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.

Sometimes the act of simplifying jargon can be very amusing. At the American Association for the Advancement of Science 2013 Annual Meeting this week, one of the presenters cited this xkcd comic strip with a down-to-earth illustration of a space shuttle. Its humor comes from its simple language.

Space shuttle comic strip
A space shuttle diagram which uses only the 1000 most popular words in the English language.

Try explaining the next piece of technology you own using language like this. It is challenging translating technical language into simple terms. But try it anyway – you might learn something interesting about science communication.

If you write about science, remember most people don’t know what a transistor is, let alone a superconductor. Here are two ultra-simple definitions:

  • A transistor is a product that can amplify electronic signals and switch them on and off.
  • A superconductor is a material that transmits electricity extremely well when it is very cold.

See how entertaining it can be to simplify technical writing?


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When I was at the American Association for the Advancement of Science 2013 Annual Meeting this Thursday, I attended a panel presentation on how to talk about science in political contexts.

Buried among many nuggets of quotable insights was a surprising statement. I noticed later that many people posted it online. One of the speakers advised scientists to present themselves as either Democrats or Republicans if they choose to talk about “values” with politicians – and to stick to the stance they take.

Although this advice may be practical, I think it may oversimplify the complex reality of scientists’ views and values about policy. Thinking in terms of a simple two-party system obscures that:

  • If politically independent scientists “choose a party” because of social pressure, they will not be presenting their views accurately.
  • Bipartisan science organizations exist. They also write recommendations for the federal government. Some of their messaging does reflect values.
  • There is no reason to expect that a scientist will agree with all of a party’s platform, even if he or she supports most of it. That expectation could put a scientist in an awkward position.
  • Some scientists may support third parties.

Also, it is very difficult to present science without involving values at all. Values are almost always present in how we talk about science. Here are some examples of common science-related statements which contain values:

  • “The United States should increase funding for science and technology so we can maintain our competitive edge.” 
  • “New technology is good for our society.”
  • “We should evaluate K-12 schools in terms of their standardized test performance.”
  • “We should teach science in ways that are culturally competent.”

Rather than attempting to maintain a fiction of value-free objectivity, it might be more effective for scientists to adopt a stance of open-mindedness. An open-minded researcher considers information from sources with which he or she may disagree. An open-minded researcher also talks with people whose viewpoints differ from his or her own.

Simran Sethi, an associate professor at the William Allen White School of Journalism & Mass Communications at University of Kansas, gave the TED talk below to illustrate how she talks with hunters, Christians and Libertarians about environmentalism. In the video, she challenges listeners’ ideas about their own political superiority and shows the benefits of conversations that cross political divides.

I’ve blogged before about Public Conversations Project, a nonprofit organization which facilitates dialogues to bring together diverging viewpoints. In my opinion as a science blogger, an open-minded stance should be an option for scientists who are approaching politicians.

The fact that our federal government operates as a binary system doesn’t mean that this system matches the scientific method, reflects who scientists are, or represents the menu of options scientists should have when they communicate.

Scientists can be politically independent, affiliated with third parties, open to views that differ from their own, or interested in bipartisanship. If scientists choose to question either/or thinking, that could improve the quality of public conversations about science.


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Blogs tend to evaporate into the stratosphere of outdated software and broken links unless they are maintained and managed. Now, Jennifer Harbster, a staffer at the Library of Congress, wants to keep groundbreaking science blogs alive.

The Library of Congress began preserving websites in the year 2000. The library chooses which websites to preserve based on their historical value. This year, staff are accepting suggestions of which science blogs to save for future generations. Blogs which feature original research and ideas are the most likely to be selected, Harbster said.

The main goal of the Science Blogs Collection will be to capture a representative sample of science research, writing, teaching and communication, as well as scientific discourse in the United States.

Harbster said the main criteria for choosing a science blog to save are:

  1. What is the usefulness of this information?
  2. Will this blog supplement a preexisting collection?
  3. Does this blog have research value?
  4. Is the blog at risk?
  5. Can the blog be easily captured?

