Conversation explaining why objects feel solid (Note: A link has been removed),

Chemist John Dalton proposed the theory that all matter and objects are made up of particles called atoms, and this is still accepted by the scientific community, almost two centuries later. Each of these atoms is each made up of an incredibly small nucleus and even smaller electrons, which move around at quite a distance from the centre.

If you imagine a table that is a billion times larger, its atoms would be the size of melons. But even so, the nucleus at the centre would still be far too small to see and so would the electrons as they dance around it. So why don’t our fingers just pass through atoms, and why doesn’t light get through the gaps?

To explain why we must look at the electrons. Unfortunately, much of what we are taught at school is simplified – electrons do not orbit the centre of an atom like planets around the sun, like you may have been taught. Instead, think of electrons like a swarm of bees or birds, where the individual motions are too fast to track, but you still see the shape of the overall swarm.

In fact, electrons dance – there is no better word for it. …

Electrons are like a swarm of birds. John Holmes/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Here’s one more excerpt from Barlow’s essay,

So why does a table also feel solid? Many websites will tell you that this is due to the repulsion – that two negatively charged things must repel each other. But this is wrong, and shows you should never trust some things on the internet. It feels solid because of the dancing electrons.

Do enjoy!

Quantum Shorts & Quantum Applications event at Vancouver’s (Canada) Science World

This is very short notice but if you do have some free time on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 from 6 – 8:30 pm, you can check out Science World’s Quantum: The Exhibition for free and watch a series of short films. Here’s more from the Quantum Shorts & Quantum Applications event page,

Join us for an evening of quantum art and science. Visit Quantum: The Exhibition and view a series of short films inspired by the science, history, and philosophy of quantum. Find some answers to your Quantum questions at this mind-expanding panel discussion.

Thursday, February 23: 

6pm                      Check out Quantum: The Exhibition
7pm                      Quantum Shorts Screening
7:45pm                 Panel Discussion/Presentation
8:30pm                 Q & A

Light refreshments will be available.

There are still spaces as of Weds., Feb. 22, 2017:; you can register for the event here.

This will be of the last chances you’ll have to see Quantum: The Exhibition as the show’s here last day is scheduled for Feb. 26, 2017.

Curiosity may not kill the cat but, in science, it might be an antidote to partisanship

I haven’t stumbled across anything from the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School in years so before moving onto their latest news, here’s more about the project,

The Cultural Cognition Project is a group of scholars interested in studying how cultural values shape public risk perceptions and related policy beliefs. Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether global warming is a serious threat; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities.Project members are using the methods of various disciplines — including social psychology, anthropology, communications, and political science — to chart the impact of this phenomenon and to identify the mechanisms through which it operates. The Project also has an explicit normative objective: to identify processes of democratic decisionmaking by which society can resolve culturally grounded differences in belief in a manner that is both congenial to persons of diverse cultural outlooks and consistent with sound public policymaking.

It’s nice to catch up with some of the project’s latest work, from a Jan. 26, 2017 Yale University news release (also on EurekAlert),

Disputes over science-related policy issues such as climate change or fracking often seem as intractable as other politically charged debates. But in science, at least, simple curiosity might help bridge that partisan divide, according to new research.

In a study slated for publication in the journal Advances in Political Psychology, a Yale-led research team found that people who are curious about science are less polarized in their views on contentious issues than less-curious peers.

In an experiment, they found out why: Science-curious individuals are more willing to engage with surprising information that runs counter to their political predispositions.

“It’s a well-established finding that most people prefer to read or otherwise be exposed to information that fits rather than challenges their political preconceptions,” said research team leader Dan Kahan, Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law and professor of psychology at Yale Law School. “This is called the echo-chamber effect.”

But science-curious individuals are more likely to venture out of that chamber, he said.

“When they are offered the choice to read news articles that support their views or challenge them on the basis of new evidence, science-curious individuals opt for the challenging information,” Kahan said. “For them, surprising pieces of evidence are bright shiny objects — they can’t help but grab at them.”

Kahan and other social scientists previously have shown that information based on scientific evidence can actually intensify — rather than moderate — political polarization on contentious topics such as gun control, climate change, fracking, or the safety of certain vaccines. The new study, which assessed science knowledge among subjects, reiterates the gaping divide separating how conservatives and liberals view science.

Republicans and Democrats with limited knowledge of science were equally likely to agree or disagree with the statement that “there is solid evidence that global warming is caused by human activity. However, the most science-literate conservatives were much more likely to disagree with the statement than less-knowledgeable peers. The most knowledgeable liberals almost universally agreed with the statement.

“Whatever measure of critical reasoning we used, we always observed this depressing pattern: The members of the public most able to make sense of scientific evidence are in fact the most polarized,” Kahan said.

