Category: *

Darwin Phylo deck in progress: Part 2. In which we show more graphical awesomeness! #darwindeck

So, we have a few more pieces of Darwinian art to show, continuing from our first look see. As mentioned before, all of this art is in preparation of a Phylo trading card game that revolves around the many species that Darwin took note of during his “Voyage of the Beagle.”


Above is a mock up of one of the “Event Cards.” This was drawn by Rachel Ignotofsky (website, instagram), which also came with the 3 new images shown below (to add to the 4 shown previously).


As well, here is another card mock up below, with another iconic inclusion, the HMS Beagle itself:


Here, the artwork was created by Robert M. Ball (website, instagram, twitter). Not sure if you remember from the previous “work in progress” post, but Rob has made his 8 commissions into this epic panoramic image. This you can take closer look at below (you can also click to get to a larger version), but essentially, re-imagine this lovely piece as 8 separate cards coming together.

Darwin Deck 2.6
(Click it, click it, click it… you won’t be disappointed!)

Anyway, the Phylo deck project is really starting to come together. Final artwork is coming in, (I’ve even personally bought some of the originals from Diana Sudyka as you can see below), and we’ve finally hired our last artist. This would be Simon Gurr, which is all the more special because this is the individual responsible for the Darwin graphic novel. With his addition, the Darwinian deck should have a total of 40 lovely pieces of art.

All in all, I expect the “Voyage of the Beagle” Deck to be ready around October or November of this year, where it will be launched by the UK Nonprofit, The HMS Beagle Trust, for their science outreach and advocacy programs. Game on!

(Note, you can see the rest of Diana’s pieces at this post).

Puzzle and game aficionados: What is up with this picture? #gls14

Seriously… This hurts my head.


Via Futility Closet.

p.s. If you give up, you can see the solution here.

When Vulpes vulpes is skeptical. I challenge you not to smile when you see this picture.


By Michael O’Neal (winner of the iPhone Photography Awards – animal category), via My Modern Met.

Your lesson for today: why bacon smells the way it does.


By Compound Interest, via Fresh Photons

Bird on a wire. Or rather, bird made of wire.



By Celia Smith, via Colossal

Whoa… It is what it is: Dinosaur rolling pin.




By ValekRollingPins ,via Thinx

Love these calligraphy animals!


By Andrew Fox, via Colossal.

This is bloody brilliant. “What will climate deniers say after environmental catastrophe strikes?”

Sad, but brilliant, because I fear it’s spot on.

Tom the Dancing Bug

By Rubin Bolling, via Boing Boing.

Geometric biodiversity beautifully done.




By Estudio Guardabosques, via Colossal

A decidedly scientific way of thinking (that of course, needs to be tested) #funny by @JimBenton


By Jim Benton. Via reddit.

With new evidence showing how gluten sensitivity in non-celiacs is more or less psychosomatic, this vid is especially funny

Specifically, this paper.

By Jimmy Kimmel, via Business Insider.

HEADLINE: Martians Build Two Immense Canals on Mars in Two Years!

From the The New York Times, August 27, 1911.


Read the full story here. Via Futility Closet.

DNA as a Magic 8 Ball: Concerning the President of the United States

Prepping a genomics 101 workshop as we speak, and I’m just going through some older material of mine.  Will use this to explore the issue of correlations in big big data sets.  Anyway, this piece written back in 2006 was a fun exercise in this notion, although it was a little freaky how the correlations were for the Bush era folks.  One of these days, I should do an update on this – might be interesting to see how those matches come up.



Every living thing on this planet adheres to a script, a biological language that is not unlike the ingredient lists on the back of your grocery store products. This script is DNA, composed of a limited alphabet of four building blocks (or letters, if you will): A, T, C and G.

Our human document is just over three-billion letters in length. To offer some perspective, E. coli has just over four-and-a-half million letters, a fly has about 150-million letters and rice has close to 400-million. In all—as of August, 2005—over 100,000,000,000 letters of code have been sequenced from a multitude of earthly delights and made publicly available for research within the life sciences.

DNA orchestrates the production of proteins—the molecules that are responsible for the architecture, mechanics, senses and defenses of each and every cell and tissue in an organism’s being. These proteins actually do the work of “living.”

And here’s where it gets interesting: Proteins are composed of strings of amino acids, pieced together as a direct result of DNA code. There are 20 different amino acids, each one denoted by a single letter. Since amino-acid alphabet is only missing the letters B, J, O, U, X and Z, one can look for relevant words within the huge dataset of genomes—within life’s code—and, perhaps, find wisdom for important decisions.

With this in mind, I decided to supercollide genetics and politics—more specifically, to contemplate specific words, built with strings of amino acids, and search all available genetic and protein sequence data for relevant matches.1 And it is these matches or answers that are gleaned—as if from a Magic 8 Ball—to reflect and evaluate our leaders, our options and our future. Whether you buy into this brand of decision making or not, here is what you’ll discover when you search genetic code for amino-acid sequence strings such as “BUSH,” as well as other names from current events.

