Objects as Science Communication Catalysts


I recently purchased this shirt (above) online. Some of you may be wondering what those cool designs are, and some of you may already know. In either case, I’ve realized after a while of owning this shirt that people want to talk about those designs – ask me what they are, or divulge their secret love of fractals.

I got into a little conversation with Kip Stewart, the person that made the design on the shirt (and got a cut of the profits from my purchase) through twitter, about the shirt (the Internet completely blows my mind when stuff like this happens). I mentioned that I talked to some people about fractals just from wearing the shirt, and then he said this:

 Screen Shot 2014-04-19 at 7.04.48 AM

This was really the first time that I actively started thinking about the strange and wonderful ways of starting conversations around science through covertly placed props.

Objects can be a form of science communication.

There are tons of cool science shirts that can get people talking, like this one about the scientific h-index (a criticized measure of a scientists productivity), or many of Kip’s, but clothing is just the beginning. Lots of objects can be ‘upgraded’ to become instruments of science communication. Here are a few ideas that spring to mind:

  • Put some carnivorous plants in your office, it will get your visitors to ask about them. Before long, you’l be talking about nutrient cycling and evolutionary adaptations. Don’t worry, you’ll get back to work soon enough.
  • Any electronic or mechanical device that is made out of clear plastic and allows you to see the inside doubles as a game for the curious: how does it work and what are all those parts for?
  • Instead of painting a violent abstract, why not paint something like a microscopic view of sleeping sickness, or the Great Red Spot of Jupiter (a 300 year old storm several times the size of Earth). On your wall, you’ll have the invisible made visible, and your guests will have something to talk about.
  • I’d love to get a bathroom scale that you could set to simulate the effect of gravity of different planets on your measured weight. These calculations, in real time on a single scale. Like a smaller version of this:

    What is your weight on Mars? (Image from: http://www.gizmodo.com.au/ )

Whatever the example (I bet you can come up with your own), integrating ‘sciencey’ objects into everyday life creates talking points that allow for everyone to learn something. With my new shirt, I’ve learned a thing or two about fractals, myself.


The Need for Open Science

I love science, but it is a bit of a mess. It is not very organized, it is not very fast, it has some bias, it isn’t very available to the public, and the people doing it don’t always talk to one another. These are just some of the problems that we need to acknowledge and try and solve. Luckily, the Internet is here to help change everything.

In more detail, here are some of the problems that science currently faces:

Science is Messy
Science is organized in a very simple way – each time an author writes a scientific paper, s/he refers to the journals that s/he found useful, via a citation. As Michael Nielsen put it in his book Reinventing Discovery, “citation is perhaps the most powerful technique for building an information commons that could be created with seventeenth-century technology”. In fact that is when it was created, and it hasn’t changed very much since. It is built for organization on paper publications, and hasn’t really been updated for the Internet. The literature is also littered with citations to findings in other papers that apparently don’t exist. Often, there is no adoption of standard methods, with standard units, in a common language that make results comparable across studies.

Science is Partly Hidden
Many research projects don’t result in findings that the researchers or journal editors think are exciting; it is just part of the scientific process. The problem arises when those findings aren’t published. Maybe the author has a more exciting manuscript that he would rather work on, or maybe the journals don’t want to publish such a ‘boring’ paper. Either way, this biases and polarizes the overall findings in the literature – we end up with papers that only strongly prove or disprove what they set out to look at. One problem that arises from this is known as the file drawer problem.

An equally troubling problem occurs for the manuscripts that actually are published. The manuscripts are published, but not the data. A century ago, publishing the data would have seemed absurd. But now, with the Internet, the question really becomes: why aren’t we? As meta-analyses demonstrate, there is way more information locked away in most studies than the original authors pull out, and more importantly, by pooling data from large numbers of studies, it is more possible to see the bigger picture this way. By not publishing this data somewhere on the Internet, in some sort of organized fashion, we are essentially throwing out a lot of hard-earned work.