But knowledge of science, and curiosity about science, are not the same thing, the study shows.

The team became interested in curiosity because of its ongoing collaborative research project to improve public engagement with science documentaries involving the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School, the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, and Tangled Bank Studios at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

They noticed that the curious — those who sought out science stories for personal pleasure — not only were more interested in viewing science films on a variety of topics but also did not display political polarization associated with contentious science issues.

The new study found, for instance, that a much higher percentage of curious liberals and conservatives chose to read stories that ran counter to their political beliefs than did their non-curious peers.

“As their science curiosity goes up, the polarizing effects of higher science comprehension dissipate, and people move the same direction on contentious policies like climate change and fracking,” Kahan said.

It is unclear whether curiosity applied to other controversial issues can minimize the partisan rancor that infects other areas of society. But Kahan believes that the curious from both sides of the political and cultural divide should make good ambassadors to the more doctrinaire members of their own groups.

“Politically curious people are a resource who can promote enlightened self-government by sharing scientific information they are naturally inclined to learn and share,” he said.

Here’s my standard link to and citation for the paper,

Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing by Dan M. Kahan, Asheley R Landrum, Katie Carpenter, Laura Helft, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Political Psychology Volume 38, Issue Supplement S1 February 2017 Pages 179–199 DOI: 10.1111/pops.12396View First published: 26 January 2017

This paper is open and it can also be accessed here.

I last mentioned Kahan and The Cultural Cognition Project in an April 10, 2014 posting (scroll down about 45% of the way) about responsible science.

Live. Curiously. A Feb. 22, 2017 Curiosity Collider Café event in Vancouver, Canada

There’s news about the next Curiosity Collider Café event in a Feb. 14, 2017 announcement (received via email),

Collider Cafe: Live. Curiously.

When
8:00pm on Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017. Door opens at 7:30pm.

Where
Café Deux Soleils. 2096 Commercial Drive, Vancouver, BC (Google Map).

Cost
$5.00-10.00 cover at the door (sliding scale). Proceeds will be used to cover the cost of running this event, and to fund future Curiosity Collider events. Curiosity Collider is a registered BC non-profit organization.

***

#ColliderCafe is a space for artists, scientists, makers, and anyone interested in art+science. Meet, discover, connect, create. How do you explore curiosity in your life? Join us and discover how our speakers explore their own curiosity at the intersection of art & science.

The event will start promptly at 8pm (doors open at 7:30pm). $5.00-10.00 (sliding scale) cover at the door. Proceeds will be used to cover the cost of running this event, and to fund future Curiosity Collider events. Curiosity Collider is a registered BC non-profit organization.

Let us know you are coming on our Facebook page!

You can find out more about Curiousity Collider and its events here. Also, they have produced a very pretty poster,

500-year history of robots exhibition at London’s (UK) Science Museum

Thanks to a Feb.7, 2017 article by Benjamin Wheelock for Salon.com for the heads up regarding the ‘Robots’ exhibit at the UK’s Science Museum in London.

Prior to the exhibition’s opening on Feb. 8, 2017, The Guardian has published a preview (more about that in a minute), a photo essay, and this video about the show,

I find the robot baby to be endlessly fascinating.

The Science Museum announced its then upcoming Feb. 8  – Sept. 3, 2017 exhibition on robots in a May ?, 2016 press release,

8 February – 3 September 2017, Science Museum, London
Admission: £15 adults, £13 concessions (Free entry for under 7s; family tickets available)
Tickets available in the Museum or via sciencemuseum.org.uk/robots
Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund


Throughout history, artists and scientists have sought to understand what it means to be human. The Science Museum’s new Robots exhibition, opening in February 2017, will explore this very human obsession to recreate ourselves, revealing the remarkable 500-year story of humanoid robots.

Featuring a unique collection of over 100 robots, from a 16th-century mechanical monk to robots from science fiction and modern-day research labs, this exhibition will enable visitors to discover the cultural, historical and technological context of humanoid robots. Visitors will be able to interact with some of the 12 working robots on display. Among many other highlights will be an articulated iron manikin from the 1500s, Cygan, a 2.4m tall 1950s robot with a glamorous past, and one of the first walking bipedal robots.

Robots have been at the heart of popular culture since the word ‘robot’ was first used in 1920, but their fascinating story dates back many centuries. Set in five different periods and places, this exhibition will explore how robots and society have been shaped by religious belief, the industrial revolution, 20th century popular culture and dreams about the future.

The quest to build ever more complex robots has transformed our understanding of the human body, and today robots are becoming increasingly human, learning from mistakes and expressing emotions. In the exhibition, visitors will go behind the scenes to glimpse recent developments from robotics research, exploring how roboticists are building robots that resemble us and interact in human-like ways. The exhibition will end by asking visitors to imagine what a shared future with robots might be like. Robots has been generously supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, with a £100,000 grant from the Collecting Cultures programme.

