Tag Archives: Alan Alda

A science communication education program in Australia

Alan Alda (US actor and science communicator) was invited to celebrate the opening of the Australia National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS) on Tuesday, March 8, 2016 according to a March 8, 2016 CPAS press release (Note: Links have been removed),

Actor Alan Alda, best known for his starring role in the television series M*A*S*H, opened new facilities for CPAS today [March 8, 2016].

Mr Alda, US Ambassador to Australia his Excellency John Berry, ANU [Australian National University] Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt, and CPAS Director Professor Joan Leach opened the new building with speeches in the greenery of University Avenue, followed by ribbon cutting at the new CPAS office.

The opening follows a new partnership agreement between CPAS and the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, based in Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism in the United States.

Mr Alda is a visiting professor in Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism and was a founding member of the Alda Center in 2009. His vision was to teach scientists the skills he had mastered as an actor to help them communicate better with policymakers and the public.

Mr Alda said it was time for CPAS and the Alan Alda Centre to join forces and to start collaborating.

“It couldn’t be better. We both have something to offer the other,” Mr Alda said.

“The Centre here has an extraordinary grasp of the history and theory of science communication. We have in turn innovative ways of teaching the actual skills of communication.

“We have turned many people who are not comfortable facing an audience, or even worse comfortable facing an audience but making an audience uncomfortable facing them, we’ve turned them into master communicators, and they are happy about it and their science is reaching the pubic.”

Professor Schmidt said the new facilities celebrated the partnership between ANU and the Alan Alda Center and he looked forward to seeing the result of the new collaboration.

“CPAS is one of the jewels in the crown of ANU,” Professor Schmidt said.

“The centre is Australia’s oldest and most diverse academic science communication centre, and it was formed in 1996. It took very special people to come up with the vision for CPAS, and its development blazed a trail that has been emulated since by other institutions.”

The event was completed by a two hour workshop for CPAS students and stuff run by Alda Center Associate Director, Dr Christine O’Connell, and Mr Alda. The workshop was the first taste of the collaborative exchange yet to come between the two institutions.

There is a March 10, 2016 interview/chat with Alan Alda by Rod Lambert and Will Grant featuring text and audio files on The Conversation.com (Note: Links have been removed),

Rod: Did you experience any particular kinds of resistance to try to sell this message that scientists should communicate more?

Alan: Ten or 15 years ago, when I began trying to sell this idea, I did get plenty of resistance. I don’t know how many universities I talked to, it was just a handful, but I didn’t get any enthusiasm until I talked to Stony Brook University in New York, and they started the Center for Communicating Science there, which I’m so thrilled is now collaborating with the National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. It’s like a dream come true, you’re our first international affiliation.

Rod: You’re welcome. Obviously there’s nothing in it for us, we’re just doing this out of the kindness of our hearts (laughs).

Alan: Ha ha ha, well you’ve got all this experience. We’ve got some pretty innovative ideas that we’ve been working on. We kind of use the Stony Brook University setting as our laboratory and we then spread what we’ve learned around the States.

Now we will be sharing it with you and we hope to get your innovations and ideas, and help to share them because we now have the network that’s growing. Every month, it gets a little larger.

We have 17 universities and medical schools and institutions in America that are hooked into this network. We’re going to be sharing all the things, all the creative ideas that come out of each of these places.

That really appeals to me because the people who really want to see communication thrive, the communication of science, they get so enthused about it. It’s hard to get them to stop working night and day on it because you see the results blooming and it makes me very happy.

They also cover Alda’s disinterest in becoming a doctor (ironic given that he’s probably best known for his role as a doctor in the MASH television series) and his presence at the March 9 – 13, 2016 World Science Festival in Brisbane.

For anyone who may recognize the World Science Festival name, it’s the progenitor for this event in Australia (from the World Science Festival in Brisbane About page),

The World Science Festival began in New York in 2008 and is an annual weeklong celebration and exploration of science. Through gripping debates, original theatrical works, interactive explorations, musical performances, intimate salons, and major outdoor experiences, the Festival takes science out of the laboratory and into the streets, parks, museums, galleries and premier performing arts venues of New York City.

