Although my days have been filled with building my nights have been free for me to fill as I please. I saw a great talk tonight by Thor Hanson, the author of the book, Feathers; the Evolution of a Natural Miracle. I’ve also been going out contra dancing and playing my fiddle, which has been great fun and led to an unlikely friendship with a man named Alan Boyne, a trained biochemist and neurobiologist with a book about to be published by the name of Headwaters of the River of Bullshit. The talk on feathers and my conversations with Alan have got me thinking about how information, particularly that of a scientific nature is conveyed. Hanson did a great job of weaving his information into engaging, anecdotal stories that required no scientific background to enjoy. Contrary to this experience, so often there seems to be an impenetrable wall between the world of science and the general public that does nobody good. It leaves the public easily hoodwinked into believing ridiculous things such as climate change being a myth, and scientists frustrated when ineffective policies are passed without public outcry that seem to disregard all science, whether they be lousy conservation laws, or shrewd political tricks to make natural gas from shale seem like a good idea (yes that is a stab at Obama’s recent State of the Union that spoke positively of natural gas extraction from shale).
Alan is also not just a neurobiologist. He has a passion for stories and believes strongly in the importance of context. Hence, when I first met him I learned about his whole family history going back to the Irish Potato famine before hearing about his own life. And apparently much of these fantastic stories are woven into his book about the importance of the right side of the brain, which is much under utilized in todays society. Writing a book for the public took some work on Alan’s part, who was used to writing for research journals. To give you an idea of the differences, if you haven’t had to read a research journal yourself in recent memory (count yourself lucky, if this be the case), in scientific writing almost all sentences are in the passive voice. Yup, thats right, no “I poured chemical A into chemical B.” Instead “Chemical A was poured into chemical B.” And every claim or statement must have half a dozen qualifiers (within 0.05 percent margin of error, with 95% accuracy, under X, Y, and Z conditions blah blah blah). No wonder no one wants to read that stuff!
At Cornell one of my favorite classes that I took was called Science Writing for the Mass Media. Here we learned to write about science in short, succinct, action packed sentences. I think it was this class that finally got me to decide I might not be half bad at writing and that I might even actually enjoy it. Perhaps it is even part of the reason why I now have this blog. The last week has reminded me that this realization was quite a gift it that it allowed me to recognize and further develop an important skill; writing in a way that bridges gaps and and brings people in to expand their minds and learn about things outside their daily routine. Isn’t that the original reason for reading books? To expand our imagination and knowledge? Isn’t that what TV, radio, newspapers, and other media can do at their best? It seems we have lost sight of this in recent times and media is instead seen purely as entertainment, too often used unconsciously to do nothing more than support what we already think we know. What happened to media that makes us think, question and imagine beyond what we “know” to be true?
I am setting an intention right now to do my very best to write each post on this blog in an engaging and thought provoking way, no matter what the subject matter. I don’t expect to succeed every time but I think it is a worthy goal to work towards. Well, those are my reflections for tonight!