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group said: ‘This exhibition explores the uniquely human obsession of recreating ourselves, not through paint or marble but in metal. Seeing robots through the eyes of those who built or gazed in awe at them reveals much about humanity’s hopes, fears and dreams.’

‘The latest in our series of ambitious, blockbuster exhibitions, Robots explores the wondrously rich culture, history and technology of humanoid robotics. Last year we moved gigantic spacecraft from Moscow to the Museum, but this year we will bring a robot back to life.’

Today [May ?, 2016] the Science Museum launched a Kickstarter campaign to rebuild Eric, the UK’s first robot. Originally built in 1928 by Captain Richards & A.H. Reffell, Eric was one of the world’s first robots. Built less than a decade after the word robot was first used, he travelled the globe with his makers and amazed crowds in the UK, US and Europe, before disappearing forever.

[The campaign was successful.]

You can find out more about Eric on the museum’s ‘Eric: The UK’s first robot’ webpage,

Getting back to the exhibition, the Guardian’s Ian Sample has written up a Feb. 7, 2017 preview (Note: Links have been removed),

Eric the robot wowed the crowds. He stood and bowed and answered questions as blue sparks shot from his metallic teeth. The British creation was such a hit he went on tour around the world. When he arrived in New York, in 1929, a theatre nightwatchman was so alarmed he pulled out a gun and shot at him.

The curators at London’s Science Museum hope for a less extreme reaction when they open Robots, their latest exhibition, on Wednesday [Feb. 8, 2016]. The collection of more than 100 objects is a treasure trove of delights: a miniature iron man with moving joints; a robotic swan that enthralled Mark Twain; a tiny metal woman with a wager cup who is propelled by a mechanism hidden up her skirt.

The pieces are striking and must have dazzled in their day. Ben Russell, the lead curator, points out that most people would not have seen a clock when they first clapped eyes on one exhibit, a 16th century automaton of a monk [emphasis mine], who trundled along, moved his lips, and beat his chest in contrition. It was surely mesmerising to the audiences of 1560. “Arthur C Clarke once said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” Russell says. “Well, this is where it all started.”

In every chapter of the 500-year story, robots have held a mirror to human society. Some of the earliest devices brought the Bible to life. One model of Christ on the cross rolls his head and oozes wooden blood from his side as four figures reach up. The mechanisation of faith must have drawn the congregations as much as any sermon.

But faith was not the only focus. Through clockwork animals and human figurines, model makers explored whether humans were simply conscious machines. They brought order to the universe with orreries and astrolabes. The machines became more lighthearted in the enlightened 18th century, when automatons of a flute player, a writer, and a defecating duck all made an appearance. A century later, the style was downright rowdy, with drunken aristocrats, preening dandies and the disturbing life of a sausage from farm to mouth all being recreated as automata.

That reference to an automaton of a monk reminded me of a July 22, 2009 posting where I excerpted a passage (from another blog) about a robot priest and a robot monk,

Since 1993 Robo-Priest has been on call 24-hours a day at Yokohama Central Cemetery. The bearded robot is programmed to perform funerary rites for several Buddhist sects, as well as for Protestants and Catholics. Meanwhile, Robo-Monk chants sutras, beats a religious drum and welcomes the faithful to Hotoku-ji, a Buddhist temple in Kakogawa city, Hyogo Prefecture. More recently, in 2005, a robot dressed in full samurai armour received blessings at a Shinto shrine on the Japanese island of Kyushu. Kiyomori, named after a famous 12th-century military general, prayed for the souls of all robots in the world before walking quietly out of Munakata Shrine.

Sample’s preview takes the reader up to our own age and contemporary robots. And, there is another Guardian article which offering a behind-the-scenes look at the then upcoming exhibition, a Jan. 28, 2016 piece by Jonathan Jones, ,

An android toddler lies on a pallet, its doll-like face staring at the ceiling. On a shelf rests a much more grisly creation that mixes imitation human bones and muscles, with wires instead of arteries and microchips in place of organs. It has no lower body, and a single Cyclopean eye. This store room is an eerie place, then it gets more creepy, as I glimpse behind the anatomical robot a hulking thing staring at me with glowing red eyes. Its plastic skin has been burned off to reveal a metal skeleton with pistons and plates of merciless strength. It is the Terminator, sent back in time by the machines who will rule the future to ensure humanity’s doom.

Backstage at the Science Museum, London, where these real experiments and a full-scale model from the Terminator films are gathered to be installed in the exhibition Robots, it occurs to me that our fascination with mechanical replacements for ourselves is so intense that science struggles to match it. We think of robots as artificial humans that can not only walk and talk but possess digital personalities, even a moral code. In short we accord them agency. Today, the real age of robots is coming, and yet even as these machines promise to transform work or make it obsolete, few possess anything like the charisma of the androids of our dreams and nightmares.

