July 2012



This is a guest post from one of our judges for the Chemistry World Science Communication Competition

50 years ago, while taking a gap year teaching in India, I used to write home to my parents every week (no email or mobiles then). In one letter, I asked my dad, a highly respected editor, how to write good English. He wrote back: ‘Use short sentences, and don’t start them with “It…”‘. I have followed this advice ruthlessly ever since, also applying it when editing texts of all kinds from various unfortunate authors, and it has served me well.

I have spent my entire career trying to make science accessible, and have found that short words and phrases help, as well as short sentences. So I tend to use ‘chose’ rather than ‘selected’ and ‘now’ rather than ‘at the present moment in time’ – just as William Tyndale, translating the Bible into English for the first time, used words of one syllable wherever he could: ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’.

And I try to avoid hype. Listening to commentary on recent tennis and cricket matches, I have been dismayed as shot after shot is described as ‘unbelievable’ or ‘incredible’. No; we have just seen them; they were brilliant, but not unbelievable.

So my advice is: keep the language simple. Using long words, excessive hype, and scientific jargon may make your text sound more important, but will always get in the way of understanding.

 

Adam Hart-Davis is a writer and broadcaster based in Devon, UK

 

Read Philip Ball’s competition blog post.

Find out about the Chemistry World Science Communication Competition and submit your entry here.

 

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athlete starting a raceOn your marks, get set, GO! With the Olympics just days away, Brian Clegg dons his speed-suit to take a quick dash through the chemistry of Lycra (also known as spandex in the US) in this week’s Chemistry in its element podcast.

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Archimedes’ principle does not work in the nanoworld. So say Roberto Piazza, from Milan Polytechnic in Italy, and his colleagues. The principle, a law of physics established 23 centuries ago, states that a body immersed in a fluid is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid it displaces, but, as Piazza has found, this does not hold for objects a millionth of a millimetre in size. (more…)

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ant with deetNobody likes having their holiday or picnic ruined by insect bites, but these are minor irritations compared to some of the diseases the biting blighters can pass on. Phil Robinson looks at the chemistry behind the widely used insect repellent DEET in this week’s Chemistry in its element podcast.

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This is a guest post from one of our judges for the Chemistry World Science Communication Competition

 

Communicating science, like any kind of journalism, typically has a formula. There are good reasons for this. Readers need to be able to get to the news very quickly, often in the first sentence and usually at least in the first paragraph. They also need to be told what is really new – not generalities such as ‘Researchers have developed an amazing new material/drug/device’, but what really distinguishes the new work from what has gone before – and most of all, why they should care. In attempting to get this right, I always try to repeat to myself the mantra that I learnt from the veteran science writer Tim Radford: ‘No one has to read this stuff.’ The trick is to make them want to read: not with false promises, hype, or sensationalism, but with smart, concise, and perhaps witty writing.

OK, so much for the formula. Rules are, of course, there to be broken – but only if you have a very good reason to do so. A rigid adherence to tradition can be the death of good writing. I don’t advocate gimmicks for their own sake, but there are doubtless more valid ways to grab a reader’s attention than with a first sentence that basically tells the whole story. You might want to use the first paragraph to describe a compelling first-hand scene or encounter, or to pose a tantalising question. To my mind, the winners of this competition might simply do a great job with the standard ‘news story’ template, or might surprise us with a totally new approach. Don’t feel obliged to do either – just think about what will make the piece work.

Be wary of words that strain for effect. Readers won’t necessarily believe that what you’re describing is ‘amazing’, ‘revolutionary’ or ‘gob-smacking’ just because you say it is. Words like this have to earn their place, and usually there are better alternatives anyway. When the writing is good, it doesn’t need to be pumped up with adjectives on steroids; in fact, they usually detract. At the same time, be wary of falling into science-speak. It’s easy enough to avoid obvious jargon, harder to steer clear of scientists’ habitual turns of phrase, such as the passive voice or comments such as ‘The crystal structure showed that…’. When things get a bit technical, it’s often best not to try to explain everything – the trick may be to persuade the reader that they know, rather than reminding them of what they don’t.

Of course, there’s no substitute for a good story. These aren’t easy to find, so take your time. It could be something surprising, or important, or fun, or perhaps even shocking or disturbing. Whatever the case, you have to be clear what the story is, which means being able to express it in a sentence. You might not use that sentence, but you have to be able to write it. Now have fun!

Philip Ball is a science writer based in London, UK

 

Find out about the Chemistry World Science Communication Competition and submit your entry here.

 

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Grotto or artwork?

They (whoever they are) say that moving house is one of the most stressful things you can do. But what about when you need to move a chemistry filled artwork and the entire installation needs to be moved from it’s original site in London to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, around 200 miles away?

