Relearning the “Beautiful Basics” of Science

(This post is inspired by Bora Zivkovic’s excellent post on Circadian Clocks without DNA which reminded me just how much I still need to learn and how exciting that can be when learning from the right writer.)

I have a pile of favorite popular science books as long as my arm. Literally. I measured it the last time I had them all in one place. (Currently they’re mostly on loan to various people who absolutely *needed* to read them.) This list reads like a who’s who of scientists and writers. It runs from Carl Sagan, who was my first favorite science writer when I was 13, to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which I read last year and have been obsessively throwing at people since then. (Where can I get a button that says “Ask me why HeLa is relevant to YOU!”)

However, my favorite popular science book of all is one that I initially resisted reading. It’s a book I bought for my father, who is a brilliant man and a voracious consumer of science writing, but doesn’t have that much of a formal science education. He knows more about different scientific fields than most people, but he hasn’t had a basic science class since he was in high school and that some of those basics are either completely different or were never thoroughly explained to start with.

This has lead to many, many strange dinnertime conversations, where he asks my brother, sister and I question after question about some subject he’s just read about, or where he reads a passage from a book that he finds particularly fascinating and we go “Well, yeah. That’s cool, here’s what’s really happening….” At least one of us usually knows what he’s talking about already. We have a weirdly diverse range of knowledge for three children raised together and following similar educational paths.

That brings me to the book that now has pride of place at the top of my science books to lend to people. That books is The Canon by Natalie Angier. I had seen it on bookshelves repeatedly when it came out, but brushed it off as not intended for an audience in my demographic. When I read “A whirligig tour of the beautiful basics of science” I assumed it would be so far below my knowledge level that I would read a chapter, become bored and put it aside. I did this for six months before actually picking it up.

So what made me change my mind? Well, I had just lent my father Endless Forms Most Beautiful, Sean B. Carroll’s fascinating and fairly basic book on evo devo.  I had read this book and thought it was perfectly written and expressed, so of course I wanted others to read it. Dad read through it over the course of several months, interspersed with questions about details and concepts that I had never really considered that he wouldn’t know already. The same thing happened with other people who read Endless Forms.

After having several of these conversations, while wandering through the bookstore, I gave The Canon another look. I had read a good review of it somewhere and it occurred to me that it might be the answer to a lot of Dad’s questions. I bought it for him for his birthday and forgot about it.

Then something amazing happened. It was around Christmas time when my siblings and I were all at home. Dad pulled out the book he was reading and started with “Did you know this? This is fascinating!” and then he read a section from The Canon about static electricity. I had only been half paying attention, when suddenly I realized that I was actually learning something I had never known before.

I knew in a basic idea how static electricity works, and could even probably have explained it if called on by a museum visitor to do so. However, I had never thought about it in depth This was so cool! How come I had never thought about it before? I expressed this idea to my family and while Dad agreed with me, my high school brother rolled his eyes and expressed disbelief that this was new to us.

Wait, wasn’t that what I had been doing to everyone else? Assuming that they knew the basics and that those basics weren’t particularly exciting, because, of course everyone knew them already. Get to the new and interesting things already!

This was a huge breakthrough for me. It made me realize I had been missing one of the best opportunities to get people excited. Tell them the basics and tell them in a way that is interesting enough that they can then take and explain to others. That wasn’t necessarily new – after all, I had been using the various descriptions of the length of geologic time as party facts for years, but that tendency hadn’t been expanded to other fields or other situations.

So I picked up The Canon, read it, not only learned things I hadn’t previously known about the world around me, but also learned what I didn’t know. This book managed to not only teach me facts, but open my mind to other concepts out there that I wasn’t previously aware of and that I then needed to pursue. More than that, it taught me that teaching the basics doesn’t boring and learning the basics is one of the exciting things one can do, as long as they’re taught in the right way.

This is a lesson that all science communicators could learn. Just because something’s old hat to you, it can still be new and exciting to everyone else. We just need to take care to present it in that way!

Elements of an Effective Public Education Toolkit

The world of a museum educator is a fly by the seat of your pants endeavour. No matter how much education and experience you have in one field, the museum visitors to whom you talk aren’t going to stick to that field. You could be innocently talking about calcium formations in caves when Bam! Out of nowhere you’ll be asked about the use of caves for shelter, food storage and black powder production in the civil war. And that’s the most relevant question you’ll get. Most of them will be more along the lines of “So, what do you think about von Däniken’s ideas about aliens?” or “I heard that Jesus was actually born in a cave, not a barn” or “Batman lives in a cave! There are BATS! Are you Batgirl?” (Usually the last is from a five year old who will then go on to ask you a complicated question about adaptations to bat senses which allow them to live in caves.

Sometimes you’ll have an answer. Strangely, I’m probably better equipped to answer most Biblical literalism questions than most creationists. Sometimes there is no good answer and you’ll be left thinking. Von Däniken, really? Did they really just quote Chariots of the Gods at me? Really?

However, there will always be a question that is perfectly valid and pretty interesting. The moment they ask, you’ll wish you knew the answer. Partially for knowledge, but partially to reward the visitor for asking such a good question. But you won’t know the answer. And that’s okay.

