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Spicing up the Science Section

Cremisi's picture

 This may be a little late, but I was lying in bed this morning thinking about the presentation of scientific theories and I was instantly reminded of the discussion we had in our small groups last Thursday. Though we spoke of a lot and wrapped everything up, a section we focused on was how we (well, the majority of us) would perhaps like science a bit more if it were presented in a more interesting way.

I once recall telling my friend Hayley that I was taking a class about skin here at BMC, and instantly I saw her eyes start to glaze over (I know this feeling--it happens to me when people begin to talk about mathematics). However, I tried, like the author of the book, "Skin: A Natural History" to present it in a more interesting way. I told her about melanocytes, freckles, and how lack of physical touch to the skin can create stress in mammals, and she found it intriguing all very interesting. Biology is the study of life (something we all share) so shouldn't it be interesting to everyone at some level? People often shy away from science because, truly, it is presented in such a dry and colorless manner. Who wants to read long lists of raw data and a stack of papers without a voice? The end result of biology is what I love--when it finally all comes together and brings new insight to the universe--everything else is just the pain you put up with to get there. 

We briefly discussed why science publications are so dry (they haven't just existed from the beginning of time; people have chosen the writing style and it is reinforced by the continued use of the style) and we came to the conclusion that they are so dry because more than anything, we want them to seem credible. We want to take out any possible subjectivity (even though taking out the "I" in writing doesn't mean the writer no longer exists) and be objective as possible. In the Plague, Rieux separates himself from the "narrator" so he can seem more objective in the end. However, in the end, Rieux is still the one who wrote it despite his desperate attempt for objectivity. In the end, even in our best and most noble attempts, all writing is going to be somewhat subjective as long as there is a writer coming up with the ideas. I myself have often felt a slight queeziness and unease in my stomach when I used the word "I" in my writing. It seems wrong--like no one in the entire world would believe just one voice. 


I started this post to eventually say however, that I think that though it is hard to present scientific data in a somewhat interesting way, it definitely can be done. Here is an excerpt from Nina Jablonski's 2006 book, "Skin:A Natural History":

it isn't good to take for granted something as important as skin. Take a moment and imagine the following scene. You're standing in the moist shadowy heat of an orchard in late afternoon of a summer's day. You are able to stand outside in comfort without overheating thanks to your skin's ability to regulate your body temperature and shield you from ultraviolet radiation. Only a few beads of sweat on your brow and upper lip betray the fact that your skin is working to keep you cool. As you flick away the fly that has tried to settle on your face, you don't give a thought to the way your skin is protecting you from microorganisms on the insect's feet and snout.

You have your eye on a peach, dangling from a branch above your head, and you want to pick it and eat it. As you reach up toward that lovely peach, you're distracted again by the fly and the back of your hand scrapes against the snag of an old branch. Thanks to your skin's fairly tough surface, the scrape isn't a problem. A welt starts to rise in a few minutes, but your skin is unbroken because its outermost layer is quite scuff‑resistant. You reach up again and the elastic properties of the skin on your arm and trunk allow you to stretch it effortlessly until on tiptoe you touch the peach. As you grasp the fruit, you squeeze it ever so slightly and register its subtle softness through the exquisitely sensitive pressure sensors in the skin of your fingertips. It is ripe. As you pull the peach off the tree, the temperature sensors in the skin of your hand let you appreciate its slight warmth. As you lower your arm, the stretched skin of your arm and trunk returns instantly to its resting shape. (Jablonski, page 9)

The great thing about this book is that the science isn't "dumbed-down" or popularized either. It's simply a perfect hybrid of biological concepts and literary beauty. Please read this book, It will change they way you approach any sort of future in biology. 




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