Can shaking buildings be exciting? A live taping of You’re the Expert at MIT Museum on April 16 revealed the answer is “yes” – especially when one’s surrounded by an appreciative audience in Cambridge on a Tuesday night.

You’re the Expert uses comedy to add pizzazz and the occasional double entendre to explanations of academic research. According to the show’s website, its podcast has been climbing the charts on iTunes.

The comedians applied their razor-sharp wits to solving structural engineering problems and defining jargon. Although their responses would have been academic disasters in a civil engineering class, they led to explosions of laughter.

What are modal parameters? “This bridge is dead,” comedian Myq Kaplan said, confusing the words with “mortal parameters.”

What is system identification? “When a bridge tells you what its name is,” Kaplan replied.

What is structural health monitoring? Placing monitor lizards on a bridge, an audience member guessed.

monitor lizard
Would you want this lizard to test a bridge for you? Photo Credit: Joachim S. Müller via Compfight cc

The guest, assistant professor Babak Moaveni from Tufts University’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, assured us no lizards are involved in structural health monitoring.

Structural health monitoring, Moaveni’s specialty, focuses on finding out how “healthy” a building, bridge or other structure may be – and how long it is likely to survive. It’s like using a stethoscope or other medical test equipment – except for structures, not people. 

The equipment Moaveni uses is sometimes expensive. He can send a drone helicopter underneath a bridge to measure how well the bridge is holding up under its everyday loads.

Moaveni also shakes buildings to find out how they respond. The audience chortled while he explained how he excites buildings by using mechanical shakers.

“The smaller one is called Mighty Mouse,” Moaveni said with a straight face.

“Could it make me a martini?” comedian Robert Woo asked.

Nondestructive testing may be hip, but it can't make you a martini. Photo Credit: wickenden via Compfight cc
Nondestructive testing may be hip, but it can’t make you a martini. Photo Credit: wickenden via Compfight cc

Kaplan described nondestructive testing dramatically. “Just as Batman did in The Dark Knight, this man and his army of cameras are our last line of defense.”

Moaveni doesn’t just shake structures and take photos of them, though. Some of the testing is destructive.

“We are planning to destroy a building in California. It’s in the city of El Centro,” Moaveni said. He explained that every structure has its natural frequency, but that does not mean it is destroyed at that frequency.

“I’m not saying we go and break something to hear the damage,” Moaveni clarified. He uses these tests to find out how buildings respond to earthquakes.

Gesturing overhead, Moaveni described how one might test a building like the MIT Museum.

“This building is already excited,” Chris Duffy, the host and producer, quipped.

“This is the most excited a museum gets,” Kaplan said.

“Usually, my class doesn’t get this excited,” Moaveni said as he described the definition of manual excitation. Loud guffaws from the audience interrupted him.

Moaveni said his current research involves predicting when structures may fail in the future. “We want to have a ‘check building’ light,” he said.

Since 30 percent of bridges in the United States have outlived their design life, according to Moaveni, being able to predict when a bridge will fail would be extremely useful.

“Is that man a God? Maybe. That is up to peer review,” Woo commented.

This roundup of posts from this blog shows my quirky, dry and occasionally grim sense of humor.

My sense of humor is one of the reasons I began this blog. I believe there should be a place in the world for science jokes. And since I rarely make science jokes at work – I stick to business during working hours – I make them on weekends.

Humor can be professionally risky. But most of the feedback I have received on these posts has been positive.

Here are my favorite posts from the humor section of this blog:

A zombie peeks out from behind a long newsletter. (Actually, this graphic is from the CDC zombie apocalypse blog post.)

How to Bring Your Newsletter Back from the Dead – This Halloween post is based on my experiences reading and reviving newsletters.

The Powerpuff Approach to Energy Efficiency – This post is about an energy education program featuring heroes who look like a multicultural, coed version of the Powerpuff Girls. These heroes fight to save power, of course.

Zilowatt’s energy efficiency superheroes (Source: Zilowatt website)

What Science Communication and Cooking Have in Common – Telling science stories can be like writing down recipes. Read this post to see why.

Why a Zombie Apocalypse Story Helped the CDC – Does it surprise you that people would rather learn how to prepare for a zombie apocalypse than get ready for a hurricane?

How to Add Zest to Your Website – You, too, can spice up your website and add a slice of lemon.

The Real Science News Cycle – In this post, I reinterpret a cartoon from Ph.D. Comics.

