Math, YouTube, and opening science

There’s a charming post (May 17, 2011) by James Grime, mathematician, at the Guardian Science Blogs about his and other science communicators’ YouTube videos. From the posting,

I’m a mathematician – and have the chalk marks to prove it – but I do not come from a family of academics. Growing up, my only access to that world was through the television. I remember Johnny Ball jumping up and down talking excitedly about the parabolic path of projectiles; Horizon’s documentary on the Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem; and at Christmas the theme music of the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lectures filled me with even more excitement than the bike that came with six sound effects.

Today the profile of science communication on TV may be at an all time high. My mum may not know what the Large Hadron Collider does, but she knows who Brian Cox is. But television remains a very 20th century method of communication. A channel will gear their science programming towards their perceived audience, be that BBC1 , BBC4 or a Channel 4 audience.

However, with the rise of new media, like YouTube, you no longer need to chase the audience. They find you.

He goes on to share one of his videos and a selection from other science communicators. It’s a great read and has attracted comments that include links to even more science videos.

Clearly, Grime’s main focus in this post is educational/popularizing/awareness raising for the general public.

Some scientists are trying to use social media such as YouTube to better communicate with each other. There are science videos (not many) wherein scientific papers are given video abstracts. For example materials scientists are doing this on their Materials’s Views Channel on YouTube. This is all part of a movement to make science more open through social media.

Science has been been opened up before according to the Open Science Manifesto,

In 1665, the first two scientific journals were published, and science was dragged out of its dark age of cryptic anagrams, secret discoveries, and bitter turf wars. Today we are living in another dark age of science: pay-per-access journals, unreleased code and data, prestige-based metrics, and irreproducible experiments.

As I kept on digging (clicking on the link to the dark ages reference), I found Michael Nielsen, previously an academic working in quantum computation (he has a PhD in physics according to Wikipedia) and now the writer of a forthcoming book, Reinventing Discovery, from the Princeton University Press in November 2011. He advocates strongly for the use of social media amongst scientists as you can see in this approximately 16 mins. March 2011 TED talk at Waterloo (Ontario, Canada),

I notice that his focus is on scientists using social media as a means of communication amongst themselves (and anyone else who may choose to join in) but control remains firmly with the scientists. In other words, science is practiced by scientists and there’s no discussion of citizen scientists where people reach beyond their general science awareness for some form of science activity. I believe it’s an unconscious assumption that the experts (scientists) are the only ones expected to participate while the rest of us gaze on. This is true too of James Grime’s piece where the rest of us are more or less passive viewers of his science videos and not expected to practice science.

There’s nothing wrong with these approaches and, most of the time, I’m perfectly to have scientists do their work and I’m hugely happy when they choose to share it with me.

However, when scientists talk about opening up science they usually mean that the public should learn more about their work (i.e. we are the tabula rasa and not expected to be able to reciprocate; our role is to listen and to be educated by the expert) or that research should be more easily available (mostly amongst themselves). There are some crowdsourced science projects (e.g. Foldit, which boasted some 50,000 authors and there’s also the recently launched Phylo at McGill University [my most recent posting on these projects] amongst others) where members of the public are invited to participate in science activities directly related to answering research questions.

My point is that ‘open science’ means more than one thing.

1 thought on “Math, YouTube, and opening science

  1. Pingback: Disrupting scientific research « FrogHeart

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