1. The query for “BUSH” receives no hits, primarily because it is deemed a “low complexity sequence.” This is compounded by the fact that the letters B and U do not exist as specific amino acids.

2. To be fair, I tried the string “GWBUSH.” Here, the closest match resulted in the sequence “GWDASH.” It was interesting to note that 21 of the top 22 matches were derived from the genomes of “uncultured” organisms—ones that cannot be grown in any laboratory setting

3. Next, I tried “GWBLISH,” under the pretense that when you squint, it looks like “GWBUSH.” In this case, the best sequence match referred to the Japanese strain of Oryza sativa (paddy rice), a food staple from a country that is justifiably sensitive to past actions of the United States.

4. Because none of the above results sounded particularly encouraging, I figured that a better indicator of Bush’s worth might come from querying the names of his top advisors. However, when the sequence strings “ROVE,” “RICE” and “ALITO” are queried, all are met with the “low complexity sequence” result. The top hit for “RUMSFELD” was Xylella fastidiosa, a grapevine-decimating pathogen infamous in the wine industry. Interestingly, the top two matches for “CHENEY”are Vibrio vulnificus, a bacterium in the same family as those that cause cholera, as well as Vibrio speldidus, a nasty intestinal pathogen known for inducing vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain.

5. Finally, in an effort to further demonstrate my impartiality, I begrudgingly entered “PRESIDENTBUSH.” In this case, the best non-hypothetical match—one that can actually be assigned a biological function—was from the genome of Entamoeba histolytica. The organism is a single-celled, parasitic protozoan known for infections that sometimes last for years, which may be accompanied by vague gastrointestinal distress or dysentery—complete with blood and mucus in the stool.

6. For good measure, I considered how 2005 could have been different politically, entering a couple of searches related to Senator John Kerry. A query for “KERRY” received many perfect hits from a wide variety of different organisms, and “PRESIDENTKERRY” results in a best non-hypothetical match to a gene in Zygosaccharomyces rouxii, an organism belonging to the kingdom fungi.

I’m left to make the following conclusions: Simply stated, Bush is of low complexity. Addressing Bush using his first and middle initials suggests that he will run away or act in an uncultured manner. Squint at Bush and he just might make fun of your slanting eyes, call you “sushi lover,” or make some other inappropriate comment. His closest advisors are, at best, too simple for the task or busy attacking wine, or, at worst, will make you suffer horribly. At the end of the day, if you don’t want the hypothetical, but instead want the truth: President Bush is akin to an extended period of significant discomfort in your gut.

In hindsight, it would appear that these queries reflect accurately on the past year, what with the general mismanagement of the Iraq war, the fallout from Hurricane Katrina, the administration’s rebuff of climate change, as well as the President’s awkward but accommodating tone with intelligent design.

But, what if John Kerry had been elected president? Well, he would have just been a “fun guy!”

Perhaps there is some merit to this method of divination after all?

As a postscript—and to look forward rather than back, it being a new year—I ran one last query. Given Hillary Clinton’s potential candidacy in the 2008 presidential race, I performed one last search, inputting “HILLARY.”

Here, the top non-hypothetical hit corresponded to Burkholderia vietnamiensis strain G4, a bacterium known for its prowess in eliminating various hazardous environmental contaminants that are found in groundwater. Could this result possibly foreshadow an interesting campaign ahead? Is HILLARY someone that will bioremediate—literally “clean up” —the polluting mess left by the current administration.

No matter, I think it is best that I leave that act of interpretation to you the reader, since my actual Magic 8 Ball suggests that I “better not tell you now.”

1. Anyone can do this with a common bioinformatics tool known as BLAST. Follow the link and click on the “search for short, nearly exact matches” under the PROTEIN subheading. In the new page, enter your query, and then hit the “BLAST” button.

Originally published January 11, 2006 at Seed Magazine.

Han Solo and Chewbacca Weigh In On Their New Hybrid Millennium Falcon



- – -

HAN SOLO: Well, so far, it seems like it’s a pretty good thing. Me, I’m not too up on the technology, but Chewie is pretty good at that stuff. Right Chewie?

CHEWBACCA: Uuuhhhggg. Rrrrggghhh. Hhhgg-aaa. Rrrrn.

HAN SOLO: Yeah, that’s a good point. Chewie just reminded me that this new system has significantly increased our energy efficiency. This basically means less money spent at the pump, and more money in our pockets.

CHEWBACCA: Rrrrrr! Aaaa-Ghhhuuurr. Uuuuhggg.

HAN SOLO: Right. And lower emissions too. Although I don’t get why that would be such a big deal in deep space. Do greenhouse gases do anything out there anyway?

CHEWBACCA: Uuuuhhh-rrrr. Ghhhgggg. Uuugggg. Ggg. Rrrrr-uuuuaa. RRRR! NNHHHUUUR!

HAN SOLO: Alright, alright. Calm down. I’m not saying it’s not a problem. I know there’s science behind all this stuff. It’s not like you haven’t told me to be environmentally conscious like a hundred times already. Look, I’m sorry buddy. I didn’t mean to sound negative like those Empire bastards.