The World Science Festival brings together great minds in science and the arts to produce live and digital content that presents the wonders of science and the drama of scientific discovery to a broad general audience. Hailed a “new cultural institution” by the New York Times, the Festival has featured scientific and cultural luminaries including Stephen Hawking, Maggie Gyllenhaal, E.O. Wilson, John Lithgow, Sir Paul Nurse, Glenn Close, Harold Varmus, Yo-Yo Ma, Steven Weinberg, Philip Glass, Eric Lander, Steven Chu, Chuck Close, Richard Leakey, Bobby McFerrin, Sylvia Earle, Anna Deavere Smith, Oliver Sacks, Liev Schreiber, Mary-Claire King, Charlie Kaufman, Bill T. Jones, John Hockenberry, Elizabeth Vargas among many others. The annual Festivals have collectively drawn more than 1.3 million visitors since 2008, and millions more have viewed the programs online.

World Science U is the Foundation’s online education arm where students and lifelong learners can dive more deeply through artfully produced digital education content presented by world-renowned scientists.

The World Science Festival is a production of the World Science Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation headquartered in New York City. The Foundation’s mission is to cultivate a general public informed by science, inspired by its wonder, convinced of its value, and prepared to engage with its implications for the future.

WSF Brisbane

The inaugural World Science Festival Brisbane will bring some of the world’s greatest thought leaders to Queensland, showcase local scientists and performers from around the Asia Pacific region, and host the brightest and the best from previous events in New York.

At the World Science Festival Brisbane, the biggest stars of science will present the beauty, complexity, and importance of science through diverse, multidisciplinary programming that is the World Science Festival signature. The inaugural World Science Festival Brisbane will take place between 9 and 13 March 2016 and is presented by the Queensland Museum.

Queensland Museum is located at South Bank in the heart of Brisbane’s Cultural Precinct, and is the most visited museum in Australia*. Permanent attractions include: the Sciencentre, which offers a wealth of interactive science and technology experiences; the Discovery Centre, the Lost Creatures: Stories from Ancient Queensland Gallery; and the Dandiiri Maiwar Aboriginal and Torres Islander Centre.

The Museum also regularly hosts national and international travelling exhibitions and offers a range of public and educational programs and activities, which attract more than 1 million visitors to the Cultural Precinct each year. Queensland Museum exhibits and stores a significant proportion of the State Collection and houses several research and conservation laboratories.

A little digging resulted in a few more details about this WSF Brisbane undertaking in a Media Kit for the 2016 inaugural event.

Exclusive rights have been granted to the Queensland Museum to present the event in the Asia-Pacific region for the next six years.

The inaugural World Science Festival Brisbane will bring some of the world’s greatest thought leaders  to Queensland, showcase local scientists and performers from around the Asia-Pacific region, and host the brightest and the best from previous events in New York.

The inaugural World Science Festival Brisbane will take place over four days and five nights across the South Bank Cultural Precinct from Wednesday 9 to Sunday 13 March 2016.

More than 100 scientific luminaries from nine countries will gather for the inaugural World Science Festival Brisbane at venues across the Cultural Precinct and South Bank.

Some of science’s brightest stars making special appearances at the festival include Emmy award-winning actor, author, science enthusiast and World Science Festival board member Alan Alda; Nobel Laureatephysicist  Brian Schmidt; pioneering marine biologist Sylvia Earle;  celebrated astronaut Andy Thomas; renowned physicist, best-selling author and festival co-founder Brian Greene, and many more.

Tracy Day, Co-Founder and CEO of the World Science Festival remarked, “By recasting science with art, music and story, we’re shifting science toward the centre of culture. We’re touching all those people  who love the arts but run the other way, when it comes to science.

Over 100 events (free and ticketed) make up the World Science Festival Brisbane program from Wednesday 9 – Sunday 13 March 2016. Highlights include:

• Celebrating the recent 100th Anniversary of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, two premiere performances and a deep dive into the science, impact and unresolved mysteries of Einstein’s most profound discovery:

− Light Falls – a new theatrical work featuring festival co-founder Brian Greene and an ensemble cast; written by Greene and created with composer Jeff Beal (“House of Cards”) and the 2015 Tony-award winning team from 59 Productions (An American in Paris);

− Dear Albert – a reading for the stage written by Alan Alda, featuring Jason Klarwein as Albert Einstein, with Anna McGahan and Christen O’Leary;

− Relativity Since Einstein – an illuminating exploration of Einstein’s ground-breaking insights, moderated by Greene and featuring a line-up of top thinkers in the field.

• Street Science! – a free two-day extravaganza for the whole family featuring everything from live turtle hatching, drones, coding workshops and robot combat to gastronomic demonstrations, taxidermy exhibitions and science-adventure storytelling

• New York Signature Events: The line-up for the inaugural WSF Brisbane includes six Signature Events straight from New York. Provocative, entertaining and accessible, these fast-paced programs explore ground-breaking discoveries, cutting-edge science and the latest technological innovations, guided by leading thinkers from around the world, including:

− Dawn of the Human Age – are we entering a new geological epoch: the Human Age?

