[NASW] Thinking outside the lab

by Stephanie Chasteen on October 26, 2008

[What’s science got to do with it? Thinking outside the Lab. KC Cole, Jennifer Ouellette, Paul Preuss, Adam Frank, Diandra Leslie-Pelecky]

Jennifer Ouellette posted a nice post about this session over at Cocktail Party Physics, so I won’t go into a lot of detail about it here, but just add a few thoughts.

Part of the reason that I got out of science writing as a full-time science career was that it seemed synonymous with science journalism and writing about science news.  I must admit, I’m deadly bored by a lot of the stuff in science news — dark matter, the LHC, stem cells.  I’m much more interested in the curious childlike questions.  Back in college when I was deciding whether to study more physics or not, I remember looking at the grass and thinking — If I could just understand everything there is to know about that blade of grass — the botany and how that grass interacts with the ecology, the cultural anthropology leading to its cultivation, the chemical processes that let it convert sunlight to energy, the physics and mathematics leading to its particular shape and curve — then that could be my life’s work.

I doubt I’ll ever be able to understand that blade of grass completely.

This session was perfect for me, as someone who’s not so interested in science news, but rather the more fundamental questions about how the world works.  The basic thrust of this session was to find new, fresh angles on science topics that tap into the readers’ interests. For example, Diandra Leslie-Pelecky wrote a book about the physics of NASCAR, and found that NASCAR fans would struggle through computational fluid dynamics in order to understand something they really wanted to know about — namely, why their guy didn’t win. At a similar talk a few years ago, one writer (was it Margaret Wertheim) suggested writing for women’s magazines with the same goal. For example, the chemistry of permanent waves or hair dyes talk about the science of something that someone is interested in already. People aren’t necessarily interested in the stuff that we think is fascinating, like string theory or the LHC. Why push our own agenda on them? Instead, bring our science to their lives.

I’m a big proponent on this, in particular on the science of everyday life. I’m fascinated by things like why coffee leaves rings, or why helium makes our voice sound high. If I had the time, this is all I would write on my blog. Jennifer related a story when she was walking along the street and saw concrete pouring, and thought “Ooh, self-organized criticality!” Similarly, I look at candles, and grass, and the cooling of coffee, and am curious. But I often find I don’t know the right questions to ask to make an interesting story about these things. I love hearing explanations, but perhaps my question-machine isn’t well honed.
“Be a child,” the panel suggested. “Take a walk. Ask the stupid obvious questions.”

Sounds like a laudable goal for me! If I only had more time….

For anyone who is also drawn by these questions of how the world works, and wants to be drawn into science stories by these wonderfully naive investigations, listen to WNYC’s Radio Lab.  In fact, one of their recent podcasts Making the Hippo Dance talks about some of the production elements they use to create Radio Lab in order to emphasize this sense of wonder and casual questioning.

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