If you want to suggest a science blog for preservation, visit the Library of Congress website and submit your idea.

Meanwhile, at ScienceBlogs, Frank Swain has suggested selling curated collections of blog posts as e-books. If this idea catches on, it could be another way to preserve the writing of science bloggers.


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Climate scientists care about accuracy. In the storm of misinformation which circulated during and after Hurricane Sandy, their conclusions have been oversimplified and swept away.

The Associated Press published an article which covers the nuances of the situation very well. The website of the NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory also has some useful background information on hurricanes. Here’s a very simple summary:

  • One scientist, Gerald North, estimated 80 to 90 percent of this hurricane was due to natural causes.
  • Climate change is gradually making flooding worse. This can amplify the effects of any hurricane.
  • The NOAA is still gathering data, but suggests warming seas may both intensify hurricanes and lower their frequency.

From my experience reading and writing climate-related stories, I can add:

  • One reason the devastation in Haiti has been so serious is that Haiti residents lacked safe housing and infrastructure.
  • If we invest in improving our infrastructure and housing here, that can reduce the damage of the floods from future hurricanes.

However, the hurricane seems to have blown common sense out of the window. Of course, when there’s a natural disaster, one can expect people to respond irrationally. The meme which has emerged is very simple and doesn’t require bullet points.

Global warming caused Hurricane Sandy.

As a communicator who works with nonprofits, I’ve been disappointed by many organizations’ responses to the hurricane. My Facebook feed has been full of attractive images implying global warming caused the hurricane. Here’s an example from tcktcktck:

Cuomo's global warming quote
An example of inaccurate nonprofit messaging after Hurricane Sandy.

What’s wrong with this picture? First, it confuses the issue. Increased flooding does not equal increased storms. Second, Cuomo is not a climate scientist and this quote is not based on research.

Not all of the nonprofits on my list used this meme, though. Union of Concerned Scientists published a thoughtful Q&A which presented the situation in a very different light.

If nonprofits want to be recognized as credible sources by the press, they should make sure they don’t let this meme sweep their messaging away.

Does climate change cause flooding? Definitely. Did it cause this hurricane? Not likely. Does it make hurricanes worse? Possibly.

Can we strengthen our infrastructure and adapt to reduce the damage future hurricanes cause? Yes. Regardless of the cause of this storm, we should do that as soon as possible.

Should we take action to limit the effects of climate change? Of course. And environmental nonprofits can help to lead the way.

I just returned from the Mass Poetry Festival with many ideas about how poetic skills can enrich science writing.

Poetry isn’t very popular in the United States, although the slam movement has opened it to a broader audience. As a former spoken word performer, I use poetic techniques regularly in my other writing.

New Scientist magazine did a series of interviews with poets who were interested in the relationship between poetry and science. Here is one of them – with Lavinia Greenlaw. Greenlaw describes how poets use metaphors to explain the unknown.

Below are a few other poetic skills which can add clarity and interest to science writing.

Write Concisely

Trimming unnecessary words out of lines of poetry requires the same attention to detail as shortening technical explanations does. In both cases, your goal should be to distill and refine your content for maximum effect. While a poem may be intentionally vague, science writing should be clear and easy to follow.

If you’re writing about science, don’t make the mistake of falling in love with the sound of your own keyboard – keep your content straightforward and to the point.

Pick Words that Work

In science writing, it’s best not to leave concepts fuzzy. Choose words that will make your points clear. Similarly, when writing poetry, clean the fuzz out of your language. This may mean removing repetitive words, choosing original language, or picking words that will hone the effect you want to create.

Sharpening a poem is like sharpening a pencil. In science writing, you should pay attention to the emotional tone and messages your words evoke. Word choice can change the impact of an article by evoking fear, trust, inspiration, respect, neutrality or other emotions. In science writing, as in poetry, your choice of emotions may change your readers’ minds.

Frame Your Story

Poets use structure, rhyme and imagery to frame their work. Opening a poem by describing grinding machinery can create a specific atmosphere for that poem. Similarly, journalists and science communicators can frame stories by opening them with human interest anecdotes. A technical writer may frame a manual by organizing the content logically and beginning with an explanation that sets the scene.