Scientists aren’t Sharing Very Well
In the age of social media, the people have largely embraced the ability to talk to one another and share ideas and information freely. Sadly, this doesn’t yet include most scientists. Many scientists are afraid of talking with one another too much for fear that someone will steal their ideas and publish them first. This is why they sometimes hoard their data, and keep entire studies a secret at least until they are published.

Aside from sharing with one another, they are also not yet very good at making articles accessible to the public. Sure, if you are a student, then you have access to a lot of the scientific literature, and if not, you can still get a lot by going through the library (if you live near one). But the fact that someone can’t easily access publicly funded research because articles are locked behind expensive pay-walls is more than frustrating.

Reinventing Discovery
Image from the cover of the book by Michael Nielsen

An Open Science Revolution is at Hand
At a fundamental level, I really think that these are all issues of poor science communication, which is why I find them particularly fascinating. But, I’m not here to leave here on a negative note – that just isn’t my style. I set up this website to discuss how we can go forward and improve the openness of science, so just stay tuned, because I’m very optimistic about this. A quiet revolution is fundamentally changing the way humans make discoveries, through:
– An explosion of open-access journals like PLOS
– Citizen science projects like Galaxy Zoo
– Data sharing websites like figshare
– Journals that are pushing to publish negative results, like the Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine
– Researcher-focussed social media sites like ResearchGate
– Online lab notebooks like Carl Boettiger’s
– Dozens of other initiatives that you can check out at Digithead’s Lab Notebook or the Open Science Wiki

If you simply can’t wait for me to read more about this topic, I am happy to recommend Michael Nielsen’s book Reinventing Discovery. As a manifesto for a new kind of discovery, called Networked Science, it really lights the imagination on what is possible when Open Science is embraced.

I’ve barely scratched the surface with what I think are some of the important issues, but I want to know what you think I was silly to have left out – leave it in the comments!

MOOC Hard: The Present and Future of Online Learning

Once upon a time, there was a professor that posted videos of his lectures to the Internet, available for free! Eventually, people thought that was a really cool idea, so they started doing it more and more frequently. Then, someone got the bright idea to put them together like entire courses on the Internet, allowing students to interact via comments and a discussion board. These courses were taught by experts at high profile universities, and sometimes these courses attracted a lot of enrolment, like, 50,000 or so students in a course at a time. Then, some universities started getting more serious about this whole massive open online course thing (in fact, they even started to call them that: Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, for short), and so they even added tests to the online courses, and sent out digital participation certificates to those that passed. And everyone lived mostly happily ever after.

That’s how the story has gone so far. Most MOOCs are, more or less, video versions of university lectures. Where are the peer-to-peer interactions? Where are the special effects? Why are the video lectures 1.83 hours long when every youtube video I watch is less than ten minutes? Ladies, gentlemen, and Amoebas, prepare yourselves for the MOOCs of the future.

One group I’ve really been impressed by is iversity – I took The Future of Storytelling with them, and it was really ahead of it’s time. There are things you can do with video that you can’t do in a classroom (tours of museums, interviews with people who aren’t going to visit your classroom, etc), and it did those things. It was super peer-to-peer, with entire assignments acting as massive class-collaborations. The lectures were short, each just a few minutes long. That group is just one example (more below), but I’d bet my compound microscope that we will see more of this approach in the next few years (if I’m wrong by 2020, the first to comment gets it).

To check out MOOCs, learn a whole metric tonne of stuff, and watch MOOCs evolve, below is a list of some of the site’s I’ve frequented over the years. I’m struggling to name a course that has taught me more than one MOOC I took part in, called Writing in the Sciences (and based on the amount of poorly written articles I’ve read, I think most scientists could learn a lot from it too). Also, if you are a teacher, I strongly encourage you to seek out courses that you might be able to use in your class, or get inspired by for your own teaching. Between them, there are hundreds of courses offered in many disciplines, for free:






OpenHPI-logo khan-academy logo


Is there one that you’d like to see added? Leave it in the comments! Either way, go out and MOOC hard.