 − Alien Life: Will We Know It When We Find It? Scientists across disciplines – astronomers, astrophysicists, and astrobiologists – are intensely studying the evolution of life on Earth and listening for signals from outer space to help identify life in the universe.

− The Moral Math of Robots – Can machines learn right from wrong? As the first generation of driverless cars and battlefield warbots filter into society, scientists are working to develop moral decision-making skills in robots. Break or swerve? Shoot or stand down?

• Diverse and uniquely fascinating events for general audiences and students that showcase scientists, researchers, philosophers, artists, authors, inventors and more, exploring and debating questions about the universe, our changing world, and the role science plays in some of the most urgent issues of our time. Including:

− Can We Save our Reefs in Time? – Global ideas that may help preserve our amazing natural reefs are on the agenda when leading experts discuss revolutionary scientific measures that could assist marine scientists and biologists determine exactly what’s happening to the Great Barrier Reef, and indeed reefs all over the world.

− Chasing Down the Comet – landing a spacecraft on a comet at 40,000 k mph, with scientists from the European Space Agency and NASA who actually did it.

− Catching up with the Jetsons: Cities in 2050 – world renowned scientists, urban planners, and futurists consider the future of the city.

−The Martian film and talk – a once in a lifetime opportunity hear an astronaut and a NASA scientist discuss whether the blockbuster movie gets the science right, with Andy Thomas and Pamela Conrad.

• Salon events that dive deeper into the science of specific topics with informal discussions challenging participants to consider their shared passions from a fresh perspective.

• Hands-on workshops where budding scientists can spend time with working scientists, learning about their fascinating work in fields as diverse as genetics, art conservation, biology, the environment, ichthyology, game design, zoology, palaeontology, robotics and sports engineering.

Congratulations to the organizers for pulling together an exciting programme. BTW, the original World Science Festival will be taking place June 1 – 5, 2016 in New York.

Getting back to CPAS and for anyone interested in it (the only institution that I’ve seen offering science communication degrees for undergraduates, masters, and PhDs), there’s more from their History page,

The roots of CPAS started to grow in the 1980s, when two ANU academics – physicist Dr Mike Gore (now Professor), the founder of Australia’s National Science and Technology Centre, Questacon, and biologist Professor Chris Bryant, then ANU Dean of Science – started up a Graduate Certificate in Science Communication program. They established it as a formal training program and recognised qualification for groups of postgraduate students who had been performing outreach science shows with Questacon since the early 1980s. That program has become the Master of Science Communication Outreach degree, still run by CPAS, which is the host program for the Shell Questacon Science Circus, still run by Questacon.

In 1996 the ANU employed Dr Sue Stocklmayer (now Professor) as a new science communication academic to work full time on developing the program and other science communication teaching and research ventures at the University. It was she who proposed the establishment of a Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. Professor Bryant was the first CPAS Director, but stepped aside in 1998, when Dr Stocklmayer took the reins. She remained the Director until 2015. In 2016, Professor Joan Leach assumed the role of CPAS Director.

The ibis was chosen as the CPAS mascot because it was the totem symbol of the Egyptian god Thoth, God of Science and Wisdom and Scribe of the Gods. The Ibis is also a ubiquitous travelling bird.

The opening ceremony for CPAS was performed by Professor Richard Dawkins, the first Charles Simonyi professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford. After receiving an honorary degree (Hon D Litt) from the University he spent the rest of the afternoon at CPAS, in its old quarters of what is now the Peter Baume Buiding. There he cracked a ceremonial ‘ibis egg’ and mixed with members of the university. Photos of the event can be seen below.

Since its humble origins CPAS has become a world class science communication centre, growing in staff and student numbers, offering science communication education at all levels from undergraduate to PhD, building a comprehensive research program, and engaging in diverse science outreach and policy activities. CPAS staff regularly travel to numerous countries across the world, offering science communication education, training and support to science communicators, science centre staff and science teachers. In 2000 CPAS became an accredited Centre for the Australian National Commission for UNESCO. CPAS also boasts current partnerships with Questacon, Shell Australia, the National University of Singapore, the Government of Vietnam, the Australian Government’s Inspiring Australia program, the Science Communication Research and Education Network, and the Science Circus Africa initiative.

