Phil Robinson


Earlier this month the 2013 Chemistry World science communication competition reached its conclusion. Now in its second year, the competition attracted around 100 entries from every corner of the world. The quality of the entries was outstanding and we are delighted that so many chose to take part and share their interpretations of openness in science. Thanks to everyone who submitted an entry.

We whittled the entries down to a shortlist of 10, and these finalists were invited along to the Royal Society of Chemistry’s London office, Burlington House, to attend a prize giving event organised by one of our sponsors (AkzoNobel). They were also asked to pitch their stories to the audience, which included members of the press, representatives of industry and a selection of academics.

I was one of the judges, along with some very illustrious names: Adam Hart Davis, Quentin Cooper, Lesley Yellowlees, Philip Ball, Samantha Tang, David Jakubovic (chair).

After much deliberation the decision was as follows: (more…)

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A chance to find your dream job?

More and more, we conduct our lives online. From shopping to socialising, there’s nary an activity that hasn’t been supplemented or supplanted by the electronic ether, and the internet is never far from our fingers.

Shortcuts through cyberspace make the world smaller, but some lament that this comes at the expense of conventional contact and communication, and in fact pushes us further apart.

Online job searching is perhaps one of the more innocuous, indeed welcome, invasions of life lived remotely. Most job hunts are likely to begin with offering up a few key strokes to a database and end with a fingers-crossed click to dispatch a payload of personal data. Your first encounter of the third kind with an alien employer will probably be a handshake on the day of your interview, should your digital demeanour persuade them to pause upon your CV. (more…)

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In a city frequently battered by the Gulf of Mexico’s windy progeny, one could be forgiven for thinking that a drink called ‘the Hurricane’ might be a bit tasteless. But it is in fact, a very tasty rum-based cocktail, and the classic drink of New Orleans, home of the ACS spring conference 2013.

(more…)

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Iron hexacyanoferrate gave artists the (Prussian) blues. And they loved it. Laura Howes paints a picture with (almost) a thousand words in this week’s Chemistry in its element podcast.

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With Martin Fleischmann’s passing on the 3 August, obituaries around the world have revived memories of his notorious association with the cold fusion debacle in the early 1990s. In a letter to Chemistry World, David Williams, a former colleague of Fleischmann’s, attempts to redress the balance, painting an affectionate picture of a brilliant electrochemist, and is careful to convey the importance of Fleischmann’s contributions to science, and his charismatic genius. Williams’ personal account of the episode that led to Fleischmann and Stanley Pons’ Utah press conference and their subsequent pillorying is enlightening.

Science is ruled by the laws of systematic, empirical investigation, where incremental advances and the gradual acquisition of knowledge are the status quo. Truly groundbreaking discoveries are few and far between (but there are just enough to keep our hopes alive). So when such announcements are made, they are of course greeted with the healthy and necessary corrective moderation of scepticism.

And mistakes do happen. Recent examples include the reconstruction of the oxo wall and the withdrawal of record proton conductivity claims. And the retraction watch blog is steadily ticking away, silently intoning its litany of errata.

But once its trust has been betrayed, the science community can be unforgiving, and a reputation damaged is hard to regain, long after the press has emptied the carcass and moved on. Undoubtedly, Fleischmann and Pons tragically mishandled their situation. But where science is ideal, objective and dispassionate, its practitioners are only human and – believer and sceptic alike – they are emotionally responsive. Witness Peter Higgs’ tears at CERN earlier this year. Or the attacks on Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s (now largely discredited) announcement of arsenic life. Or the hostility that followed Fleischmann back to England and sent Pons into isolation.

In his letter, Williams wonders if it was just a single piece of evidence that swayed Fleischmann’s decision to go public. How volatile is temperance in the heat of excitement. One can only imagine how unbearable the tension must have been; how irresistible the lure of proclaiming one’s success; and how crushing the defeat.

Those treacherous imposters triumph and disaster are courted at one’s peril. But it’s often too much for mere mortals to resist.

Philip Robinson

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Do you long to be a superpower? Do your friends on the world stage look down on your military strength? Does your lack of second strike capability make you feel inadequate? You need a nuclear deterrent. Better get yourself some uranium hexafluoride and 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

 

What you say in a piece of science communication matters. Get the facts wrong, and the communication fails. Focus on an obscure technicality and omit to say why it is relevant, and the reader will stop. The communication fails again. But what to say is just one small part of the communicator’s task. How to say it is just as important. A good science communicator needs to think about form as well as content.