That’s why, although the robotic toddler sleeping in the store room is an impressive piece of tech, my heart leaps in another way at the sight of the Terminator. For this is a bad robot, a scary robot, a robot of remorseless malevolence. It has character, in other words. Its programmed persona (which in later films becomes much more helpful and supportive) is just one of those frightening, funny or touching personalities that science fiction has imagined for robots.

Can the real life – well, real simulated life – robots in the Science Museum’s new exhibition live up to these characters? The most impressively interactive robot in the show will be RoboThespian, who acts as compere for its final gallery displaying the latest advances in robotics. He stands at human height, with a white plastic face and metal arms and legs, and can answer questions about the value of pi and the nature of free will. “I’m a very clever robot,” RoboThespian claims, plausibly, if a little obnoxiously.

Except not quite as clever as all that. A human operator at a computer screen connected with Robothespian by wifi is looking through its video camera eyes and speaking with its digital voice. The result is huge fun – the droid moves in very lifelike ways as it speaks, and its interactions don’t need a live operator as they can be preprogrammed. But a freethinking, free-acting robot with a mind and personality of its own, Robothespian is not.

Our fascination with synthetic humans goes back to the human urge to recreate life itself – to reproduce the mystery of our origins. Artists have aspired to simulate human life since ancient times. The ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion, who made a statue so beautiful he fell in love with it and prayed for it to come to life, is a mythic version of Greek artists such as Pheidias and Praxiteles whose statues, with their superb imitation of muscles and movement, seem vividly alive. The sculptures of centaurs carved for the Parthenon in Athens still possess that uncanny lifelike power.

Most of the finest Greek statues were bronze, and mythology tells of metal robots that sound very much like statues come to life, including the bronze giant Talos, who was to become one of cinema’s greatest robotic monsters thanks to the special effects genius of Ray Harryhausen in Jason and the Argonauts.

Renaissance art took the quest to simulate life to new heights, with awed admirers of Michelangelo’s David claiming it even seemed to breathe (as it really does almost appear to when soft daylight casts mobile shadow on superbly sculpted ribs). So it is oddly inevitable that one of the first recorded inventors of robots was Leonardo da Vinci, consummate artist and pioneering engineer. Leonardo apparently made, or at least designed, a robot knight to amuse the court of Milan. It worked with pulleys and was capable of simple movements. Documents of this invention are frustratingly sparse, but there is a reliable eyewitness account of another of Leonardo’s automata. In 1515 he delighted Francois I, king of France, with a robot lion that walked forward towards the monarch, then released a bunch of lilies, the royal flower, from a panel that opened in its back.

One of the most uncanny androids in the Science Museum show is from Japan, a freakily lifelike female robot called Kodomoroid, the world’s first robot newscaster. With her modest downcast gaze and fine artificial complexion, she has the same fetishised femininity you might see in a Manga comic and appears to reflect a specific social construction of gender. Whether you read that as vulnerability or subservience, presumably the idea is to make us feel we are encountering a robot with real personhood. Here is a robot that combines engineering and art just as Da Vinci dreamed – it has the mechanical genius of his knight and the synthetic humanity of his perfect portrait.

Here’s a link to the Science Museum’s ‘Robots’ exhibition webspace and a link to a Guardian ‘Robots’ photo essay.

All this makes me wish I had plans to visit London, UK in the next few months.

Communicating science effectively—a December 2016 book from the US National Academy of Sciences

I stumbled across this Dec. 13, 2016  essay/book announcement by Dr. Andrew Maynard and Dr. Dietram A. Scheufele on The Conversation,

Many scientists and science communicators have grappled with disregard for, or inappropriate use of, scientific evidence for years – especially around contentious issues like the causes of global warming, or the benefits of vaccinating children. A long debunked study on links between vaccinations and autism, for instance, cost the researcher his medical license but continues to keep vaccination rates lower than they should be.

Only recently, however, have people begun to think systematically about what actually works to promote better public discourse and decision-making around what is sometimes controversial science. Of course scientists would like to rely on evidence, generated by research, to gain insights into how to most effectively convey to others what they know and do.

As it turns out, the science on how to best communicate science across different issues, social settings and audiences has not led to easy-to-follow, concrete recommendations.

About a year ago, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine brought together a diverse group of experts and practitioners to address this gap between research and practice. The goal was to apply scientific thinking to the process of how we go about communicating science effectively. Both of us were a part of this group (with Dietram as the vice chair).

The public draft of the group’s findings – “Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda” – has just been published. In it, we take a hard look at what effective science communication means and why it’s important; what makes it so challenging – especially where the science is uncertain or contested; and how researchers and science communicators can increase our knowledge of what works, and under what conditions.