That’s all, folks.

Science communication: clarity and dumbing down

The older and less polite term for this activity is ‘dumbing down’.  But, if I read Hamideh Emrani’s Nov. 20, 2015 post for the Signals blog (insiders’ perspective on the world of stem cells and regenerative medicine; [Canada] Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine website) and understand the video clip (embedded in Emrani’s post) featuring Alan Alda (actor and science afficionado and communicator) rightly, the word ‘clarity’ is now being used. I’m glad to see the change.

As Emrani hints in her Nov. 20, 2015 post , it’s very difficult to gauge your audience’s interest level and knowledge about a topic,

I completely understand the challenge for a scientist to not use scientific language and not assume what they know is common knowledge. I still find myself adding jargon to my writing. But we all know the importance of keeping the audience engaged and the old saying: “practice makes perfect.”

Her comments were made in the context of a recent conference she had attended and observations she’d made about the presentations.

In the interest of not repeating Emrani’s post, I’m going to focus on some different aspects of science communication and audiences. In all the talk about science communication, there’s very little about communicating to audiences who do have some or lot of science education. So, here goes. Trying to judge your audience’s knowledge level can be tricky assuming you’re not at a specialized conference where you’d expect people to have the basics. Even an audience full of scientists can be tricky, if they have different specialties.

For example, some years ago I was told that a job for a technical writer was being opened up at TRIUMF, Canada’s National Laboratory for  Particle and Nuclear Physics. According to my information, they wanted a technical writer not to write manuals but to create a situation where TRIUMF’s scientists from various specialties would be forced to explain their work to someone who wasn’t a specialist. Apparently, these TRIUMF experts weren’t able to read each other’s written materials or (presumably) understand their presentations due to an overabundance of expertise and jargon on the part of the writer/presenter and a reluctance to admit to difficulties with understanding on the part of the differently expert reader/listener.

Of course, it’s all possible to aim too low. Years ago I was working in a local health department and learned this about an AIDS educator who’d been hired for her expertise to assist health professionals (mostly nurses) in their work with AIDS patients.

Shortly after starting with the health department, she gave a 2-day workshop and made a disastrous choice. The nurses had been dealing with AIDS patients for a few years and she gave a workshop designed for people who knew absolutely nothing about the disease thereby insulting the nurses’ expertise. Realizing her error on the first day, she recalibrated her workshop for the second.  (BTW, It’s very hard to do that to a presentation partway through.) Unfortunately, a chunk of her audience had left. Worse yet, I heard the story more than a year later in the context of an explanation of why a number of nurses were shunning her professionally.

Getting back to clarity, here’s Alan Alda,

As Emrani notes, practice helps. If you have time, don’t forget to check out her where she has more to say and another embedded video.

American Assocation for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Chicago, Illinois (13 – 17 February 2014)

The 2014 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) will take place Feb. 13 – 17, 2014 in Chicago (one of my favourite places), Illinois. It’s always interesting to take a look at the programme and here’s a few of the items I found interesting,

Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014  the AAAS has arranged a number of talks about ‘communicating science and, as usual, bloggers, etc. are confined to presenting under the rubric of social media:

9:00 AM-10:30 AM

Seminar: Communicating Science

11:00 AM-12:30 PM

Seminar: Communicating Science

Engaging with Social Media

To be more specific, here’s the list of presenters for the ‘Journalist’ talk (Note: I have removed links),

Cornelia Dean, The New York Times and Brown University
Carl Zimmer, Independent Science Journalist [Note: Zimmer writes for the NY Times and other prestigious print publications, as well as, being a blogger]

Robert Lee Hotz, The Wall Street Journal

David Baron, Public Radio International

Paula Apsell, NOVA [science program on the US PBS {Public Broadcasting Service} network)

[emphases mine]

Meanwhile, we have this for social media,

Dominique Brossard, University of Wisconsin
Kim Cobb, University of Georgia
Navigating the Science-Social Media Space: Pitfalls and Opportunities
Danielle N. Lee, Cornell University
Raising STEM Awareness Among Under-Served and Under-Represented Audiences
Maggie Koerth-Baker, BoingBoing.net
What’s the Point of Social Media?

It’s nice to see Danielle N. Lee as one of the presenters. Her blog, The Urban Scientist is on the Scientific American blog network (she also featured as a whistle blower and more in the 2013 science blogging scandals [my first post on the topic was Oct. 18, 2013 towards the end of the scandals and I mused on the scandals and discussed  gender in an end-of-year Dec. 31, 2013 posting ) and there’s of course, someone representing BoingBoing, an online publisher,which was conceptualized as a magazine and has now evolved into a group blog.