HAN SOLO: Yeah, I know. That would be pretty funny to watch you pull the arms off a one of those guys. Doing that would be carbon neutral too right?

CHEWBACCA: Gghhnn. Nnnnh.

HAN SOLO: Yeah, sure. But listen Chewie, seriously: How would lower emissions in deep space help? I just don’t get it, you know?

CHEWBACCA: Grrrrgh. Uuurhh. RRRggllhh. Hhuu-hhhuu. Auhhh-ghu-gh. RRRRR!. Ggg-rrr, uurrghh. HHGGU! Uuuuhh. Rrr, ggghhu. Huuhhhg. GGGrrr. Uhh?

HAN SOLO: Oh, O.K.. That makes sense. You say you still want fewer emissions because there’s still a lot of flying involved when the Falcon leaves or returns to a planet, or just when she does her cool maneuvers close to the surface. These things still directly contribute to increasing greenhouse gas amounts within the confines of the planet’s atmosphere. Hence, not helping with the global warming problem.

CHEWBACCA: Ggggrrr. Rrrrh. Uuuhhggr. RRRR! Uhhfuckinggghug.

HAN SOLO: Definitely. And you’re right, Tatooine is already too damn hot.

CHEWBACCA: Rrrrrhhg. RRRGGH! Hhhuurrg. Ggrrgh. Huurg. Grrhhg. Guuuaaauu. AAAURRGG! RRRRGGG!

HAN SOLO: Yeah, O.K. I mean I’m basically pretty happy with the modifications. Really, as long as we can still make the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs, I really don’t care. Plus, I still get to say stuff like “Punch it Chewie,” right? Chewie, you love that stuff.

CHEWBACCA: Ggrrrrgghhaarr.

Phylo game: Voyage of the Beagle deck update. #darwindeck #wip #whoa #soawesome

As many of you know, one of my stranger science education projects is a biodiversity themed card game called Phylo. This project has been especially interesting of late, with a variety of new elements being launched via a number of great open collaborations (AMNH, GSA, Muse, Keeling Lab, etc – see the Phylo blog for more details).

But there is also this “Voyage of the Beagle” deck (or just the “Darwin Deck, #darwindeck” as some have been calling it), that was talked about a couple months back. This is still a work in progress, but we have a list of cards (beta deck with commons images can be seen here), and most of the art has already been commissioned. It actually looks like we’ll need one more commission* (of about 8 images at $200 each), but I thought it would be cool to show you what the other amazing artists have done so far.

* If you’re interested, leave a link of your portfolio in the comments.

Robert Ball: website | instagram | twitter

Robert I actually came across by way of his very cool work on superhero drawings (I actually have his Avengers print on my home office wall). His first two pieces are below, but he’s also planing to link his 8 pieces into a final panoramic montage.


(click the below to enlarge)


Golly Bard: website | instagram

Diana (see below) did a great job of referring Golly to the project. These are Golly’s first drafts, but you can already tell that they’re going to look extraordinary.


Rachel Ignotofsky: website | instagram

Rachel has this great whimsical style (and some of her art has been shown here previously). She’s actually completed a couple already as you can see below!


Diana Sudyka: website | instagram | twitter

And finally, we have Diana. I’ve been a big fan of Diana’s work for a while now, especially since she worked on a picture for a piece at the SCQ. In any event, her lovely artworks (which were just finished) are shown below.





Anyway, I hope you are all as excited as I am for this #darwindeck. I’m thinking that it should be ready by late 2014 or early 2015. And don’t forget, it looks like we will need one more artist in the mix, so leave a link to your portfolio if you’re interested!

Visit Vancouver: enjoy the scenery, and (oh yeah) enjoy learning molecular biology. July 28 – Aug 1st workshop. Please RT

I’d also like to point out that all fees go towards our various public outreach programs, so even if you’re not interested in attending, it would be totally cool if you could share this with others that may be so inclined.

More details below and also via my lab’s website (bioteach.ubc.ca)


July 28th to August 1st, 2014 (CAN$1400) – poster pdf

DESCRIPTION:This intense 5 day workshop will focus on a myriad of different techniques used in the molecular manipulation of DNA, RNA and protein, as well as inclusion of lectures of high throughput genomic techniques. Primarily aimed at researchers who are new to the area, familiar but require a quick updating, or would like more practical bench training.

Hands on techniques covered include: Various nucleic acid purification methodologies (silica bead, organic, and/or pI based), restriction digests, ligations, dephosphorylation assays, agarose gel electrophoresis, transformation (including electroporation), PCR, reverse transcriptase assay, real time qPCR, SDS-PAGE,Western blot analysis, Isoelectric focusing strips, and 2D protein gels. Lectures on next-gen sequencing, SNPs, microarrays, bioinformatic tools.