At some level, all science communication has embedded values. Information always comes wrapped in a complex skein of purpose and intent – even when presented as impartial scientific facts. Despite, or maybe because of, this complexity, there remains a need to develop a stronger empirical foundation for effective communication of and about science.

Addressing this, the National Academies draft report makes an extensive number of recommendations. A few in particular stand out:

  • Use a systems approach to guide science communication. In other words, recognize that science communication is part of a larger network of information and influences that affect what people and organizations think and do.
  • Assess the effectiveness of science communication. Yes, researchers try, but often we still engage in communication first and evaluate later. Better to design the best approach to communication based on empirical insights about both audiences and contexts. Very often, the technical risk that scientists think must be communicated have nothing to do with the hopes or concerns public audiences have.
  • Get better at meaningful engagement between scientists and others to enable that “honest, bidirectional dialogue” about the promises and pitfalls of science that our committee chair Alan Leshner and others have called for.
  • Consider social media’s impact – positive and negative.
  • Work toward better understanding when and how to communicate science around issues that are contentious, or potentially so.

The paper version of the book has a cost but you can get a free online version.  Unfortunately,  I cannot copy and paste the book’s table of contents here and was not able to find a book index although there is a handy list of reference texts.

I have taken a very quick look at the book. If you’re in the field, it’s definitely worth a look. It is, however, written for and by academics. If you look at the list of writers and reviewers, you will find over 90% are professors at one university or another. That said, I was happy to see references to Dan Kahan’s work at the Yale Law School’s Culture Cognition Project cited. As happens they weren’t able to cite his latest work [***see my xxx, 2017 curiosity post***], released about a month after “Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda.”

I was unable to find any reference to science communication via popular culture. I’m a little dismayed as I feel that this is a seriously ignored source of information by science communication specialists and academicians but not by the folks at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) who announced a wireless app in the same week as it was featured in an episode of the US television comedy, The Big Bang Theory. Here’s more from MIT’s emotion detection wireless app in a Feb. 1, 2017 news release (also on EurekAlert),

It’s a fact of nature that a single conversation can be interpreted in very different ways. For people with anxiety or conditions such as Asperger’s, this can make social situations extremely stressful. But what if there was a more objective way to measure and understand our interactions?

Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Institute of Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) say that they’ve gotten closer to a potential solution: an artificially intelligent, wearable system that can predict if a conversation is happy, sad, or neutral based on a person’s speech patterns and vitals.

“Imagine if, at the end of a conversation, you could rewind it and see the moments when the people around you felt the most anxious,” says graduate student Tuka Alhanai, who co-authored a related paper with PhD candidate Mohammad Ghassemi that they will present at next week’s Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) conference in San Francisco. “Our work is a step in this direction, suggesting that we may not be that far away from a world where people can have an AI social coach right in their pocket.”

As a participant tells a story, the system can analyze audio, text transcriptions, and physiological signals to determine the overall tone of the story with 83 percent accuracy. Using deep-learning techniques, the system can also provide a “sentiment score” for specific five-second intervals within a conversation.

“As far as we know, this is the first experiment that collects both physical data and speech data in a passive but robust way, even while subjects are having natural, unstructured interactions,” says Ghassemi. “Our results show that it’s possible to classify the emotional tone of conversations in real-time.”

The researchers say that the system’s performance would be further improved by having multiple people in a conversation use it on their smartwatches, creating more data to be analyzed by their algorithms. The team is keen to point out that they developed the system with privacy strongly in mind: The algorithm runs locally on a user’s device as a way of protecting personal information. (Alhanai says that a consumer version would obviously need clear protocols for getting consent from the people involved in the conversations.)

How it works

Many emotion-detection studies show participants “happy” and “sad” videos, or ask them to artificially act out specific emotive states. But in an effort to elicit more organic emotions, the team instead asked subjects to tell a happy or sad story of their own choosing.

Subjects wore a Samsung Simband, a research device that captures high-resolution physiological waveforms to measure features such as movement, heart rate, blood pressure, blood flow, and skin temperature. The system also captured audio data and text transcripts to analyze the speaker’s tone, pitch, energy, and vocabulary.

“The team’s usage of consumer market devices for collecting physiological data and speech data shows how close we are to having such tools in everyday devices,” says Björn Schuller, professor and chair of Complex and Intelligent Systems at the University of Passau in Germany, who was not involved in the research. “Technology could soon feel much more emotionally intelligent, or even ‘emotional’ itself.”

After capturing 31 different conversations of several minutes each, the team trained two algorithms on the data: One classified the overall nature of a conversation as either happy or sad, while the second classified each five-second block of every conversation as positive, negative, or neutral.