My basic thesis is that blogs and such are emerging as part of the science media landscape and the types of sessions which isolate bloggers, etc.  do not acknowledge that fact. Yes, it’s true that Zimmer blogs but I can guarantee that the discussion will revolve exclusively around his high profile publishers such as the NY Times and how the participants can get their stories in front of mainstream media journalists and as for the social media session that’s going to focus on how scientists can directly approach their publics.

Moving on, there’s a nanotechnology aspect to the following presentation, although you’d never guess it from the title,

 Preserving Our Cultural Heritage: Science in the Service of Art
Friday, 14 February 2014: 10:00 AM-11:30 AM
Acapulco (Hyatt Regency Chicago)
In 2009 a group of chemists and materials scientists from a wide range of institutions came together for a workshop on “Chemistry and Materials Research at the Interface Between Science and Art,” co-sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Science Foundation. One of the workshop conclusions was that scientists in academia need to be encouraged to collaborate with their peers in cultural heritage institutions, to both increase scientist knowledge of this heritage and also to develop the necessary tools and apply the science to be able to preserve it. The session covers different collaborations that are ongoing in this area, relating to different mediums of art and different technologies that can be applied. The session will also include recent results and successes in this process, both in better understanding of materials as well as in developments for their conservation. The discussion will also address what is needed for collaborations like this to continue to flourish and grow.

One doesn’t get to the ‘nano’ part until looking at the speakers’ list (Note: Links have been removed),

Nicholas Bigelow, University of Rochester
Leonor Sierra, University of Rochester
Nicholas Bigelow, University of Rochester
21st Century Tools for 19th Century Nanotechnology ‘[emphasis mine]
Richard Van Duyne, Northwestern University
Detecting Organic Dyestuffs in Art with SERS
Anikó Bezur, Yale University
Aiming for a Perfect Match: Pairing Collections-Based Scientific Research with Academia

The 19th Century nanotechnology referred to in the title of Biglow’s talk is the daggeureotype (a type of 19th century photographic process) which gained a lot of attention in the last few years when a display of irreplaceable pieces started showing signs of visible (25 pieces) and catastrophic (five pieces) deterioration. There’s more about this fascinating story in my Jan. 10, 2013 posting.

Saturday, Feb.15, 2014, Alan Alda will be at the meeting as a plenary speaker,

Alan Alda: Getting Beyond a Blind Date with Science
Plenary Lecture
Saturday, 15 February 2014: 5:00 PM-6:00 PM
Imperial Ballroom (Fairmont Chicago)
Alan Alda is an actor, writer, director, and visiting professor at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, where he helps current and future scientists learn to communicate more clearly and vividly with the public. In collaboration with theater arts faculty at Stony Brook, he is pioneering the use of improvisational theater exercises to help scientists connect more directly with people outside their field. Alda is best known for his award-winning work in movies, theater, and television, but he also has a distinguished record in the public communication of science. For 13 years he hosted the PBS series Scientific American Frontiers, which he has called “the best thing I ever did in front of a camera.” After interviewing hundreds of scientists around the world, he became convinced that many researchers have wonderful stories but need to learn how to tell them better. That realization inspired the creation of Stony Brook’s multidisciplinary Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science in 2009.

The last two sessions I’m highlighting are on standard nanotechnology topics. On Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014, there’s

Nanoelectronics for Renewable Energy: How Nanoscale Innovations Address Global Needs
Sunday, 16 February 2014: 1:30 PM-4:30 PM
Regency B (Hyatt Regency Chicago)
Sometimes it’s possible to get a handle on the world’s biggest problems by thinking creatively on a very small scale—and advances in the rapidly maturing field of nanoelectronics prove it. Innovations that hold promise for broader and faster adoption of renewable energy technologies loom large against a backdrop of population growth, rapid industrialization in developing countries, and initiatives to decrease reliance on both fossil fuels and nuclear power. In this symposium, researchers from the U.S. and Europe will review the latest progress in nanoelectronics for renewable energy across a series of interrelated programs. For instance, new manufacturing approaches such as nanoimprinting, nanotransfer, and spray-on fabrication of organic semiconductors not only point the way toward low-cost production of large-scale electronics such as solar panels, they also enable and inspire novel nanoelectronic device designs. These device-level innovations range from ultrasensitive molecular sensors to nanomagnet logic circuits, and they are of particular interest in solar energy applications. Many lines of research appear to be converging on nanostructure-based solar cells that will be vastly more efficient in capturing sunlight (or even heat) and converting it to electrical power. In addition to outlining these promising paths toward higher-efficiency, lower-cost photovoltaics, the symposium will highlight some of the remaining hurdles, including needed advances in fundamental science.
Patrick Regan, Technical University Munich
William Gilroy, University of Notre Dame
and Hillary Sanctuary, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL)