Among other things, that means thinking about the precise words you use, not just in terms of their clarity but also for the overtones they carry. For instance, using militaristic metaphors – fighting, killing, waging war and so on – to talk about a natural process might help explain certain features of the process but it might also make it harder to introduce those aspects of the system that interact in a cooperative manner. Or calling the Higgs boson the ‘God particle’ might be seen as threatening religion when that is not your intention. And it’s not just the words you use that need careful thought. Even trivial things like inserting a paragraph break or replacing a semi-colon with a full stop can make a difference to how well your piece flows.

Paying close attention to form also means thinking about how to craft a story out of the topic you have chosen. Who are the main characters? How will you describe them? What are the key events that drive the story forward? The main characters will not necessarily be the most prominent scientists involved – they may not be scientists at all – and the key events of the story are likely to be different from the key points in an explanation of the science.

In audio and video, there are additional aspects of form to consider. For instance, where do you film someone – in an office, a lab, an outside space, their home? This decision will influence what the viewer thinks about this person. Even in audio pieces, it makes a difference whether you record in a studio (which can emphasise the authority of the speaker but sounds flat and sterile) or on location (which risks a confusion of sounds but adds colour and texture to the piece).

Thinking about form also means thinking about what is not said. Artists often talk about the importance of white space – shapes are made by what surrounds them as well as by what they contain. The same is true for all types of communication. By leaving some things out, what is left in takes on a different meaning than if it were contextualised by additional information.

Similarly, leaving in a silence in an audio piece can generate a moment of emotional intensity or give an edginess to the piece. In video, holding a shot for a few moments before cutting away can signal a contemplative mood. But for upbeat fast-moving topics, such effects may be out of place.

So form needs to match content. Pay attention to form, but the ultimate aim is to make the form of your communication seem so natural that it disappears from view. As Philip Ball says in his blog, don’t strain for effect. Don’t try so hard that it shows that you are trying. A good communicator thinks about form to ensure that the audience doesn’t.

 

Felicity Mellor is a senior lecturer in science communication at Imperial College London

 

You can also read Lesley Yellowlees‘, Adam Hart-Davis’ and Philip Ball’s tips on science writing.

And you can find out about the Chemistry World Science Communication Competition and submit your entry here.

 

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

 

Robert Winston recently said ‘If you cannot communicate science it may as well have not been carried out’. I rather agree.

Communicating science is important because, to paraphrase Alan Alda, science surrounds us. Alda’s ‘flame challenge’ recently illuminated the importance of communicating science by challenging Science readers to explain what a flame is to a class of 11-year-olds. Of course, it helps if you’re a famous actor, but both Alda and Winston make the same point: science cannot be separated from society. Each supports and improves the other. The problem is that science journalism is often outside the mainstream, appearing further down newslists than it we would otherwise like it to be, Higgs and Dolly the sheep-type stories excepted.

There are consequences to this. In the most recent Public Attitudes to Science survey, just over half of those who took part said they hear and see too little information about science. The research also highlighted the challenge of public engagement with science. The majority of people surveyed said they did not feel informed about science, and scientific research and developments.

And not every scientist is an excellent communicator – that’s where you can step in.

So how do you go about telling a science story? Well, try and imagine you’ve a good tale on your hands and you’re itching to tell someone – now imagine you’re face to face with that person and you’re telling them about it: the most important part of the story will naturally come out first, then the next and so on until you’ve got it all out. Your friend will no doubt have some questions – if they don’t, then well done, you’ve explained it perfectly. When you’re writing the story, follow the same format. Go back and read it again – ask yourself whether any questions remain unanswered. If so, get answering them. You can do this for an article or script: both need to convey the facts and detail without leaving people scratching their heads.

Let your enthusiasm for the story shine through the copy and remember you’re writing for a wide audience so avoid jargon that can be confusing to non-specialists. There will be times when a particularly long sentence is necessary and you have to cram as much detail in a single line as you possibly can, at which time bear in mind that using a shorter one to follow on is often the best way to balance the paragraph. Just like this one.

I’m looking forward to seeing your efforts.

Good luck.

Lesley Yellowlees is professor of chemistry at the University of Edinburgh and president of the RSC

 

You can also read Adam Hart-Davis’ and Philip Ball’s competition blog posts.

And you can find out about the Chemistry World Science Communication Competition and submit your entry here.

 

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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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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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