Alhanai notes that, in traditional neural networks, all features about the data are provided to the algorithm at the base of the network. In contrast, her team found that they could improve performance by organizing different features at the various layers of the network.

“The system picks up on how, for example, the sentiment in the text transcription was more abstract than the raw accelerometer data,” says Alhanai. “It’s quite remarkable that a machine could approximate how we humans perceive these interactions, without significant input from us as researchers.”

Results

Indeed, the algorithm’s findings align well with what we humans might expect to observe. For instance, long pauses and monotonous vocal tones were associated with sadder stories, while more energetic, varied speech patterns were associated with happier ones. In terms of body language, sadder stories were also strongly associated with increased fidgeting and cardiovascular activity, as well as certain postures like putting one’s hands on one’s face.

On average, the model could classify the mood of each five-second interval with an accuracy that was approximately 18 percent above chance, and a full 7.5 percent better than existing approaches.

The algorithm is not yet reliable enough to be deployed for social coaching, but Alhanai says that they are actively working toward that goal. For future work the team plans to collect data on a much larger scale, potentially using commercial devices such as the Apple Watch that would allow them to more easily implement the system out in the world.

“Our next step is to improve the algorithm’s emotional granularity so that it is more accurate at calling out boring, tense, and excited moments, rather than just labeling interactions as ‘positive’ or ‘negative,’” says Alhanai. “Developing technology that can take the pulse of human emotions has the potential to dramatically improve how we communicate with each other.”

This research was made possible in part by the Samsung Strategy and Innovation Center.

Episode 14 of season 10 of The Big Bang Theory was titled “The Emotion Detection Automation”  (full episode can be found on this webpage) and broadcast on Feb. 2, 2017. There’s also a Feb. 2, 2017 recap (recapitulation) by Lincee Ray for EW.com (it seems Ray is unaware that there really is such a machine),

Who knew we would see the day when Sheldon and Raj figured out solutions for their social ineptitudes? Only The Big Bang Theory writers would think to tackle our favorite physicists’ lack of social skills with an emotion detector and an ex-girlfriend focus group. It’s been a while since I enjoyed both storylines as much as I did in this episode. That’s no bazinga.

When Raj tells the guys that he is back on the market, he wonders out loud what is wrong with his game. Why do women reject him? Sheldon receives the information like a scientist and runs through many possible answers. Raj shuts him down with a simple, “I’m fine.”

Sheldon is irritated when he learns that this obligatory remark is a mask for what Raj is really feeling. It turns out, Raj is not fine. Sheldon whines, wondering why no one just says exactly what’s on their mind. It’s quite annoying for those who struggle with recognizing emotional cues.

Lo and behold, Bernadette recently read about a gizmo that was created for people who have this exact same anxiety. MIT has a prototype, and because Howard is an alum, he can probably submit Sheldon’s name as a beta tester.

Of course this is a real thing. If anyone can build an emotion detector, it’s a bunch of awkward scientists with zero social skills.

This is the first time I’ve noticed an academic institution’s news release to be almost simultaneous with mention of its research in a popular culture television program, which suggests things have come a long way since I featured news about a webinar by the National Academies ‘ Science and Entertainment Exchange for film and television productions collaborating with scientists in an Aug. 28, 2012 post.

One last science/popular culture moment: Hidden Figures, a movie about African American women who were human computers supporting NASA (US National Aeronautics and Space Agency) efforts during the 1960s space race and getting a man on the moon was (shockingly) no. 1 in the US box office for a few weeks (there’s more about the movie here in my Sept. 2, 2016 post covering then upcoming movies featuring science).  After the movie was released, Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote up a Jan. 23, 2017 interview with the ‘Hidden Figures’ scriptwriter for Salon.com

I [Allison Schroeder] got on the phone with her [co-producer Renee Witt] and Donna  [co-producer Donna Gigliotti] and I said, “You have to hire me for this; I was born to write this.” Donna sort of rolled her eyes and was like, “God, these Hollywood types would say anything.” I said, “No, no, I grew up at Cape Canaveral. My grandmother was a computer programmer at NASA, my grandfather worked on the Mercury prototype, and I interned there all through high school and then the summer after my freshman year at Stanford I interned. I worked at a missile launch company.”

She was like, “OK that’s impressive.” And I said, “No, I literally grew up climbing on the Mercury capsule — hitting all the buttons, trying to launch myself into space.”

She said, “Well do you think you can handle the math?” I said that I had to study a certain amount of math at Stanford for economics degree. She said, “Oh, all right, that sounds pretty good.”

I pitched her a few scenes. I pitched her the end of the movie that you saw with Katherine running the numbers as John Glenn is trying to get up in space. I pitched her the idea of one of the women as a mechanic and to see her legs underneath the engine. You’re used to seeing a guy like that, but what would it be like to see heels and pantyhose and a skirt and she’s a mechanic and fixing something? Those are some of the scenes that I pitched them, and I got the job.

