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Pop goes science
Diophantus's childhood lasted one-sixth of his life. His beard grew after one-twelfth more. He married after oneseventh more. His son was born five years later. The son lived to half his father's age. Diophantus died four years after his son. How old was Diophantus when he died? In a forest, a number of apes equal to the square of one-eighth of the total apes in the pack are playing noisy games. The remaining 12 apes, who are of a more serious disposition, are on a nearby hill and irritated by the shrieks coming from the forest. What is the total number of apes in the pack? These two fun puzzles seem similar but they are separated by around nine centuries. The first was tweeted by mathematician and popular science writer Ian Stewart, in a bid to attract math phobes to numbers. The second was a question posed by Bhaskara II in a 12th century treatise, written to distract his grieving daughter Leelavati who was widowed at a very young age. Despite the wide chasm of culture, technology and time between the two puzzles, they have something in common - both are designed to make complex science enjoyable and accessible. Humans have forever been curious to unravel the mysteries of the natural world - that's what science is all about. But there is always a gap between the wise ones who do all the tough work and lay people. Scientists have to make an extra effort to communicate what they discover to the rest of humanity.
"People are always fascinated by the reality of science, and have questions they've often wondered about, " says science writer David Bodanis who draws inspiration from random encounters - airhostesses on flights or waiters at cafes.
BLOGS TO PODCASTS
Science popularisation is no longer only about lectures and books. It is also about websites, blogs, tweets, Facebook and podcasts;graphic books and games;photography and art. The information and communication revolution of the past few decades has transformed the way people are learning the Great Unknown. "It's great to have a wide range of formats and communication channels to. . . get the science message across to different people in different circumstances. Some new technologies help us bridge the gap between the written word and face-to-face interaction - blogging, social media and podcasts, for example, " says Brian Clegg, popular science blogger and writer. As a result, a tidal wave of information is rolling around, washing into remote corners of the planet. With the click of a mouse, a child in the Himalayas can see the Patagonian snow peaks or watch a reactor explode in Fukushima. But science communication is not just about news coverage;a far greater effort is being made to bring out, in jargon-free terms, the accumulated treasure of science. Most people associate science popularisation with star authors such as Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose, and Richard Dawkins. In India, there has been recent attention to this genre because of the celebrated works of V S Ramachandran (The Tell-Tale Brain) and Siddhartha Mukherjee (The Emperor of All Maladies). But there are several other forms in which science communication is grabbing the imagination of people.
Popular science blogs have taken the world by storm. Several of them now figure in the top lists of all blogs including The Loom by Carl Zimmer, Pharyngula by Minnesota University's P Z Myers and The Bad Astronomer by Phil Plait. Most blogs are discipline specific but then there are blog aggregator websites that collect and link to the best of the lot in several fields. ScienceBlogs run by SEED magazine is one, Wired Science Blogs managed by Wired is another.
The bloggers may be authors, scientists, students or even professionals in other fields who simply love science. There are networks of blogs that discuss finer technical details in virtually every scientific discipline, from mathematics to genetics. These are meant for specialists. Many theories are aired - and shot down - on the blogs lending a speed to science that could never have existed earlier.
"Writing for a blog is, in many, ways like writing a magazine article: I can use images to help describe the topic, and so on. I can write as many blog posts a day as I want, I don't have to choose very much what I post because one picture is prettier than another. I can make my decision based on what I find interesting, and what I think my readers will like, " says the hugely popular Plait.
Then there are the websites, usually run by authors or institutions. Popularising science has become a major art through highly evolved websites with interactive features, audio and video components, graphics - the works. The University of Berkeley's Evolution website is one example.
Of course, much before the new media explosion, Carl Sagan, Patrick Moore and Sir David Attenborough had become iconic faces of science on popular TV. Their programmes drew millions across the globe. But the Internet-based media is much more democratic and accessible to the average scientist in his or her effort to reach out to the common man.
There has been an accompanying image revolution that has gone a long way in popularising scientific advance. This is best demonstrated in the spectacular deep space photography recorded by sophisticated instruments both on earth and in orbit.