Don’t forget that the sun will turn into a black hole, sucking the Earth and the Moon into an invisible abyss, unless you follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

Are your audiences reading your newsletter? Or are they using it to make Halloween costumes? Are they recycling it into shellacked paper coasters? If it’s electronic, are they deleting it? Questions like these preoccupy communications specialists.

The book Your Attention, Please describes how it’s becoming difficult to attract sustained interest from readers. Before the Internet, people were likely to take their time reading mail. Now, we’re deluged with hundreds of e-mails. Many of them are newsletters.

How can you bring your moribund newsletter to life and make it stand out from the mass of spam and other undesirable messages? Here are a few guidelines to help you revive your copy. (A great way to bring your newsletter back from the dead is to hire me as a consultant. I specialize in bringing science-related newsletters to life.)

A zombie peeks out from behind a long newsletter. (Actually, this graphic is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s zombie apocalypse blog post.)

Your newsletter’s vital signs may fizzle if:

  1. Your newsletter is focused on your organization, not your readers. One reason your newsletters are gathering dust may be that they are not speaking to the needs and interests of your audiences. Think about how your organization can be a good conversationalist. Don’t be the person at the cocktail party who bores everyone by holding forth about uninteresting topics. Cut out the content that won’t interest your audiences. If it’s necessary to keep it for other reasons, bury it behind a link.
  2. Your content is too text-heavy. Are you requiring readers to wade through long paragraphs of text to find buried nuggets of valuable information? They probably won’t. When reading online, your audiences will skim the content. Use short paragraphs, straightforward language, and links. Use bold font to emphasize key points.
  3. Your newsletter is not in the right medium. Do your audiences adore Pinterest but ignore snail mail? Do they avoid social media in favor of sifting through their email? If you choose the right delivery medium for your newsletter, that can increase readers’ interest.
  4. You need to work on your messaging and engagement strategies. If you’re promoting events that no one attends or recommending actions that no one takes, you may have a messaging problem. You may not be communicating the benefits of taking action. The actions may be too difficult for your readers. If you provide easy-to-take actions and communicate their benefits clearly, you may get better results.
  5. Your most interesting content is buried. Where are those bits of gold – the most valuable information in your existing newsletter? Dig them out and bring them to the beginning. Think of your newsletter as a newspaper article. Journalists typically begin an article with the most important information, if they’re using the inverted pyramid style of writing.

Keep your newsletter simple, useful, concise and interesting. Your readers shouldn’t have to get out a shovel to dig out your most valuable content. If you make your readers’ lives easier, they will appreciate it. Redesigning your approach to newsletter writing can turn a yawn into a smile. Even dead newsletters can be revived.

This post is inspired by Lee Worden’s article “Counterculture, Cyberculture, and the Third Culture: Reinventing Civilization, Then and Now”. Worden says the counterculture of the 1970s gave rise to the movements that have since spawned Google, WikiLeaks and Wired Magazine. Worden describes these movements as both idealist and libertarian.

What do these technology movements believe? Worden identified four central threads.

  1. Belief that access to tools is empowering on its own
  2. Rejection of bureaucratic systems in favor of new options
  3. Creation of flexible social structures to accomplish goals
  4. Idealization of individual freedom
Lava lamp
Like futuristic technology, lava lamps were also idealized in the 1970s.

Peter Taylor, a professor at University of Massachusetts-Boston, has diagrammed the trends in the article.

I’m somewhat critical of the four assumptions above, even though I can see their value.

Does Access to Technology Solve Problems?

Access to tools alone doesn’t create the social outcomes communities may desire. I’ve seen examples of this in the nonprofit world and in K-12 education. If technology isn’t seen as relevant, practical and useful, a community may not respond positively to it.

Sometimes, poorly designed or misapplied technology can be confusing or even destructive. When I was in engineering school, there was a joke circulating which said the Ph.D. exam for mechanical engineers involved being locked in a room with a saber-toothed tiger, a disassembled gun, and a user’s manual written in Swahili. Not every technological solution is a useful one.

Should Crowd-Sourcing Replace Paid Work?

Creating flexible social structures can have both advantages and disadvantages. Many of these organizations rely on volunteer labor. Their volunteers work within structured institutions during the day and then spend their free time on these other projects. One could argue that citizen journalists are not being paid adequately for their time.

To what extent should these modern, flexible technology organizations rely on crowd-sourced, unpaid or underpaid labor? As the worldwide market becomes more competitive, people in technical and creative occupations may find that volunteers are making their jobs obsolete. Fact-checking, a traditional staple of journalism, could be replaced by community-sourced editing.

Should Individual Voices Replace Experts and Organizations?