I love that the film begins with setting up their mechanical aptitude. You set up these are women; you set up these women of color. You set up exactly what that means in this moment in history. It’s like you just go from there.

I was on a really tight timeline because this started as an indie film. It was just Donna Gigliotti, Renee Witt, me and the author Margot Lee Shetterly for about a year working on it. I was only given four weeks for research and 12 weeks for writing the first draft. I’m not sure if I hadn’t known NASA and known the culture and just knew what the machines would look like, knew what the prototypes looked like, if I could have done it that quickly. I turned in that draft and Donna was like, “OK you’ve got the math and the science; it’s all here. Now go have fun.” Then I did a few more drafts and that was really enjoyable because I could let go of the fact I did it and make sure that the characters and the drive of the story and everything just fit what needed to happen.

For anyone interested in the science/popular culture connection, David Bruggeman of the Pasco Phronesis blog does a better job than I do of keeping up with the latest doings.

Getting back to ‘Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda’, even with a mention of popular culture, it is a thoughtful book on the topic.

Nanoview report published by Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment

According to a Dec. 13, 2016 posting by Lynn L. Bergeson and Carla N. Hutton for the National Law Review blog the German government has released a report on nanotechnology, perceptions of risk, and communication strategies,

On November 15, 2016, Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) published a report, in English, entitled Nanoview — Influencing factors on the perception of nanotechnology and target group-specific risk communication strategies. In 2007, BfR conducted a survey concerning the public perception of nanotechnology. Given the newness of nanotechnology and that large sections of the population did not have any definite opinions or knowledge of it, BfR conducted a follow-up survey, Nanoview, in 2012. Nanoview also included the additional question of which communication measures for conveying risk information regarding nanotechnology are best suited to reach the majority of the population. …  The report states that, given the findings from the 2007 representative survey, which confirmed gender-specific differences in the perception of nanotechnology, ideal-typical male and ideal-typical female concepts were developed. Focus groups then reviewed and optimized the conceptual considerations.  According to the report, the ideal-typical male concept met the expectations of the male target groups (nano-types “supporters” and “cautious observers”).

…  According to the report, the conceptual approach of the ideal-typical female concept met the expectations of the female target groups (nano-types “sceptics” and “cautious observers”), as well as catering to the information needs of some men (“cautious observers”).  …

The report concludes that, with regard to the central communication measure, creating an information portal on the Internet appears to be the most meaningful strategy. .. The report states: “The ideal-typical male concept is geared towards the provision of information on scientific, technical and application-related aspects of nanotechnology, for example.  The ideal-typical female concept focuses on the provision of information on application-related aspects of nanotechnology and support for everyday (purchase) decisions.”

I have quickly gone through the report and it’s interesting to note that the age range surveyed in 2012 was 16 to 60. Presumably Germany is in a similar position to other European countries, Canada, the US, and others in that the main portion of the population is ageing and that population is living longer; consequently, it seems odd to have excluded people over the age of 60.

I found more details about the gender differences expressed regarding nanotechnology, from Nanoview — Influencing factors on the perception of nanotechnology and target group-specific risk communication strategies,

For the following findings, there were numerous significant differences for the variables gender and age:
 Women are on the whole more sceptical towards nanotechnology than men; i.e.
– men tend to be more in favour of nano applications than women
– men  take  a  more  positive  view  than  women  of the  risk-benefit  ratio  in  general  and  in connection with specific applications
– men have a far better feeling about nanotechnology than women
– when  it  comes  to  information  about  nanotechnology, men  have  more faith  in  the government than women; women have more faith than men in environmental organisations as well as health and work safety authorities
– in  some  areas,  men  have  a  far  more  positive  attitude  towards  nanotechnology than women
 Younger  people  are  on  the  whole  more  open-minded  about  nanotechnology than older people; i.e.
-younger people tend to be more in favour of nano applications than older people. The cohort of 16 to 30-year-olds is in some cases far more open-minded than the population overall
– younger people take a (slightly) more positive view than older people of the risk-benefit ratio in general and in connection with specific applications
– in some areas, younger people have a far more positive attitude towards nanotechnology than older people

In  contrast,  there  are few  to  hardly  any  significant  differences for  the  variables  “education”, “size of household”, “income” and “migration background”. [p. 77]

I also found this to be of interest,

In recent years, there has been little or no change in awareness levels among the general population with regard to nanotechnology. This is shown by a comparison of the representative Germany-wide surveys on the risk perception of nanotechnology among the population conducted in 2007 and 2012 (cf. Chapter 0). In response to the open question regarding nanotechnology, around 40% of respondents in the 2012 survey say they had not previously heard of nanotechnology or nanomaterials (cf. Chapter 4.2.2). At the same time, however, those  respondents  who did know about the topic were able to make fairly differentiated statements on individual issues and applications. The risk-benefit ratio of nanotechnology is seen slightly more critically than five years previously, and the general attitude towards nanotechnology has become less favourable. The subjective feeling of being informed about the issue is also still less pronounced than is the case with other innovative technologies. From the point of view  of  consumers,  therefore, this means that an information deficit still exists when it comes to nanotechnology. (p. 83)

It seems to be true everywhere. Awareness of nanotechnology does not seem to change much.

