Thursday, June 29, 2017

Condensed matter/nano resources for science writers and journalists

I've been thinking about and planning to put together some resources about condensed matter physics and nanoscience that would be helpful for science writers and journalists.  Part of the motivation here is rather similar to that of doing outreach work with teachers - you can get a multiplicative effect compared to working with individual students, since each teacher interacts with many students.  Along those lines, helping science writers, journalists, and editors might have an impact on a greater pool than just those who directly read my own (by necessity, limited) writing.  I've had good exchanges of emails with some practitioners about this, and that has been very helpful, but I'd like more input from my readers.

In answer to a few points that have come up in my email discussions:

  • Why do this?  Because I'd like to see improved writing out there.  I'd like the science-interested public to understand that there is amazing, often deep physics around them all the time - that there are deep ideas at work deep down in your iphone or your morning cup of coffee, and that those are physics, too.  I know that high energy ("Building blocks of the universe!") and astro ("Origins of everything!  Alien worlds!  Black holes!") are very marketable.  I'd be happy to guide little more of the bandwidth toward condensed matter/materials/real nano (not sci-fi) popularization.  I think the perception that high energy = all of physics goes a long way toward explaining why so many people (incl politicians) think that basic research is pie-in-the-sky-useless, and everything else is engineering that should be funded by companies.  I do think online magazines like Quanta and sites like Inside Science are great and headed in a direction I like.  I wish IFLS was more careful, but I admire their reach.
  • What is the long-range audience and who are the stakeholders?  I'd like CMP and nano to reach a broad audience.  There are serious technically trained people (faculty, researchers, some policy makers) who already know a lot of what I'd write about, though some of them still enjoy reading prose that is well written.  I am more thinking about the educated lay-public - the people who watch Nova or Scientific American Frontiers or Mythbusters or Through The Wormhole (bleah) or Cosmos, or who read Popular Science or Discovery or Scientific American or National Geographic.  Those are people who want to know more about science, or at least aren't opposed to the idea.  I guess the stakeholders would be the part of the physics  and engineering community that work on solid state and nano things, but don't have the time or inclination to do serious popular communication themselves.  I think that community is often disserved by (1) the popular portrayal that high energy = all of physics and crazy speculative stuff = actual tested science; (2) hype-saturated press releases that claim breakthroughs or feel the need to promise "1000x faster computers" when real, fundamental results are often downplayed; and (3) a focus in the field that only looks at applications rather than properly explaining the context of basic research.
  • You know that journalists usually have to cover many topics and have very little time, right?  Yes.  I also know that just because I make something doesn't mean anyone would necessarily use it.  Hence, why I'm looking for input.   Maybe something like a CM/nano FAQ would be helpful.
  • You know that long-form non-fiction writers love to do their own topical research, right?  Yes, and if there was something I could do to help those folks save time and avoid subject matter pitfalls, I'd feel like I'd accomplished something.
  • You could do more writing yourself, or give regular tips/summaries to journalists and editors via twitter, your blog, etc.  That's true, and I plan to try to do more, but as I said at the top, the point is not for me to become a professional journalist (in the sense of providing breaking news tidbits) or writer, but to do what I can to help those people who have already chosen that vocation. 
  • You know there are already pros who worry about quality of science writing and journalism, right?  Yes, and they have some nice reading material.  For example, this and this from the Berkeley Science Review; this from the Guardian; this from the National Association of Science Writers.
So, writers and editors that might read this:  What would actually be helpful to you along these lines, if anything?  Some primer material on some topics more accessible and concise than wikipedia?


Gautam Menon said...

It's a good idea to have such a resource, if only so that condensed matter and related areas get the sort of understanding they deserve among the public. As an example of how to do this well, the fluid dynamics Tumblr ( comes to mind.

Laura Kinnischtzke said...

Obligatory , I am not a science writer but a scientist - so this might be off the mark from what you are looking for. Anyway, I saw a very nice outreach talk at APS March in San Antonio about the work going in to this website, which covers basic quantum phenomenon in a visually appealing way :

Douglas Natelson said...

Both of those sites are a lot of fun. The visuals on the French one are particularly impressive - they've clearly put a lot of time into the graphics!