Technology projects find ways to reward and encourage problem solving and innovation. They reach beyond bureaucracies into the community. Some of these projects are housed within universities. There are many crowd-sourced projects going on today – from gathering science data to fact-checking news articles. The organizers of these projects are often enthusiastic about the value of individual voices.

The shortcomings of overvaluing individual voices already show among bloggers, where a chorus of individual voices can sometimes drown out sources that are more reliable. On the other hand, sometimes projects like Wikipedia can eclipse encyclopedias.

Despite the disadvantages of the idealized, crowd-sourced, egalitarian model of creating technology and content, this approach can be very productive if used skillfully. Google uses this model for much of its work.

What Matters More – Innovation or Community?

As Worden says, this popular online business model “blurs the line between the company and its customers, essentially encouraging customers to create the product, and then selling the customers and their work to each other and keeping the profits.” This model benefits businesses, but doesn’t necessarily support the best interests of the communities around them.

Worden worries about the potential of giving inventors infinite freedom to create products which may be dangerous or poorly designed. He believes community values should come first.

The story of the gun and the saber-toothed tiger shows that sometimes relationships should matter more than technology. If the engineering student focuses on assembling the gun, it’s too late. It’s the student’s ability to calm the tiger that may save the day.

I wrote this post in honor of chocolate. The chocolate harvest is now endangered by global warming.

I’d like to see a chocolate bar replace a polar bear as the symbol of global warming’s devastation. One cost of global warming is emotional safety. People equate chocolate with reassurance, romance, affection and many other things that have little to do with the chemical makeup of a candy bar. Chocolate doesn’t really make us happy – it’s a placebo.

Some people might object to a “Save the Chocolate!” slogan for health reasons. Interestingly, there are similarities between our relationship to global warming prevention and our relationship to dieting – at least, in the United States. Dieting tends to be both ineffective and plagued by guilt (which does not work for global warming prevention either). Dieting involves major lifestyle changes; reducing one’s environmental footprint is an even more difficult process.

What is often missing from both dieting and environmental lifestyle change? Social marketing. Dieting may be popular, but it certainly isn’t easy or fun. Environmental lifestyle change is rarely marketed as fun, popular or easy.

But why shouldn’t they be promoted this way? One could choose exercise and food options one enjoys, design programs that are simple and easy to follow, and remove guilt by introducing flexible decisions.

Maybe if we start enjoying the process of trimming our environmental footprints now, we’ll still be able to enjoy chocolate later.

Chocolate heart
Chocolate doesn't influence love... at least, not chemically.

I’m very skeptical about the effectiveness of social marketing messages related to death and destruction. Although the end of the world may come soon if we don’t quit smoking, start exercising, and end environmental justice violations, I’m not sure audiences will listen to us if we tell them so.

The tradition of being a lone voice in the wilderness is very well-established in the environmental movement. I wrote a paper about John Muir’s communication style for a science media course during grad school. However, being a lone voice doesn’t work well in marketing or social media. It’s a new era; we need a new style.

On Twitter, I see many environmental headlines proclaiming death and destruction. Reframing health crisis messaging is difficult, but I believe it has to be done. Here are three reasons to rewrite those headlines:

  1. Compassion fatigue and news burnout may discourage audiences. Although bad news attracts page views, I’ve seen little to no evidence that it’s an effective tool for promoting socially positive actions. Fear-based messages may be practical for some types of outreach, but they aren’t particularly effective for encouraging long-term behavior change. For example, resistance to cigarette smoking now appears to be a matter of peer acceptance – not fear of cancer.
  2. Female and/or minority audiences may already believe their actions will not make a difference. Social marketers should build audiences’ confidence and support them in taking action.
  3. Health crisis messaging may discourage audiences that haven’t experienced the problem directly. Cancer patients are often assertive advocates, but their zeal doesn’t necessarily translate into a larger mass movement.

Social marketers who want to address health issues need a new toolbox. We need language that’s persuasive, confident and encouraging. Think “Oprah,” not “Metallica.”

The Powerpuff Girls have decided to take on an energy efficiency challenge. Well… not exactly. I’m sorry to say there won’t be an episode showing the Powerpuff Girls breaking light bulbs and replacing them with CFLs.

Fortunately, since the Powerpuff Girls are busy taking leaps in the air instead of promoting eco-friendly behavior, a California nonprofit, Zilowatt, is designing energy conservation education for grade school students. The New York Times profiled the program recently. The article featured the superhero graphic below.

Zillowatt's superheroes
Zilowatt's superheroes (Source: Zilowatt's website)

This image implies that the grade school students are Powerpuff-like superheroes – saving electric power and having fun at the same time. This group of kids of varying ethnic backgrounds and appearances is using energy for positive purposes.

