Nano as per story, communication, and 4-D microscopy

It’s been a very slow week but I finally found a few good things. First, a 4-D microscope has been developed by researchers at CalTech. The breakthrough was compared to Eadweard Muybridge’s breakthrough photographic work (he was the first to photograph proof that all four of a horse’s hooves left the ground while galloping) in the 19th Century. Ahmed Zewail, 1999 winner of Nobel Prize in Chemistry and Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) and his colleagues have published their findings in the November 21, 2008 issue of Science. With this equipment, scientists will now be able to observe the behaviour of atoms and molecules over space and time. There’s a more detailed article here.

In March 2009, there’s going to be an international advanced communication course regarding nanotechnology at Oxford University. It’s called ‘Public Communication and Applied Ethics of Nanotechnology’ but it seems more like a standard course on how a nonprofessional communicator should get their message out to the public, government agencies, and other interested parties. Oddly, they haven’t listed anyone’s credentials and most of this presenters seem to be academics. With session titles like “How do the media work,” Reviewing participants’ prepared press releases,” etc., I’d expect a few less academics to be presenting and more practitioners. If you’re interested, there’s a description of the event here and a brochure here.

The National Academy of Sciences in the US has a new initiative where they will ‘matchmake’ between filmmakers, scriptwriters, and other creative types with scientists in a bid for scientific accuracy in products from the entertainment industry. They had a symposium in Los Angeles this last Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2008. I find the idea interesting although I had an experience last year which points to at least one pitfall.

Before I get to the pitfall, I need to lead up to it. During last year’s national Science and Technology Week (Canada), Genome BC had an event where they invited the producers and actors from a tv programme called ‘Regenesis’ to a public dialogue. We sat at tables of about 8 – 10 people and listened to what they had to say about the science represented in the show. The lead played a geneticist who solved the week’s story crisis with his understanding of genetics. We watched a clip from the show and then proceeded to discuss it. Here’s my best description of the clip (memory may not be exact),

The lead researcher geneticist meets an adolescent male who’s in trouble. The geneticists run a DNA profile of this troubled adolescent and presents information in a courtroom science. We’re told that there are certain genetic markers that can indicate if someone is predisposed to addiction (and I think he also included violence). Apparently the average person will show 8 out of 40 (I think) potential markers, the troubled adolescent had 32 of the markers which was dramatically revealed to the court in an image of his DNA test results.

As we all should be, everyone at the table was concerned about the ethics but, surprisingly, no one questioned the science.  I don’t mean that the science was necessarily incorrect just that nothing is ever that cut and dried. I did pipe up and luckily there was a geneticist beside me who concurred although most of the people didn’t seem that convinced.

From a storytelling perspective, the problem is that the writer needs to heighten the tension for the demands of the story and most scientific results should be qualified in a nuanced fashion which does lend itself to dramatic tension. So, I’m glad they’re working towards more scientific authenticity but there is a limit to what they can do and still have an interesting story to tell.

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