On Monday, Feb. 17, 2014,  nanotechnology features in the final plenary session,

John A. Rogers: Stretchy Electronics That Dissolve in Your Body
Plenary Lecture
Monday, 17 February 2014: 8:30 AM-9:30 AM
Imperial Ballroom (Fairmont Chicago)
Dr. John Rogers’ research includes fundamental and applied aspects of nano- and molecular scale fabrication. He also studies materials and patterning techniques for unusual electronic and photonic devices, with an emphasis on bio-integrated and bio-inspired systems. He received a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2005. He has published more than 350 papers and is an inventor on over 80 patents and patent applications, many of which are licensed or in active use by large companies and startups that he co-founded. He previously worked for Bell Laboratories as director of its research program in condensed matter physics. He has received recognition including a MacArthur Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Lemelson-MIT Prize, the National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellowship from the U.S. Department of Defense, the George Smith Award from IEEE, the Robert Henry Thurston Award from American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the Mid-Career Researcher Award from Materials Research Society, the Leo Hendrick Baekeland Award from the American Chemical Society, and the Daniel Drucker Eminent Faculty Award from the University of Illinois.
John Rogers, Ph. D., University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

You can find out more about registration and public events for the AAAS 2014 annual meeting here.

Nicholas Bigelow, University of Rochester
Leonor Sierra, University of Rochester
Nicholas Bigelow, University of Rochester
21st Century Tools for 19th Century Nanotechnology

Richard Van Duyne, Northwestern University
Detecting Organic Dyestuffs in Art with SERS

Anikó Bezur, Yale University
Aiming for a Perfect Match: Pairing Collections-Based Scientific Research with Academia

Welcome to Something About Science; another Canadian science blog

Lynn K, the Something About Science blogger is a (from the online profile),

…  Ph.D. candidate in biochemistry at the University of British Columbia. Biochemistry is the chemistry of life. I am interested in things that happen inside our bodies, such as what happens when you drink alcohol, what does it mean to have mutations, and how can we treat diseases like cancer and heart failure. Through this blog, I hope to intrigue your curiosity by sharing some bits of facts and stories about science in everyday life!

Lynn posts once a week on a variety of topics,

Top Posts

I have a personal fondness for the July 11, 2012 posting, What is a flame? — When a house catches fire…,

“FIRE!!” In the middle of the night last week, I was woken up to find a neighbor’s house fast ablaze. The entire framework crackled and was engulfed by flames which glared bright orange against the night. Fortunately, no one was hurt, as the house was under construction, and the neighboring houses had been evacuated before they, too, caught fire.

Here are some images that recapitulate the (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime experience.

But this being a science blog, my question to you is, “What is a flame?” And better yet, can you explain flames in a way everyone, including children, can understand and enjoy learning?

Alan Alda and the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, New York, have asked the same question to scientists. The Flame Challenge invited scientists to communicate science clearly to the public by explaining what flames are in a way simple and fun, yet educational. The challenge received over 800 entries, which were judged by over 6,000 children aged 11.

Lynn goes on to announce the winner, Ben Ames, a PhD student in Austria and includes the challenge-winning video animation. You can watch the video and find out where you can post a question for next year’s challenge in Lynn’s What is a flame? posting.

World Science Festival 2012

I’ve been writing about the World Science Festival in New York City for a few years now (here’s a May 5, 2011 posting about Baba Brinkman and Fotini Markopoulou-Kalamara at the 2011 festival)  and the 2012 edition is about to launch.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012, a 5th anniversary gala celebration will be hosted by Alan Alda (mentioned in my Nov. 11, 2011 posting) and Brian Greene (who co-founded the festival) at the at The Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center at 7:30 pm. From the May 22, 2012 article by Dan Bacalzo for TheaterMania,

Performers will include Joshua Bell, Paige Faure, Drew Gehling, Rose Hemingway, David Hibbard, James Naughton, Momix, Debra Monk, Eryn Murman, and Abby O’Brien.