To register or inquire about the workshop, please contact Dr. David Ng at db@mail.ubc.ca or 604-822-6264. More information can be found at http://www.bioteach.ubc.ca/portfolio/professional-courses/


“Really good workshop!! Dave really does an amazing job explaining all different laboratory experiments and the theories behind them. The workshop gives a very good overview from both a theoretical and practical point of view of the main molecular biology protocols and procedures. Very good to refresh general concepts if you have experience, or to gain exposure if you are not familiar with molecular biology.”
Jose Damon Urbez Torres, Research Scientist, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

“It is a very informative workshop with balanced theoretical and practical sections. The environment is a great combination of serious/fun/relax which suited me very well. GREAT JOB!”
Silvia Heredia, Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Botany, University of British Columbia.

“Loved this workshop! I came with very little background and experience with these technologies, and found myself gaining a thorough and comprehensive understanding of key methods that are 100% relevant to my current field of research. The instruction was engaging and digestable. Lectures were provided in an efficient manner. Dave Ng makes molecular methods… magical (I was going for alliteration)!”
Kaylee Byers, Ph.D. Student, Vancouver Rat Project, University of British Columbia

“Good review of the basic chemistries of molecular techniques and why they work. Great enthusiasm and entertaining instruction by Dave. An ‘A’ Grade for the workshop.”
Emily Fuerst, Scientist, Kemin Life Science

More reviews can be found at http://www.bioteach.ubc.ca/reviews-professional/

“What is Science Literacy?” A summary of responses from smart folks at #scio14

Things have been very hectic this semester (in a good way), and consequently, a number of things have lagged behind. One of which is my attempt to aggregate all the good discussion and activity around my “What is Science Literacy?” session at this year’s scio14 conference.

Anyway, with a bit of pushing from Emily Buehler (courtesy of the folks at scio14), here is what is available. I’m of the opinion that it’s worth checking out. Some of the comments are fascinating (you can download the pdf of the online survey responses here). Also, if you feel like leaving your two cents, you can still participate in the survey itself, and I can update this document accordingly.



Session 2B.
What Is Science Literacy?

Facilitator: David Ng
Session type: Discussion
Hashtag: #scioscilit
Session forum: link


This session aimed to explore “scientific literacy,” and how this concept can inform science communication efforts. It attempts to survey and address the challenges that come with a term that inherently sounds vague. Part of this is due to the concept itself being always in a state of relentless change – which has a lot to do with differing opinions from academics and on-the-ground experts; as well as the current information ecosystem, with its media challenges, a shifting science culture, and also (unfortunately) because of the subversive activities from the likes of L.P.W.L.T.B.L.’s (loud people who like to be loud), P.W.S.P.O.M.I.’s (people with strong political or monetary interests), and of course, the D.C.D.s (dangerously clueless douchebags). In all, the session will provide a guided outlet for folks to share their opinions and expertise on this topic, and whether such techniques are useful (or not) in a variety of settings (i.e. journalism, education, PR, advocacy, policy). Note that the session began with a 6 minute Pecha Kucha, presentation that provided a summary of common elements in scientific literacy.


Some themes are commonly discussed when considering what it means to be scientifically literate:

1. knowledge of the scientific process.

2. context-driven knowledge of a subset of scientific/technical facts.

3. appreciation of science culture and how it interacts with other cultural perspectives.

In this instance, David made introductory remarks by recounting an interaction he had with an inquisitive elementary school student. Here, the dialogue between David and student focused on three questions on the subject of unicorns.

Q1: Are unicorns real?

Q2: Could unicorns be real?

Q3: But, what if you saw a unicorn leap over a rainbow and make glitter?

These questions happen to nicely frame a good framework for the literacy discussion, given the answers provided. These were:

A1: There is currently no strong evidence to support this. This is an answer that pays homage to the scientific method or the process of science. This also leads to discussions with how society generally obtains information (media consideration, as well as elements of biological and social behavior). Basically, public needs to know that you don’t have to be a scientist to see merit in thinking like a scientist.

A2: It depends. If we are talking about what is simply a horse with a horn attached, then this arguably could exist. If, instead, we are referring to a unicorn that can make glitter from air and leap (in a single bound) over rainbows, then we would argue that such a unicorn could not exist. This would be very unlikely as such a unicorn would be breaking any number of scientific physical laws (i.e. 1st law of Thermodynamics being a good example). More importantly, this question segues into a facet of scientific literacy that considers the notion that involves knowledge of lists of technical facts.

A3: The frank answer here is that you would probably freak out. In other words, if strong evidence existed for such a fantastic unicorn, then one only has to imagine the historic significance of finding the existence of such a creature. Now try imagining the drama, the personalities involved, and perhaps most importantly, the scientific “creativity” required to make sense of it in existing frameworks of knowledge. All to say that science literacy is not just limited to the “process” or “technical facts,” but rather it should include a “science culture” angle, whereby it’s evident that science participates in society in a variety of perspectives. For example, other perspectives worth noting include those concerning politics and ethics.

Discussion Highlights

Note that discussion was framed around a set of questions. Below are collected thoughts from the actual discussion, as well as answers recorded via an online survey of contributing scio14 participants. A pdf of the survey can be found here.