SmartMeme and Adbusters take a similar approach to existing ads and media frames – except that they dismantle their messages instead of building on them.

Although entertainment-based education isn’t new to social marketers, approaches like Zilowatt’s are relatively unusual. Of course, saving energy is a serious process and should never be adulterated by using humor, putting cute stickers on CFL boxes, or writing tongue-in-cheek blog posts about social marketing.

I forwarded this comic about science news to a journalist the other day. But then I took a second look at it.

At first glance, the process seems simple. A scientist unearths valuable, complex information. The university PR department simplifies it… and the story goes downhill. At the end, the scientist’s grandmother is wearing a hat to protect herself from his discovery.

The Science News Cycle: Ph.D. Comics
The Science News Cycle. © Jorge Cham

After reading the comic, I realized I disagree with it. Often, in my experience, the process looks like this:

  1. The scientist’s grandmother already has an opinion.
  2. The scientist, publicist and reporters see their work as a one-way transfer of information. They don’t consider how audiences with preexisting opinions will respond to the story.
  3. The bloggers seek news that will confirm their preexisting views.
  4. The scientist’s grandmother shakes her head. Her belief has been reinforced. She goes online to buy a hat.
  5. At the end of the story, the scientist goes to ask a federal agency for funding. The agency leaders were appointed by politicians whom his grandmother elected. The scientist hopes the agency will make the right decision.
From the scientist’s point of view, the translation failed. From my perspective, the scientist and the publicist missed a chance to change the preexisting beliefs of their audiences. If there are misconceptions out there already, putting facts on the table may not be enough to change public perceptions of science.

“Why does it seem so taboo to be funny when talking about sustainability?” Larry Washington asks in the Shelton Group environmental marketing blog.

I think about this question often. Because I’ve spent so much time with science professionals, I have some insights about why humor might seem jarring to them.

When scientists meet marketers, they tend to be cautious and skeptical. Scientists understand that marketers can sell their ideas, but the suggestions jolt them out of their comfort zones. If the marketers don’t produce numbers that show their outreach ideas will work, the scientists may discount the suggestions.

Scientists are cautious for a good reason; they have a great deal to lose. They value their professional reputations very highly. If someone has worked for 10 years to complete a Ph.D. and has gone on to build a portfolio of publications, that person is not going to want to throw away the credibility he or she has worked so hard to build.

Scientists work hard to construct their reputations. So asking a scientist to put humor on a website can be like asking an architect to put an explosive under a newly completed building without knowing whether it will detonate or not.

Red button
Marketers should communicate to scientists that humor and other expressive forms of writing can be used in ways that are both professional and credible.

Although humor can increase public interest in science, it can backfire and reduce scientists’ credibility. In some settings, addressing this concern directly might help to resolve the problem. Involving scientists in the outreach process – for example, inviting them to tell stories, make podcasts, or participate in video projects – is another way to build support for nontraditional communication.

In person, scientists do appreciate humor – despite media stereotypes that say otherwise. They are often good storytellers, especially if they teach. But these stories don’t go into their public portfolios. Their official presence says, “Just the facts.”

Fear-based media messages are the nonprofit equivalent of canned PowerPoint presentations. They’re popular but often ineffective. Audiences don’t necessarily see avoiding risk as a persuasive justification for changing their behavior.

In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) turned this situation around by using humor. The post caught the attention of Fox, CNN and many other news sources. The Boston Globe reported the page received 30,000 hits in a single day.

How did the CDC change the story? Ali Khan, a scientist, saw readers weren’t paying enough attention to the fact sheets on hurricane preparedness. So he wrote a post about how to survive a zombie apocalypse. The strategies for surviving zombie apocalypses and hurricanes are remarkably similar.

Often, audiences would rather read People than prepare for hurricanes. What does that magazine offer that the CDC website rarely provides? It has stories with characters and visual interest. By telling a tongue-in-cheek story about zombie apocalypse survival, the CDC captured more attention than it would have in months of posting more serious content.

Coincidentally, the CDC followed some of the main principles of social marketing. Social marketers encourage audiences to take socially responsible actions by making those choices fun, easy and popular.

Health education materials can be extraordinarily useful; preparing for a hurricane is much more practical than reading People. But without social marketing, health professionals may find their programs have a limited reach. Population Media Center has used entertainment-based education to bring health messages to countries around the world.

The CDC’s willingness to innovate saved its socially valuable message from being buried in an unread fact sheet.

If you communicate about science, what stories are you willing to tell?