In addition, Festival co-founder Brian Greene will conduct two rarely-seen-in-public Physics experiments: the “Quantum Levitation” and “Double-Slit” experiments.

The 2012 World Science Festival runs from M1y 30, 2012 to June 3, 2012. I took a brief glance at the event listings and estimate that 25 to 30% are sold out. Tickets are still available for Cool Jobs, Cool Kids, Hot Contest, which features Baba Brinkman, the Canadian rap artist who performs the only peer-reviewed science rap in the world and was featured in last year’s Cool Jobs presentation.  From the Cool Jobs event page,

This spectacular double feature shows science in a whole new light: pure, imaginative, mind-bending fun! The big event heats up as Alan Alda hosts The Flame Challenge, a contest conceived by Alda and Stony Brook University’s Center for Communicating Science, that calls on scientists worldwide to give their best explanation of how a flame works—but in a way that makes sense to a kid. Cheer for your own favorite as Alda announces the winner chosen by hundreds of 11-year olds around the country. The excitement continues with the Festival’s ever-popular Cool Jobs, a jaw-dropping show that brings you face-to-face with amazing scientists with amazing jobs. Imagine having an office that’s a zoo and co-workers that are lemurs and porcupines. How about getting paid to build machines that can read people’s thoughts. Or imagine your desk was a basketball court and your clients were superstars trying to improve their game through biomechanics? Well, you don’t have to just imagine. Hear from scientists who have these jobs—find out what they do, how they do it, and how they got the coolest and weirdest gigs on the planet.

There will also be a street fair on Sunday, June 3, 2012 from 9:59 am to 5:59 pm (what is the significance of those hours?). From the Ultimate Science Street Fair webpage,

The Ultimate Science Street Fair returns to Washington Square Park with another action-packed day of interactive exhibits, experiments, games and shows, all designed to entertain and inspire. Visit a telepathy lab and control a computer just by thinking about it, learn the science tricks to shooting perfect free-throws with NBA stars, create your own fragrance at the Smell Lab, ride a square-wheeled tricycle, and much more!

Admission to the street fair and some of the other events are free. Of course, you do need to be in New York City.

Radiance, scientists, communication and improvisation

Marie Curie’s letters are radioactive. I discovered that fact when reading David Bruggeman’s Nov. 5, 2011,posting (on his Pasco Phronesis blog),

As part of his appearance on Thursday night’s edition of The Late Late Show to promote Tower Heist (video not yet available at the usual places), Alan Alda noted that his play, Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie, is premiering in Los Angeles.  In previews as of November 1st, the play’s official opening is next Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse.  Alda has written before, but this is his first effort for the stage.  …

… This play has percolated with him for years, first as a reading of her letters.  Their persistent radioactivity forced him to switch to Einstein and defer the work with Marie Curie until now.

The play was given a public reading at the World Science Festival in New York, June 2011. From the May 9, 2011 article by Patricia Cohen for the New York Times,

Opening night of the World Science Festival in New York is going to feature a more glittering lineup of stars than most Broadway shows. Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Allison Janney, Liev Schreiber, David Morse and Bill Camp are among the actors coming together on June 1 at Alice Tully Hall to participate in a reading of a new play written by Alan Alda about the scientist Marie Curie.

Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in 1902 – for the theory of radioactivity that she developed with her husband, Pierre –  and the first person to receive the award twice. She was awarded her second Nobel in chemistry in 1911 for her discovery of two elements, radium and polonium. There have been several renditions of Curie’s life on stage, television and film, including the 1943 drama starring Greer Garson. Without giving too much of the plot away, Mr. Alda said his play focuses on the period between her first Nobel Prize and her second nine years later. The Nobel committee did not originally want to include Curie in the award and only backed down after pressure from her husband. “But they wouldn’t let her get up and accept the award,” Mr. Alda said. “She had to sit in the audience.” In the intervening years, Pierre Curie died and Marie had to run a gauntlet of setbacks and obstacles, but by 1911, Mr. Alda said, “her work is finally recognized, and she takes full credit for it, even though by now she’s weakened by radiation poisoning.”

“I think she had a kind of cognitive dissonance about it,” Mr. Alda said of the damaging fallout from her experiments. “She didn’t want to believe it was sickening her,” he added. “It’s part of the heroism of science itself. We as a species are just so interested in understanding things that might be dangerous to mess with, but nothing stops us.”

Radiance is currently playing at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles and features Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad, a U. S. television series) as Marie Curie and John de Lancie (probably best known at Q in the U. S. television series, Star Trek: The Next Generation) as Pierre Curie. Ticket buying information and details about the L. A. production can be found here.

