When you’re a scientist, sometimes, you’re all scientists…

My housemate had a friend over last night. He was a physicist from Oxford uni.

Being of a sophisticated nature I asked what type “think-y or experiment-y?”

This got me thinking. When you’re talking to someone who doesn’t know what you do, and you say you’re a scientist, sometimes, you’re all scientists. At least to some people. And it’s worth keeping this in mind.

At least when you’re speaking to someone who isn’t familiar with science, or the different sciences. It’s not a bad thing, but you have to be careful not to mislead. If you’re really going to “be a scientist” then you need to let people know when you don’t know something, or how certain you are about something.

Specifically I’m a biochemist, but, for example my family and sometimes my friends, would ask me about black holes, lagrangian points, string theory, how deep is the ocean or, memorably from my 6 year old niece, “how much does the world weigh, and how do you find out?”.

The ability to simultaneously demonstrate wonder at something whilst making you realise how little you actually know is a unique gift possessed by young children that you seem to shed as you get older.

(I presume it’s related to their ability to immediately identify weak points and innocently ask devastating questions of people. Ones that make their parents eyes shoot open in sudden horror: “Why do your eyes look in different directions? How did you get that massive spot? Why is your face wonky?”*)

I digress.

Fortunately, I’m a massive science nerd, and can give a reasonable answer to most things people ask me, and, importantly, how sure I am about it, and encourage them to find out for themselves. The nerdism  helps me point them in the direction of where they could probably find out; someone on twitter, or a good blog etc.

One of my favorite scientists, Richard Feynman, once said:

“I have approximate answers and possible beliefs in different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and of many things I don’t know anything about, but I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.”

And I think this is the important thing to keep in mind, not just when you’re talking to someone about some kind of science, but especially when you’re writing about science. If you can communicate what was found, what it means, how it was found, how certain you are about this – without over doing it – , and the unknowns and let people enjoy realising they didn’t know something, finding something new out, you’re doing well.

Science writing shouldn’t be just “Hey! Check out this awesome new fact/thing we found out!”. That’s something different. Science is a process, and so, I think, you should always be careful to try to convey that too in science writing. Which is good, because it lends itself to a narrative.

Putting this narrative together is something some of my favourite science writers (Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer, among others) seem to do with ease. Thye are great story tellers.

Things change. Especially at the frontiers of science. Theories get updated, some stuff is just wrong, but was our best guess at the time. So if you put your words down too definitively you could end up looking foolish. But if you do it right, you can write a follow up piece, an update, and move the story along with your readers.

G

Oh, and my house-mates friend was a “think-y” physicist by the way. String theory.

*I should add, none of these questions apply to me…

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