Cliff Pickover, author of 40 popular science books and holder of 70 patents, says that visualisation is crucial for developing an understanding. "To help understand what is around us, we often need our eyes to see it and to help remember what we've learned. A variety of graphics can be used to produce visual representation with a myriad of perspectives, " he stresses. Pickover's website has had over a million visitors.
Science photographers are now much sought after for artistic photos of hitherto hidden structures - the flow of liquid metal, an array of nano particles, the intricate folding of cellular proteins. Felice Frankel's stunning photographs combined with top scientist George Whitesides' text resulted in the bestseller No Small Matter, a book on nanotechnology (See 'The Lab in a Photo-frame' on Page 9).
WHO READS 'EM?
Who exactly are science communicators catering to? It could be just about anybody really. Consider, for instance, the wildly popular 'Horrible Science' series, the brainchild and work of Nick Arnold (Interview on Page 7). The books, which use a combination of deliciously disgusting facts, wacky humour, history and storytelling to explain the hows and whys of science, are a big hit among children. Carl Zimmer says he would like even a motivated 14-year-old to read him because he keeps his writing jargon-free and metaphor-rich.
A sense of voracious wonder is about all a reader would need to enjoy a good work of science writing. "Curious, intelligent, but not particularly a scienceeducated person, perhaps like my mother, who is just as smart, or smarter, than I am but who simply doesn't happen to know what I know", is how Robert Kanigel, professor of science writing at MIT, sums it up.
The problem, of course, is to convert complex equations and technical definitions into easily understandable text and illustrations without dumbing them down. Remember that his publishers told Stephen Hawking, author of some of science's biggest bestsellers, that with each equation he put in, his readership would be halved.
"It is a combination of years of experience and bouncing all my ideas off my wife, who has no scientific background, " says John Gribbin of the University of Sussex, who has written over a hundred popular science books, including In Search of Schrodinger's Cat. Family members, students, ordinary bystanders - just about anyone can be a sounding board for a science writer trying to keep it simple. As Clegg points out, appreciating the wonders of science is like admiring a beautiful building. "I don't have to be an architect and know how the building is put together to appreciate how amazing it is, or to understand what it does, " he says.
Of course, it is not always possible to avoid the pitfalls of trying to reach out to the man on the street. Science writers, especially those reporting for television, are often accused of sensationalising science. Len Fisher, science author, radio and TV show host, and winner of the IgNobel Prize in 1999 for unveiling the science of biscuit dunking, says that this happens because of a perceived need for instant gratification and excitement in news stories. "This means that science, if it gets in at all, only gets in as newsworthy 'discoveries', which is not how science works at all, " he told TOI-Crest.
New technologies have turned out to be a double-edged sword. They have also ended up offering a forum for anti-scientific, even superstitious, propaganda on issues ranging from creationism to global warming to doomsday predictions.
Peter Forbes, science author, finds that antiscience lobbyists are very good at using technology against science. "They dominate the science discussion forums, they hack into climate scientists' emails. So far, I think they are winning because they understand the dark arts of IT and media better than the good guys, " he told TOI-Crest.
THE INDIA NON-STORY
One corner of the world where science popularisation is simply not making sufficiently dramatic inroads is India. Despite a massive scientific infrastructure for research and big achievements in space, nuclear energy and genetics, Indians remain largely untouched by the current scientific tide. And, part of the reason is the lack of encouragement to science popularisation efforts. This has led to a shocking paucity of even science writers, leave alone modern multi-media practitioners.
Although bureaucratic measures for science popularisation, like awards and committees and 'events' abound, their reach and efficacy has been limited. Ironically, there were more vibrant efforts at science popularisation in the nineteenth century than anything we see now. There was Yesudas Ramchandra in the 1850s who published A Treatise on the Problems of Maxima and Minima to introduce Indians to modern calculus.
In Bengal of the late 19th century, Ramendra Sundar Trivedi, a science teacher and later, principal of Ripon College, wrote many articles on science that connected with the common man's world. "In our own times Jayant Naralikar has been an important science communicator;the late Dilip Salwi too, " says Dhruv Raina, professor of history of science at JNU.
We could add the names of Yashpal, G Venkatraman and the many activists of the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad and the People's Science Movement to this list. But to expand it is a real struggle.
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