Note that interested science communicators can still participate in the survey here.

1. As a science communicator, journalist, educator, etc – do you see merit in framing your translation of a science story by way of “increasing scientific literacy?”

The majority of the session attendees do, and all survey participants (n=16) also do.


2. As a science communicator, journalist, educator, etc – do you generally try to frame your translation of a science story by way of “increasing scientific literacy?”

(Hereafter, all online survey responses highlighted with description of commenter)

Yes. (librarian, parent; academic scientist, part-time blogger & writer; multimedia specialist, artist for health organization; science librarian; communications manager for scientific publisher; science communicator; science teacher; diversity in science advocate, science blogger; professor)

Depends. (college instructor, science blogger; physics professor, blogger, book author; higher ed. science teacher; science journalist, past scientist; science writer, designer, public information officer; editor)

No. (science themed artistic curator)

3. If you do see merit in this mode of thinking (and even practice it), is there a sweet spot of content delivery that you find works well?

There is a sweet spot of content delivery.

Finding and delivering it is an inherent challenge and a big project.

The journalist increases the reader’s interest.

Share your passion in the story.

Find the sweet spot by including things that the readers don’t know, finding an angle where the science makes them see something, and teaching them something to think about.

Scientists say that we should not have people in a story about science.

PIO’s try to get scientists to talk, but many shy away if the article is about them.

Who is this “general public”? Think about scientific literacy for __________. Think about the “who.” The audience changes depending on the content.

How much do you know about your audience at any given time?
Working with a non-profit: it’s a moving target with no best practices.

Pop culture influences can interest people. For example, “Finding Nemo” caused aquarium visitors to engage and ask questions. The “Mermaids” documentary/mockumentary: many people believed it was real. Using this video and the public reaction to it could be a strategy to debunk the media and to start a discussion and questioning.

For me, the sweet spot is focusing on process and approach to thinking.
(college instructor, science blogger)

It works well to demystify and explain science as a human endeavor, in such a way that my listeners feel they could possibly have done the work themselves. Also works well to include elements of critical thinking/information literacy in discussions of science news or articles.
(librarian, parent)

I try to leave out the process and focus on the ‘facts.’ I would like to shift more towards the process but this requires a conscious effort on my part.
(academic scientist, part-time blogger & writer)

Start from introducing science as a way of knowing, equal in weight to other ways of knowing.
(higher ed. science teacher)

I’m sort of stuck on this, as I’m not sure who the target of the “framing” is in the previous questions. Framing for who? The audience for the stories? The people who run ScienceBlogs? My faculty colleagues/ administrative superiors? My publishers? Myself?

I don’t really pitch what I do on the blog as “increasing science literacy” in the sense of telling the audience that that’s what I’m doing, but if you asked me to justify spending time blogging, I’d probably say something along those lines. My books are a little more explicitly aiming at increased scientific literacy, some more than others.

The “sweet spot” in terms of content is different in different media, and in different subsets of what I’m doing. If I’m writing about a new experiment published in a journal, the target level is different than if I’m writing about something I did myself for the purposes of posting about it on the blog. There’s yet another level for history-of-science pieces, and still another for academic-culture stories, and so on. 

In other words, this isn’t a well-formed question.
(physics professor, blogger, book author)

I’m currently working on story boarding a video series that will hopefully be my sweet spot for this kind of content. I haven’t gotten to the point where I can determine if it has worked well or not. But who knows?
(multimedia specialist, artist for health organization)

I see science literacy more as an understanding of the scientific process than necessarily conveying facts. I need to incorporate it into the story, but if there is something unique or revealing about the process that I can incorporate into the existing story. Such as the finding coming about from an unusual collaboration, or an unexpected fortuitous discovery.
(science journalist, past scientist)

The sweet spot from a librarian perspective, is balancing practical lessons on how to use the catalog, how to use scopus, with discussion on why these critical thinking and research skills are more important than for just finding articles for their papers, it’s about learning how to evaluate any information they come across, and learn to recognize, analyze and process information (plagiarism, peer review process etc).
(science librarian)

Something that’s fun and engaging/interesting is usually what works well.
(science writer, designer, public information officer)

Haven’t found it yet.
(communications manager for scientific publisher)

That would all depend on context. The most necessary thing is to make the subject relevant to the audience, and if not relevant, at least interesting to them.
(science communicator)

Presenting real examples that students relate to and giving them the opportunity to identify misconceptions or limitations of their thinking.
(science teacher)

Music. Talk about science using sing lyrics as analogy. (Connecting science to something most people like and defining terms around it).
(diversity in science advocate, science blogger)

Enough background to clarify the topic without unnecessary side discussion, with reminders of things readers may have encountered and pointers to more info as appropriate.

Content delivery is about wrapping the science up in a story or having a personal perspective to draw in the reader(s). It’s *never* about dumbing things down, but rather being clear and careful with terminology. I also think science literacy is (or should be?) more about the process of science rather than an end-point.

