Terra Sigillata

Despite having to employ biophysical methods in my day job, I must admit my woeful understanding of physics as a discipline. I wasn’t like my high school grease monkey friends using torque wrenches on their cars with Springsteenonian dedication and my lowest grade in undergrad came in physics. For that reason, I rarely have the opportunity to link to fellow ScienceBlogger, Chad Orzel of Uncertain Principles. Prof Orzel was one of the earliest science bloggers, coming online in June, 2002.

Chad posted about being on the programme of a meeting in Waterloo, Ontario, entitled, “Science in the 21st Century: Science, Society, and Information Technology.” The description of his talk is here but what I really encourage you to do is look at his slideshow at SlideShare. I would’ve liked to have seen the talk to put the slides in context but they are effective enough on their own to give me a couple of good take-home messages:

I put this post under the Humanities & Social Science channel rather than the Physical Science channel because the talk has much more to do with communications and social interactions relative to physics per se:

1. Much of the fault with flat or declining US federal research funding (NIH and NSF the biggies) lies in our failure as scientists to effectively communicate our case to Congress.

2. Academic advancement is not set up with incentives to encourage scientific involvement in advocacy or other activities that cultivate a “constituency for science.”

3. Galileo knew more about “framing” his message for an audience than did Newton, with very different outcomes.

4. Scientific blogs are great vehicles for communicating science to the public who already embrace science, when they have a chance to hear about it.

5. Writing science blogs helps to cultivate a scientist’s skill in communicating science to this larger audience.

6. Occasional postings on art, music, new babies, pets, talking with pets about physics, etc. tend to humanize scientists and may positively influence public perception of the scientist.

7. Authoring science blogs can sometimes lead to greater opportunities for public science education, such as book deals.

So scroll through the slides – lots of good ideas there – and I hope that Chad is able to offer the audio at some point.


  1. #1 juniorprof
    September 10, 2008

    Thanks for posting this Abel!! Sharing with non-blogging colleagues as we speak.

    I more or less agree with his position (at least as presented in his slides) that we must take a large share of the responsibility for falling funding rates. I love the example of Newton vs. Galileo and think that the analogy is a strong one to help get people more involved in trying to communicate their science to the general public. I have been amazed at the reasons people have found my blog. My most popular posts (aside from postdoc advice) have consistently been ones on the basic science of pain and it seems that patients are VERY hungry for accessible information about their disease (who can blame them!). I’ve got a few ideas about how to push this a bit further on my own blog. I hope to gradually start bringing them out over the next few months (can’t wait for the Oct 5 NIH deadline to pass!!ELEVENTY!!!)

  2. #2 Chad Orzel
    September 10, 2008

    I can do better than audio: there’s full video available at PIRSA. They have it as a massive wmv file, or as a “Windows Presentation,” which I’m told gives you video of me speaking side-by-side with video showing the screen.

  3. #3 leigh
    September 11, 2008

    do i ever agree that scientists need to be able to communicate! my friends and family are always calling me asking about things they read about and don’t fully understand. just very recently i was asked to read and interpret papers on a rare disease, and asked about the “hormones in soy milk” and what happens to make someone overdose on a drug, among other things. even in college, i was out talking to younger students about the pharmacology of alcohol and why the one-drink-one-soda rule worked.

    i think that my contacts at home are at ease in approaching me with these questions because they see me as a person first, then a scientist. approaching someone they know as a scientist first, that seems more intimidating.

    communication is important for many reasons, not the least of which is funding allocation. we can’t expect to keep to ourselves (as introverted as some of us can be, let’s admit it) and still retain the support of the public based on the wonderful things we’re doing that we’re not really discussing with them. we need the support of the public, but we need to earn it and not just expect it.