You don’t need photons to be enlightened


Science is rad. For reals. For so long, the world of ‘science’ suffered from its public image defined by the stereotypical lab coat-shod propellerheads with pocket protectors and sex appeal equal to fuglio septia. But now, it has managed to break free from all that and (to an extent) fashion itself a new certain coolness. In fact, 4.9 million people ‘Fucking Love Science’, according to Facebook, and I count myself as one of them. It’s this new brand of ‘science-all-up-in-your-face’ attitude that has reinvigorated its place in the public sphere.  Knowledge is cool, science is cool, biology is cool, the solar system is cool. Robots are so cool, they even formed a band – a kickarse band. But, it’s not as if the world of science has experienced a geomagnetic pole reversal and now all research findings are published as memes on Instagram or something. The eggheads still toil away uncovering the secrets of existence with their blackboards covered in alien language and particle-smashing multi-multi–billion dollar toys. And they are still as out of touch with the rest of the world as gravitational singularity.

So, who should we really thank for demonstrating that science is worth the love? If my calculations prove correct (and they always do), it’s those precious links between us and those in vanguard of discovery – the science communicators. They can be journalists, writers, spokespersons – or even practising scientists themselves, but they are the people who funnel and translate the impossibly esoteric mountains of information produced by experiments and research, and translate it into something understandable, informative – and most vitally – entertaining. They skilfully shrink down the overwhelming into something small enough for inexpert minds to grasp and enjoy, without insulting the intelligence of neither scientist nor reader alike. Without them, the undeniable awesomeness in all disciplines of science would remain invisible, foreign and boring.  It’s a rare ability we take for granted as we ooh and aah watching docos, or raise a fascinated eyebrow reading Scientific American.

The idea of bringing news from the scientific frontiers to the layman goes back to the early 20th century, when Science Monthly became Popular Science Monthly – signalling a shift toward relatable and entertaining science literature. Albert Einstein was indeed an advocate. He famously said: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”  His ageless concepts remain the foundation of modern quantum physics, and so are pretty much as synapse-snappingly complex as they come, but he proves his point by offering some explanation of his theories of relativity in a pithy, sorta charming way. “When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity,” said the great man.

Now, I (because it’s all about me!) was never destined to be a scientist. Lab coats don’t suit me, mathematics terrifies me and I’m simply not blessed with the focused intelligence the line of work demands. But I do have a healthy appetite for knowledge. My brain is never satisfied without an enormous feast of facts – no matter how obscure – actually, sometimes the more obscure the better. Often I find myself trapped on Wikipedia – unable to escape those enticing blue hyperlinks, lures that promise to take me to new enlightenments. One minute I’m looking up premier leageue statistics, then I’m boning up on nuclear dynamics, and suddenly I’m reading this and wondering how I ever got there. Imagine information as lillypads – I’m like a frog hopping from one to another, as if the lillypads were hot, and I didn’t have little frog-shoes on my frog-feet. That was an analogy. I’m fairly crap at them, as you can plainly see… And that is the reason why I’d never cut it as a science communicator either, unfortunately.

That really is a key to great communication – particularly in this field. Finding that great analogy – that spot-on simile  that simple metaphor that twists the tumblers of the ‘I-don’t-get-it’ floodgate and lets the waters of understanding rush into the sluice chambers of your ‘now-I-get-it’ brain aqueduct.  I’m simply not very good at it. I’m certainly not about to take up creative writing, for fear of ending up in some infinite tautological loop (“The sea glistened like a gigantic puddle of water’); nor romantic novels for fear of ruining the idea of romance for the entire literate world (“The dancing glow of the candles illuminated her gentle skin like a flickering TV left on in a dark room… she rolled her head back and inhaled deeply, feeling her desire escalating like the electricity bill from the carelessly forgotten TV set left on in the living room.”).

But there’s a difference between painting descriptive scenes with metaphor and striking a moment of mutual understanding with the reader. It’s the latter that is so important for scientific communication to work. If you notice in the first paragraph, I tried being clever and done flipped it around – tossing in a few obscure scientific allusions to the mix. Unless you were quite familiar with fungal growths, geophysics and quantum mechanics, it’s doubtful you’d readily comprehend what the hell I was talking about and so would be less inclined to read on. As with any matter, if the writing is too dense, it will sink. Had I used references more universally understood, then perhaps I’d have more success engaging you, the dear reader. And that’s why it is such a valuable skill in a communicator’s arsenal – particularly when it comes to explaining science. As much as I wish I did, I simply don’t have the knack for drawing perfect parallels – my mind doesn’t think along those lines (see what I did there?). But my lack of ability gives way to a heightened appreciation and respect for it.

So this is more or less a thank you to those people who enlighten us by taming the flames from the fires of great minds and lighting the torches of those who are out of reach. (Kinda better?). These are exciting times in all corners of the scientific realm, from the Higgs-particle; to new eco-innovations, robots (obviously), and bioethics – and without the talents of the world’s science scribes, we would barely even know such things could be exciting, let alone revel in the excitement of discovery. And that would be a tragic thing.

Excelsior!, dig?