In our narrative work we explicitly set the line at, “Any exposition must be in service of moving the plot forward.” The corollary is that we look for stories where some bit of science is essential to driving the plot.
(science themed artistic curator)

4. In the same vein, what are the inherent challenges associated with finding or being able to deliver this sweet spot?

The biggest challenge is conveying thought processes that have become inherently more intuitive to me through science training into a clear explanation that can be understood by someone else.
(college instructor, science blogger)

Audience first needs to be engaged with the topic. It sometimes helps to address the topic through “big questions.”
(librarian, parent)

Having to define many terms without it turning into a text book. Losing the story by getting the details straight.
(academic scientist, part-time blogger & writer)

The biggest challenge is time. I have a day job with teaching and administrative responsibilities, and two small kids. Finding the time to refine material to exactly the right level is the biggest challenge.
(physics professor, blogger, book author)

Getting learners to disavow preconceived notions of what science is.
(higher ed. science teacher)

Yes. For me, it’s drawing people in with photos, video, graphics or other illustrations without confusing or distracting them.
(multimedia specialist, artist for health organization)

Generally being able to fit it into the story without sacrificing the story. And keeping in mind what a reader is actually going to want to hear and be able to absorb.
(science journalist, past scientist)

I don’t teach a semester long class, I usually only get one or two lessons within the context of a semester. I need buy in from faculty to make sure students take my lesson seriously and I also need to make the lesson interesting, which is HARD, I try to convey my passion about it but students often just give me the blank stare response. So I am constantly trying to find relevant pop culture type example,s to get their attentions.
(science librarian)

Translating jargon! It’s hard to take an academic paper and make it accessible/understandable to the public & kids
(science writer, designer, public information officer)

Money, changing tech, getting support & buy in from management
(communications manager for scientific publisher)

Working out unexpected or unforeseen relevance.
(science communicator)

The lack of scientific scrutiny in pop culture/media/general public. The misconceptions can be heavily ingrained and reinforced continually.
(science teacher)

Changes with audience. Audience is unpredictable.
(diversity in science advocate, science blogger)

Most notably, providing enough info without providing too much, respecting readers without talking over their heads, and trying to focus on the most relevant context.

Avoiding jargon. That is absolutely key. Also, big challenge in describing/writing about areas of science that don’t have an easy ‘catch’ for an audience. It’s easier talking about monarch butterflies because everyone can relate to butterflies. It’s much harder to discuss the process of, for example, epigenetics.

Boringness. So much boring.
(science themed artistic curator)

5. Is there a particular area of science literacy that is missing in the general public (process, facts, science culture)? Why is this and how problematic (from, say a civics point of view) is this?

The broad public misses that science is a human endeavor and that it is not infallible. Knowing this allows people to accept conflict without anxiety.

As a journalist, you don’t have the space to give the story and all of the information. You must use certain tactics for certain approaches.

The teaching is that science is linear (which starts early in school.) We must help to illustrate that science is messy.

The culture of science interacts with other cultures. But in some ways it can be exclusionary. Do we build a wall that pushes others out?

We want people to think like a scientist (without it being necessary to be a scientist or to be in the scientist culture). Imagine substituting “music” for “science”.

Is it getting worse? Undergraduates are entering university lacking a number of skills including science literacy.

- – -

Not understanding the process of building knowledge through the scientific process as a cultural construct distorts how people interpret the information they receive.

It is very problematic as the flaws in critical thinking this reinforces impact decision making in all fields.
(college instructor, science blogger)

- – -

The process and culture aspects are most often missing. General public science discourse has traditionally focused on technical facts. This can make science seem dry to some.

It’s very problematic that many citizens lack a basic understanding of what science is and does. Schools and informal science education environments both need greater focus on how we know what we know.
(librarian, parent)

- – -

Terms related to process and science culture. Elements concerning science culture is the least known in my opinion. Mostly because the science world is insular and those who are not science literate have no desire to learn about the culture.

It’s a problem because it creates a divide that reinforces a lot of class barriers
(academic scientist, part-time blogger & writer)

- – -

The process is probably the biggest point of confusion.

I think it helps to be explicit about the process, and about the fact that the general process of science is something everybody uses every day, often without really being aware of it. This is the topic of my next book…
(physics professor, blogger, book author)

- – -

That science is more than fact and the difference between fact, theory, and law.

Problematic because we can’t converse about science unless we are all using a common vocabulary.
(higher ed. science teacher)

- – -

I’m sure there is, or we wouldn’t have people who don’t know that the earth revolves around the sun.

Hugely problematic, and I think the solution is catching these folks when they are young and creating an interest in being scientifically literate in elementary school.
(multimedia specialist, artist for health organization)

- – -

The process often is left out. In some ways it’s inside the baseball. The general audience doesn’t necessarily have to care about this, so the challenge is finding ways to make it a relevant story that people outside of the bubble have some reason to care about.
(science journalist, past scientist)

- – -

Science culture is hard to get into and hard to leave. I grew up in it, it’s a privilege I often forget I have. I think it’s human nature to be comfortable in their privilege and to move out of it, whether it’s inviting others in, or stepping out of your zone. Change is hard!