Are there any other similarities you see between poetry and science writing? If so, what are they?

How do these styles of writing differ?

When teaching people about science online, what tools should you have in your toolbox?

Science communication, at its best, cuts past popular intimidation about science and math to reach any audience. This video shows why it’s important to make science communication exciting.

What is Science Communication? from Morag Hickman on Vimeo.

Here’s a list of concepts to add to the tools you use when communicating science online.

1. Learning Styles

Although you may be a visual thinker and learn well by using mind maps or flow charts, your audiences may prefer listening or participating in active demonstrations. When I was working in a factory in 2001, I found that my coworkers on the shop floor preferred handling three-dimensional prototypes to reading files and printouts.

Some of your audiences may prefer concrete examples to abstract information or prefer synthesizing ideas to breaking them down. Science communication in classrooms usually favors abstract concepts, visual and auditory learning, and breaking down ideas. This leaves many students – especially ones who prefer concrete examples and active learning – out in the cold. This is one reason that science developed its “chilly” reputation.

2. Storytelling

Why does storytelling matter in science communication? For many reasons. If you’re trying to craft a message or idea that audiences will remember, a story line can act as a hook to increase their interest and help them remember the information.

People who provide on-the-job training are aware of the power of storytelling and use it frequently. I’ve seen one example in which a trainer used storytelling to teach an audience how to remember people’s names.

Storytelling is especially important if you want to encourage an audience to take a socially positive action. Smartmeme is one organization which uses storytelling about social issues to capture the attention of audiences.

Poynter’s News University offers storytelling courses for journalists. I recommend their video and audio storytelling classes highly.

3. Analogies

Comparing an unfamiliar science concept to a known one – especially an everyday experience – is a great tool for science communicators. You can use analogies to show differences in scale – for example, comparing the size of the sun to the size of other planets. Analogies can become very important if you’re describing things that are difficult to see or imagine, like nanoparticles.

You can also use analogies to compare and contrast human experiences with those of other species – for example, to describe the importance of a dog’s sense of smell. While it’s tempting to compare humans to animals, sometimes the similarities can lead to people personifying animals and thinking that we are more similar to them than we are.

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.

An enlightening article in the Wall Street Journal informed me and other readers that belief in climate change is a religion.

This was news to me. Most religious beliefs – including the prophecy that the world will end in 2012 – are not tested by crowds of scientists working overtime.

But there is a grain of truth in the article. Movies such as The Day After Tomorrow do use apocalyptic images to describe climate change. In the real world, erratically changing corporate profits, peanut butter shortages, an end to Kentucky bourbon supplies, and even mass migrations are not apocalypses. Even a resource war over water or energy does not qualify as an apocalypse – although civilians and veterans might wish they still had bourbon after that.

Some of the more extreme peak oil preparation websites show how panic can grip people in the face of change. Faced by large-scale environmental revolt – unpredictable weather, changeable agriculture, species migration, and economic and global instability – environmentalists may be tempted to pick an apocalypse narrative as the best fit.

Choosing to call climate change an apocalypse is a serious tactical mistake because apocalypses are completely outside our control. It would be better to compare climate change to the Great Depression or World War II. We should mobilize, adapt, do public works projects, strengthen the social safety net, and set up systems of mutual aid.

And no, predicting poverty and war is not a religious or apocalyptic statement. Climate change isn’t equivalent to a near-earth supernova. However, we need to work hard to avert unnecessary suffering.

"We Can Do It!"
"We Can Do It!" Source: J. Howard Miller (Wikipedia)

data cake
Image by EpicGraphic

Is it dinner time yet? This series of cake photos, re-blogged from EpicGraphic, shows the process of making data into knowledge. It starts with eggs and flour and ends with an empty plate.

This graphic shows the importance of putting icing on the cake by presenting information attractively. It also shows the value of turning raw data into useful information before placing it in front of one’s audience.

There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes in making data viable, valuable and visually appealing.