This is a 162 pp. report, which recommends risk communication strategies for nanotechnology,

The findings of the representative survey underline the need to inform the public at the earliest possible date about scientific knowledge as well as the potential and possible risks of nanotechnology. For this reason, the challenge was to develop two alternative target group-specific risk communication concepts. The drafting of these concepts was a two-phase process and took account not only of the prior work done in the research project but also of the insights gained from two group discussions with consumers (focus groups). Against the backdrop of the findings from the representative survey, which  confirmed the gender-specific differences in the perception of nanotechnology, it was decided in consultation with the client to develop an ideal-typical male and an ideal-typical female concept. … (p. 100)

This returns us to the beginning with the Bergeson/Hutton post. For more details you do need to read the report. By the way, the literature survey is quite broad and interesting bringing together more than 20 surveys to provide an international (largely Eurocentric) perspective.

The role of empathy in science communication

Phys.org has a Dec. 12, 2016 essay by Nicole Miller-Struttmann on the topic of empathy and science communication,

Science communication remains as challenging as it is necessary in the era of big data. Scientists are encouraged to reach out to non-experts through social media, collaborations with citizen scientists, and non-technical abstracts. As a science enthusiast (and extrovert), I truly enjoy making these connections and having conversations that span expertise, interests and geographic barriers. However, recent divisive and impassioned responses to the surprising election results in the U.S. made me question how effective these approaches are for connecting with the public.

Are we all just stuck in our own echo chambers, ignoring those that disagree with us?

How do we break out of these silos to reach those that disengage from science or stop listening when we focus on evidence? Particularly evidence that is increasingly large in volume and in scale? Recent research suggests that a few key approaches might help: (1) managing our social media use with purpose, (2) tailoring outreach efforts to a distinct public, and (3) empathizing with our audience(s) in a deep, meaningful way.

The essay, which originally appeared on the PLOS Ecology Community blog in a Dec. 9, 2016 posting, goes on to discuss social media, citizen science/crowdsourcing, design thinking, and next gen data visualization (Note: Links have been removed),

Many of us attempt to broaden our impact by sharing interesting studies with friends, family, colleagues, and the broader public on social media. While the potential to interact directly with non-experts through social media is immense, confirmation bias (the tendency to interpret and share information that supports one’s existing beliefs) provides a significant barrier to reaching non-traditional and contrarian publics. Insights from network analyses suggest that these barriers can be overcome by managing our connections and crafting our messages carefully. …

Technology has revolutionized how the public engages in science, particularly data acquisition, interpretation and dissemination. The potential benefits of citizen science and crowd sourcing projects are immense, but there are significant challenges as well. Paramount among them is the reliance on “near-experts” and amateur scientists. Domroese and Johnson (2016) suggest that understanding what motivates citizen scientists to get involved – not what we think motivates them – is the first step to deepening their involvement and attracting diverse participants.

Design Thinking may provide a framework for reaching diverse and under-represented publics. While similar to scientific thinking in several ways,

design thinking includes a crucial step that scientific thinking does not: empathizing with your audience.

It requires that the designer put themselves in the shoes of their audience, understand what motivates them (as Domroese and Johnson suggest), consider how they will interact with and perceive the ‘product’, and appeal to the perspective. Yajima (2015) summarizes how design thinking can “catalyze scientific innovation” but also why it might be a strange fit for scientists. …

Connecting the public to big data is particularly challenging, as the data are often complex with multifaceted stories to tell. Recent work suggests that art-based, interactive displays are more effective at fostering understanding of complex issues, such as climate change.

Thomsen (2015) explains that by eliciting visceral responses and stimulating the imagination, interactive displays can deepen understanding and may elicit behavioral changes.

I recommend reading this piece in its entirety as Miller-Struttmann presents a more cohesive description of current science communication practices and ideas than is sometimes the case.

Final comment, I would like to add one suggestion and that’s the adoption of an attitude of ‘muscular’ empathy. People are going to disagree with you, sometimes quite strongly (aggressively), and it can be very difficult to maintain communication with people who don’t want (i.e., reject) the communication. Maintaining empathy in the face of failure and rejection which can extend for decades or longer requires a certain muscularity