Alan Alda has a longstanding interest in science and science communication as can be seen in a National Science Foundation video, which I found on Ed Darrell’s blog, Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub (MFB). First here’s a little About MFB,

Of all the bathtubs in all the bathrooms in the world, and I had to pick Millard Fillmore’s!

Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub started as my way of learning about making blogs work, for my hope to integrate blog usage into the classroom.

This blog focuses on history education, with meanders into all of the social studies: Economics, history, geography, law, political science, and government (have I left something unmentioned? It’s in there). Debunking false, bad, bogus and voodoo history occupied me from at least junior high school; the story of Millard Fillmore’s bathtub, the hoax perpetrated by H. L. Mencken and the inability of historians to straighten out the issue in 90 years, seemed a good jumping off point.

My hope is to help students, their learning partners (especially parents), teachers and administrators make history sing for the students — and other social studies, too.

I don’t usually embed videos that run for over five minutes and this one runs for over 25 minutes but I thought it exceptionally interesting as Alda discusses, scientists, the sciences, and communicating with other human beings at a US National Science Foundation event. Here’s the video I found on MFB (March 28, 2011 post),

Scientists learning to speak and engage

I’ve come across a couple of US projects designed to help scientists speak and engage with the public. The Scientist (online journal) highlighted an acting workshop for scientists led by Alan Alda (known for the MASH tv series, Woody Allen films, and as the host for Scientific American Frontiers tv series). From the article (you do have to register for free access) by Daniel Grushkin,

This is what happens when you cross doctoral work with improvisational acting: A line of fifteen PhD students face each other in an imaginary tug-of-war. “Make sure you’re all holding the same rope,” says Valeri Lantz-Gefroh, their drama coach and a theater professor at SUNY, Stony Brook. “You don’t want to hold a shoelace when the person in front of you is holding a python.”

The students are part of a daylong seminar on communicating science to non scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. Prior to the imaginary tug-of-war exercise, they stood before each other and delivered short, off the cuff, introductions to their research meant for public consumption. Their talks were stilted and confused. Some swallowed their voices as they spoke. Others talked at the wall behind their audience.

Asked to describe their emotions during their presentations, one researcher complained, “It felt like I was almost insulting myself by dumbing it down.” Others nodded in agreement. The doctoral students were playing out Alda’s criticism of the science community. Alda believes scientists have been unable to make themselves understood by lay audiences. And as a result are failing to inform the public and policy.

A 2009 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center reflects Alda’s concern. Though the public ranks scientists third after military personnel and teachers in their contribution to society, only half of Americans believe in global warming and a mere 32 percent believe in evolution. Meanwhile, scientists complain that they’re not being heard. Half say that news media oversimplifies their findings, and 85 percent say the public doesn’t know enough about science. The numbers show a clear gap between the esteem that scientists hold in the public and the knowledge they’re able to transmit.

The other project highlighted by Matthew Nisbet at the Age of Engagement blog is a fellowship program for training in leadership and public engagement for scientists.  Pop Tech, an organization which focuses on social innovation and problem-solving ideas, is behind this effort. From the Sept. 15, 2010 posting,

PopTech is perhaps best known for its annual PopTech conference held every October in Camden, Maine. Called by Wired magazine a “must-attend for intellectual heavy weights…,” the conference features a line up of interactive talks by social innovators, scientists, researchers, and problem-solvers, with the goal of identifying new ideas and brokering collaborations.

PopTech … has announced its inaugural class of 20 Science Fellows. The fellows are early to mid-career leaders in fields such as energy, food supply, sustainability, water, public health, climate change, conservation ecology, green chemistry, computing, education, oceans, and national security.

The fellows were chosen based on their scientific credentials but also for their innate communication and leadership skills. As PopTech describes, the program is designed to provide the Science Fellows with long term communication and leadership training, mentorship, and access to thought leaders across sectors of society including those from the fields of media, business, social innovation, and education.

These projects provide an interesting contrast to the furor which greeted a paper that Chris Mooney wrote about scientists needing to pay more attention to the art of listening (my June 30, 2010 posting). I can certainly see how the acting class could lead to better listening skills (or paying better attention to your audience) but am not so sure about the Pop Tech fellowship project (a bunch of really interesting people getting together and getting excited means they tend to proselytize to the uninitiated for at least a short period afterwards).  Despite my reservations about the fellowship project I find these efforts encouraging.