Interesting stuff always at the intersections

2 July 2007

Of disciplines in this case, not roads.

I think one way to define good science communication is by knowing which details to leave out. I rarely see (except when I venture upon some topic I really shouldn’t) science communicated in a way that leaves the recipients unsatiated by details. Rather, we tend to lose people to attrition as the delivery of detail vastly outstrips the complimentary conceptual framework.

I conducted a group through the observatory today which illustrates my point. Members of the group were four of the members of the US office of a German television network, none of whom were particularly familiar with astronomy, and the Director of a major astronomy research institution (who also speaks German). In a classic series of moves that I have seen many times on summit tours, the Director gave a fairly involved description (in German) of the functions of assorted pieces of the 8-story-tall, 400 ton telescope in front of us. We walked about ten yards and were preparing to ascend a staircase, when the cameraman turned to me and, pointing, asked in English “Is this the part that turns?”

I sometimes also think in terms set out by Aldo Nadi. In his 1943 book On Fencing, he talks about good fencers thinking not only about their first intention (“I’m going to try to stab his knee”), but also the second intention (“If I try to stab his knee, he’ll move his leg, and I’ll stab his toe instead.”), and even the third intention (“If I try to stab his knee, and he moves his leg, and I try to stab his toe instead, and he moves his foot, he’ll fall over.”) Stay with me here, because the analogy to teaching science works.

If I have the opportunity to teach constellations to someone, the first intention is the equivalent of pointing out the constellations in the sky and naming them (“There’s Boötes.”) A better approach may be to anticipate the confusion caused by using a context-free Latin (Greek? don’t have my Guy Ottewell desk reference handy) name, and one that sounds silly anyway. Thus, “There’s Boötes the Herdsman, but really the only discernable feature is that bright reddish colored star, named Hōkūle‛a.” The addition of context and admission of obscurity are both useful for people who are just learning a new subject, particularly as adults. To compare with Nadi’s third intention, then, we could add to this discription by teaching the audience how to find the group of stars in question, “If you follow the curve–or arc–of the handle of the Na Hiku about the length of Na Hiku itself, you’ll run right into a bright, reddish colored star. That’s Hōkūle‛a, the brightest star in Boötes.”

I believe that there are even more intentions involved in interpretive education, but those are for another time. For now, suffice it to say that others have thought science communication through to depths that I can only stand in awe of. And furthermore, that the most effective communication is often that which I am weakest at, the most succint.


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