The artwork in question is Seizure, a flat (or apartment for our transatlantic readers) encrusted in shimmering blue crystals of copper sulfate pentahydrate that Bibi first blogged about in 2009.That puts my attempts with dangling a string into a jam jar of copper sulfate solution on the kitchen windowsill to shame.

Although Seizure had remained in the block of flats since it was first made, the council estate that contained it was condemned and so for the artwork to be saved it had to be removed intact. Luckily for the removal men, the flat had already been encased in a watertight steel box back when the artwork was first made, to allow the copper sulfate solution to be safely poured into the flat without it then leaking everywhere. After cutting away from around it, the steel-encased flat has now been removed and will be set in the greenery of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park inside a new housing.

So, until I can take a trip up to see the artwork in its new home, did any of our readers go and see it in its original location? Let us know if you have any good pictures.

Laura Howes

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N2O tapFancy a giggle? Brian Clegg looks at the important – and frivolous –  uses of nitrous oxide in this week’s Chemistry in its element podcast.

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A member of RSC staff (and Chemistry World fan) recently suggested to me that it’s been 100 years since the idea of solar fuels was born. His evidence? A paper by Italian chemist Giacomo Luigi Ciamician published in Science on 27 September 1912. In it, Ciamician proposes how we might harness the enormous power of the Sun to produce fuels from plants:

‘Is it possible or, rather, is it conceivable that…the cultivation of plants may be so regulated as to make them produce abundantly such substances as can become sources of energy…? I believe that this is possible.’

Although he doesn’t use the term, Ciamician is clearly talking about biofuels:

‘…it seems quite possible that the production of organic matter may be largely increased… The harvest, dried by the sun, ought to be converted, in the most economical way, entirely into gaseous fuel…

And from there he goes on to describe artificial photosynthesis:

‘For our purposes the fundamental problem from the technical point of view is how to fix the solar energy through suitable photochemical reactions. To do this it would be sufficient to be able to imitate the assimilating processes of plants.’

The paper covers the use of sunlight to power the production of all kinds of useful compounds, not just fuels. But it’s this idea of capturing energy from the sun – deliberately and directly – to store in chemical form for later use that is arguably its most compelling. The idea falls within a generalised concept of solar power (or solar energy) but can be demarcated from making electricity directly from sunlight, as photovoltaic solar cells do.

And it’s a hot topic today. Earlier this year, the RSC published a report into solar fuels and artificial photosynthesis describing the rapid rate of progress in this area in recent years.

Indeed, the whole paper seems very prescient. Ciamician highlights a widespread and growing dependence on fossil fuels and questions how industry would cope with a sudden and unexpected price spike.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he makes a few false steps in his comments about biofuels:

‘There is no danger at all of using for industrial purposes land which should be devoted to raising foodstuffs. An approximate calculation shows that on the Earth there is plenty of land for both purposes, especially when the various cultivations are properly intensified and rationally adapted to the conditions of the soil and the climate.’

But to be fair there were fewer than two billion people on the planet back in 1912. Who could have predicted the impact of a four fold increase over the next 100 years?

In predicting how our rampant thirst for energy would lead us to the Sun, Ciamician seems to be peering into the future with remarkable clarity.

Andrew Turley

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Artist's impression of how arsenic life would look

The saga of arsenic life appears to be finally coming to a close. Two papers out in Science this week put under the microscope the claim that the bacterium could incorporate arsenic into its DNA in place of phosphorus. And the two teams found no evidence that the bacteria could make use of arsenic.

When the arsenic life story kicked off back in December 2010, it was big news. (You can read our coverage of it here, here and here.) The discovery by a Nasa team led by Felisa Wolfe-Simon that a bacterium could make use of an exotic element not normally used by life cracked open the door an inch to the idea that there could be life on more planets than ever thought possible. After all, if we could find bacteria thriving in the arsenic laced lakes of California, then surely they could be eking out a living on inhospitable planets.

However, some researchers were less than impressed with the science and they took to social media channels to register their concerns with the paper, with Nasa and with Science for letting the paper get through. The paper quickly became a serious headache for the journal, and in June 2011 they took the unusual step of publishing eight short critical responses to the original paper that caused all the controversy, followed by a defence from Wolfe-Simon. (more…)

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Over on the BBC Nature site is an amazing story explaining how the cold, desolate Antarctic, with poor quality soil, can play host to several species of moss and the reason is enough to get anyone with a slightly childish mind (including me) excited – frozen penguin poo.

Moss.

Arctic moss can grow into large beds despite the harsh environment

(more…)

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