The most important tool in a science communicator’s arsenal is the ability to say “I don’t know, but here’s where you can find out” or some variation on that. It’s also one of the most difficult things to learn how to say. My colleagues at the museum are a group of highly educated, fairly young professionals who have ended up here through a wide variety of paths. They know their fields backwards and forwards, and are usually pretty good at speaking with the public about them. However, they are mostly young enough that their primary method of learning and reporting has been as the student part of a student-teacher relationship.

This has a huge impact on the way they present information. They are used to working in a very narrow field with people who are actual experts in said field. They never really heard “I don’t know” coming from their professors, so they don’t immediately consider that a valid answer.

Instead, they will treat a visitor’s question in the same way they treat an essay exam – as if they have to give some answer, no matter how tangential or speculative. The ability to say “I don’t know” has never been an acceptable answer in their life before, so why should it be now?

This is a problem, and one I see repeatedly among young educators and communicators. They know that their position has changed from a theoretical position, but they haven’t made the transition to “expert” from “student”. They don’t quite realize that everything they say while on the museum floor is going to be approached by the visitor as gospel truth. They are “the authority” according to the people who walk through our doors.

To highlight this idea, I have to tell a story that one of my friends told me. When I first started at this museum, my friend Cel was in art school. Now Celia is truly a renaissance woman, who aside from being talented in art, is also an incredibly logical thinker and absorbs knowledge like a sponge. Unfortunately for her friends who don’t quite share that ability, she also has deadpan delivery of the most ridiculous statements down pat. While she was at art school she managed to convince several of her roommates that there were “giant, human-sized preying mantises” that lived in the sewers of New York. The evidence that she used to support this was that “her friend who worked in a museum” told her it was true.

This story is interesting from a couple points of view. First of all, the fact that she assumed that they would immediately know it was ridiculous because of course human-sized praying mantises couldn’t exist. Non-aquatic invertebrates just don’t get to that size! Those of us with even the smallest background in sciences generally take it for granted that people outside of the field will know these basic facts, when that is just not true. The second interesting idea is that they accepted that of course the girl who worked in a museum was a valid authority, not knowing anything about me. Heck, I could have been working at a modern art museum for all they knew.

I bring up that story because it’s one that has stuck with me since it was told to me. I have always had a tendency to use sarcasm and humor to get my point across. If I considered something a ridiculous question, then I would answer in kind*. Or if a question was out of my realm of knowledge, I would speculate based on half-remembered facts and concepts. I shudder now to look back at the things that 18 year old me told people because I didn’t know that there was a better answer. Things that those people might still believe and be telling others.

It took me years to be able to honestly say “I don’t know the answer to that question” gracefully and without embarrassment, and it’s the single biggest accomplishment in my ability to explain the intricacies of the world at a basic and intelligible level. It also took me years to be able to not assume that concepts that were basic to me (laws of superposition, natural selection, etc.) were not basic to people who had studied something other than a hard science, or to people who had spent their lives learning how to run a business or do a trade. However, that didn’t mean that they were dumb or not interested. It just meant that those ideas had never come up.

My current ability to explain at an effective level owes much to my ability to switch between a student role and a teacher role. In the student role I am a researcher, learning from other people and from the world itself. I’m always trying to expand my breadth of knowledge in order to be able to answer whatever question is thrown at me. In the teacher role, I am conscious that what I am saying may not be interpreted in the way I was saying it, and that making up something or using a silly answer to bunt a question so that I don’t look ignorant isn’t the most effective way to create a more knowledgeable population. Admitting ignorance and then giving them the tools to find the answer themselves will be much more effective in the long run.

My Public Education Toolkit

1. Explain things from a position of knowledge, but don’t go beyond that knowledge without checking your facts. If you can give someone an idea of where to look for an answer to their question, then you’re not failing them by saying “I don’t know.” In fact, you’re probably engaging them further in their own process of learning than you would if you just spouted out a fact.

2. Explain things at a basic level, but not in a way that is talking down at the visitor, particularly if you’re speaking to a group. One-on-one you have an opportunity to ask specific questions to find out their knowledge level. In a group, you don’t have that ability. My favorite method for this is to engage the children in the group in a Q and A. If you get them to explain things, then the adults feel good that their children are smart, plus they’re probably learning along with the kids.

Both Radiolab and Science Friday on public radio provide great examples of how to explain complicated concepts on a layperson-friendly level. Also, I’ve been repeatedly known to steal wholesale from Carl Zimmer’s explanations (with citation!) when talking to visitors. If you find an explanation that works, don’t be afraid to use it! Chances are, your visitors don’t read science blogs or popular science literature. And if they do, then they’ll recognize and be able to engage with you on that level!

3. Humor/sarcasm can be used, but it has to be used carefully. If you make a visitor feel bad about what they don’t know, then you’ve lost all ability to communicate with them. If you make them feel like they’re in on the joke, then you’ll probably be able to engage them on a more in-depth level, and they’ll probably go away from the discussion remembering the humor and therefore the concept.


*E.G.: to the question “You know how St. Peter said ‘and on this rock you will build my church?’ Well, I was wondering what kind of rock that was.” my instinctive answer was “Pumice. Because it’s holey”. However, the visitor was asking a serious, if misinformed on many levels, question. And by answering in a serious way, I might have helped him at least straighten out the question he was asking in a way that wouldn’t have happened if I had given the humorous answer.