It’s an issue for populations that need the science! And it also means that we are possibly missing chances to gain perspective from the benefit of diverse minds. I think being online and technology are greatly increasing access and spread of information, but we need leaders and groups who are making an effort to be sure globalization of information is not only free but fair.
(science librarian)

- – -

CULTURE and support from government and industry to encourage science learning

Education is the best way, but this has problems of its own – mostly because the US has lots of education.
(science writer, designer, public information officer)

- – -

Disconnect about value, cost , usefulness of research in bigger picture. Loss of meaning in smaller stories. Loss of threads… Connecting to related content.
(communications manager for scientific publisher)

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Yes, there is. Neuroscience and psychiatry tend to be under-reported, since these areas are enormously complex, even for those who consider themselves very scientifically literate.

It is very problematic. Take for example the very widespread public ignorance about dementia, and the myths surrounding it, ignorance shared by many medical professionals.
(science communicator)

- – -

Yes. School curriculums mainly focus on content of science and little on the inquiry of science. Also, the inquiry aspects should be included in most other core subjects, if only as a way of scrutinising knowledge within that subject.

Very problematic. The media should take some responsibility in promoting critical thinking.
(science teacher)

- – -

The process overall. People don’t broadly understand why the process lends to credibility. And when the process is misunderstood or undervalued, science can seem unproductive or lacking in credibility.
(diversity in science advocate, science blogger)

- – -

(Side-note: Not sure I’d count science culture as part of literacy. Gut reaction, though, so no well thought out reason.)

I think process & culture are more or less completely missing. No one reason — harder to describe, of less practical import to people, less obvious emotional impact (vs. smoke causes cancer, say).

How problematic? Somewhere between very and not at all? Reasons it’s a problem are talked about a lot.

Reasons it’s not a problem — or rather is maybe unsolvable: there are a *ton* of things you could potentially expect people in society at large to know. What’s the culture of art curation? The process in international manufacturing? It seems impossible that everyone could know all of them.

How to get around that? I think normalizing the idea of science within the culture is the way to go. (Of course, I would.) Point being to get across: “Generally competent human people do these things, and other human & competent people know about and check their work. You might know about some of them, the others work more or less the same way.” The trick, of course, is to do that without, “trust us.”
(science themed artistic curator)

- – -

Perhaps science writers focus to quickly on asserting the findings without identifying the conditional nature of those findings.

Without an understanding of uncertainty, and more specifically, probabilities, the civilian lawmaker or voter will tend to see issues as two sided, yes or no, good or bad, not relative and adjustable.

- – -

Fundamentally, there are just not enough scientists entering discussions with people outside their own area of expertise.

Not sure how problematic this is –> it may just take time as the upcoming generation of scientists have a different approach (and in many ways, a better one)

6. If you don’t communicate science with a strategic view to “increase scientific literacy”, why not? Or put another way, what might be the detrimental effects of overanalyzing this facet of science content delivery?

There is a whole body of literature on “the science of science communication.”

You are trying to engage readers, not to promote science literacy.

Reading is the base level. Not every project requires science literacy.

It depends on the goal. Literacy is very important, but it is also important to convey the joy of a scientific approach to questions and the human-ness of scientists. If the goal is one of the latter two, then always placing a focus on literacy may detract from the effectiveness of the piece, potentially in relation to both goals.
(college instructor, science blogger)

It is most important, first and foremost, to engage the reader/viewer/student.
(librarian, parent)

You spend too much time analyzing ill-formed questions and don’t do any actual communicating.
(physics professor, blogger, book author)

I don’t think that everything I do tries to increase scientific literacy. I think it’s easy to give excuses like “not every story is strong” or “as communicators we are being asked to do too much with little resources” but when it comes down to it, we have to make an effort in making this kind of thing a priority.
(multimedia specialist, artist for health organization)

I think there’s a danger in trying to make the communication so “perfect” — from an accuracy or literacy point of view — that it eventually becomes something that no one wants to actually read.
(science journalist, past scientist)

I usually think over analyzing can feed into burn out and the loss of ‘fun’ in what people are passionate about.
(science librarian)

You lose the magic of the science, and the excitement
(science writer, designer, public information officer)

You might be dumbing down the content.
(communications manager for scientific publisher)

Spend too much time explaining or defining rather than telling the story.
(diversity in science advocate, science blogger)

Nobody likes to be talked down to. Treating all writing as “teachable moments” may sound a lot like preaching. Furthermore, arguing a point with straight facts and logic often helps to solidify the listener’s point of view as they review their reasons for believing what they do. Rather than simply focusing on “increasing literacy,” writers might consider ways to share stories in a way that increases empathy with scientific perspectives.

I always communicate science with a view to increase scientific literacy. I see very few detrimental effects *except* the scientists must have his/her credentials – in other words, the science communicator has to have a program/background that provides real credibility.

It gets in the way of other goals. We’re trying to do an exploration of what it means to be human in a scientific world. Putting in literacy goals will distort that.

