ScienceWriters meeting coverage  

What's science got to do with it? Thinking outside the lab

Physics can help NASCAR fans understand why their favorite racecar driver lost. Carbon-dating can help history buffs unearth forgeries. According to panelists at ScienceWriters 2008 held Oct. 24-28 in Palo Alto, Calif., it takes only a fresh eye to find applications of science in activities such as these and other everyday happenings.

 

Physics can help NASCAR fans understand why their favorite racecar driver lost. Carbon-dating can help history buffs unearth forgeries. According to panelists at ScienceWriters 2008 held Oct. 24-28 in Palo Alto, Calif., it takes only a fresh eye to find applications of science in activities such as these and other everyday happenings.

Showing science at work outside the lab allows writers to take science out of its ivory tower and make it meaningful for a wider audience, said a group of journalists led by K.C. Cole, journalist, author and professor in the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California. By digging deeply into the scientific dimension of ordinary activities and common questions, the panelists said, writers themselves can make new discoveries, educate nonscientists and broaden their writing opportunities.

Cole warned against "hardening of the categories" — the thinking that science belongs only on the pages of Scientific American. People who see the workings of science and nature everywhere can guide others to notice and understand what is right under their noses. It's a strategy Cole used when writing about entropy for the New York Times "Hers" column and for the Los Angeles Times by discussing what the discovery of the quark revealed about the OJ Simpson trial. Cross-fertilization between disciplines also fuels Cole's participation in cross-disciplinary workshops publicized at Categoricallynot.com

English major-turned science writer Jennifer Ouellette had an "epiphany about her geekdom" during a drive past a construction site, when she felt compelled to point out the self-organized criticality of an enormous crumbling sand pile. Her penchant for noticing science everywhere led to her book The Physics of the Buffyverse, which explores the physical science of the popular television show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." She also blogs about science in the commonplace for Cocktail Party Physics and Twisted Physics which is part of Discovery Channel. Her next book, Dangerous Curves, will address the underlying mathematical concepts behind playing craps in Las Vegas and other ordinary activities. With newspapers increasingly killing sections featuring basic science stories, finding fresh angles for a broader audience is a survival strategy, says Ouellette.

For Paul Preuss, a science-fiction novelist who is now a science writer for the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, an ordinary household item factored into one of his most successful press releases: "How duct tape will do anything except seal ducts." Preuss' passion for history and archaeology fueled his interest in carbon dating, neutron activation analysis and other scientific technologies. The key, he said, is finding "a new way of looking at things."

Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, a professor of physics at University of Texas at Dallas, focused her expertise on the vastly popular sport of stockcar racing in her book, The Physics of NASCAR: How to Make Steel + Gas + Rubber = Speed. While the top eight glossy science magazines have 17 million readers per month, Leslie-Pelecky notes that there are 75 million NASCAR fans in this country. She wants to serve more than the narrow scientific community and found venturing into stockcar racing to be a mind-opening anthropological excursion. "If you rely on things that have already been discovered, you're missing an opportunity to learn some big things," said Leslie-Pelecky. "Take a chance and go out and do something you'd never do, talk to people who do other things, and find out what's interesting about them."

When Adam Frank, professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester, wrote his book The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate, he wanted a new, more personal way to think about spirituality and to move beyond the debate of "evolution vs. scripture." To Frank, science reveals the sacred. "Microscopic pictures, equations and all types of science can be this extraordinary gateway to awe, not an antagonist to it," he said.

The panel agreed that to freshen your science writing, take a walk or go to a social place, and sharpen your observational skills. Look closely, and you'll discover tangible examples of abstract scientific theories.

Wendy Lyons Sunshine is a Texas-based freelancer who writes for Audubon, OnEarth, Sierra, Planning, D(allas) CEO, Worth, AARP The Magazine and other publications.