Of course, that doesn’t mean literacy-aimed projects can’t be all good.

They might be bad, for exmaple, if the focus is on how stupid people are for not knowing things. I think that approach does a lot of damage.
(science themed artistic curator)

7. At what point does considering scientific literacy become a stepping stone towards science advocacy? Is this a bad thing? Or, in other words, is it for everyone? Should it be for everyone?

Literacy is how you intellectually access scientific thinking or awareness.

If I encounter information and I question it, where do I go? How do I be a skeptic?

Would it be interesting to discuss scientific literacy in an unconventional format (such as a debate or a guided game)?

Literacy and advocacy can exist separately. Advocacy without literacy is potentially damaging in the long run. Literacy should be paired with material to also present the process as joyous.
(college instructor, science blogger)

Science as a career or hobby isn’t for everyone, but everyone should have a basic “science appreciation” — an understanding and appreciation for what science is and does.
(librarian, parent)

It’s not a bad thing. Music and sports journalists are allowed to like their topics…
(academic scientist, part-time blogger & writer)

Science absolutely is for everyone, or should be.
(physics professor, blogger, book author)

I say advocacy is good – it means we are passionate about what we say. It should be the basis for communicating science, not the other way around.
(higher ed. science teacher)

I think it’s hard to separate the two. But no, I don’t think it’s a bad thing.
(multimedia specialist, artist for health organization)

It doesn’t need to be for everyone. There are many different types of outlets and stories, they don’t all need to be doing the same thing.
(science journalist, past scientist)

Everyone plays a part, and it’s good to be cognizant and be an ally. But there is also the risk of having too little information, and hindering instead of helping. I also think sometimes it feels like a responsibility which has been placed on you rather than something you volunteered for. It’s a personal choice to be an active participant, but I also think if you aren’t going to take an active role, you should be willing to be open and help ‘spread the word’ when asked to be a support.
(science librarian)

Not a bad thing.
(communications manager for scientific publisher)

The problem is not so much science advocacy, as unconscious fallacies in it, such as appealing to a mythical objective morality in the guise of science.
(science communicator)

Scientific literacy in societies in general has been increasing constantly since the dawn of humans. It seems there is no other way and if there was, ironically, it would be a scientifically literate society that finds the other way. Unless, of course, we follow a N Korean model (which we did in some way or another). Therefore, the question of advocacy as a negative thing is only relevant when talking about specific scientific issues (especially politically charged ones).
(science teacher)

It is science policy from the moment it conveys a need for something. Not bad. But not for everyone.
(diversity in science advocate, science blogger)

I suppose it’s a bit naive to operate as if a reader must understand the context and background of every point to qualify as understanding anything at all. If using stories can elicit empathy, writers may find it possible to share science without ensuring, or insisting, that the reader will become literate.

It’s not for everyone because not everyone has the right skills for all forms of communication, but those willing to enter this discourse should and should be supported in doing so. But too few people do… and that’s a problem. E.g., it’s ALWAYS the same 2-3 profs in my Department doing this -we need our peers to take part more actively.

Haven’t thought much about it. Based on the thoughts above the answer to the last question is probably no..
(science themed artistic curator)

8. How does the literature in PUS (public understanding of science) help you become a better communicator? (Or does it even?) How does it compare to other tactical devices? Are there defined metrics that allow analysis of the utility in different scientific communication methods?

There is a scholarship to teaching and learning.

Talk to your librarians. They are passionate about literacy and can connect you to resources about literacy.

I’m not well familiar with PUS research. In my limited familiarity, I have found discussion of PUS to be very thought provoking about my approach.
(college instructor, science blogger)

I am not familiar with this literature.
(librarian, parent)

Not familiar.
(physics professor, blogger, book author)

I’m not familiar, but I would like to be.
(multimedia specialist, artist for health organization)

Not familiar
(science journalist, past scientist)

The PUS literature can be very helpful indeed – but then so can too a study of rhetoric and the history of rhetoric, or the history of narration..
(science communicator)

Sorry, have to leave this blank.

It doesn’t for a very frustrating reason. All the journals are closed access, so I almost never read them.

I honestly think this is the biggest barrier, by far, to the theory-> practice movement. The articles need to be available, or a lot more translational work needs to be done.
(science themed artistic curator)


Storified here by ScienceOnline

The conversation continues.


Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits, The National Academies Press, 2009. link

“Science for All Americans,” Project 2061, AAAS. link

Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education. http://informalscience.org/

Science Festival Alliance. link

“Can Doctors Be Taught How to Talk to Patients?” Well (a New York Times blog), by Timothy D. Gillian, M.D. and Mikkael A. Sekeres, M.D., 2014. link/

Questionnaire (post survey): link

Cross section micrograph of a lily’s flower bud is stunning.


One of the winners of the 2014 Wellcome Image Awards. By Spike Walker.

Keywords: ornithology, art, and pharmaceutical packaging.




By Sara Landeta, via Colossal

Your graph for the day: “Life satisfaction” plotted against “nerds” or “most people.”

Seems about right.


By Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.


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