Tickling Bubba’s Curiosity By Merek Siu
Ed. Note: Each year APS sponsors two mass media fellows as part of a program run by the AAAS. Typically graduate students in physics or a related field, they spend eight weeks working for a mass media outlet, learning how to communicate science to the public. APS mass media fellow Merek Siu spent his summer at The Sacramento Bee, while Erika Gebel spent the summer at the Philadelphia Inquirer. This month Merek Siu tells our readers a bit about his experiences.
Bubba–the Sacramento everyman–has just returned from work, cracked open a beer, and is about to devote fifteen minutes to the paper. He’s the guy I need to lure into my article on the direct detection of dark matter. A picture planted in my head by my editor, Bubba anchored me as I struggled to explain why he should care about something that can’t even be seen.
Writing science for the public is not a matter of “dumbing it down.” Rather, it’s about translation–grasping the essence of the science, while not butchering it in the process.
This is the key lesson I took away from my eight weeks at The Sacramento Bee as a AAAS Mass Media Fellow sponsored by the APS. Chances are Bubba’s taxes are paying for the research. If I can tell him why people are doing the research they’re doing, perhaps he can understand the value of his investment. I might even tickle his curiosity…
The newsroom is a far cry from the bench–it’s “real work” with cubicles, telephones, and business cards to boot. Rather than pipetting DNA and aligning lasers, research consisted of following your nose to experts in the field and exploiting the surprisingly effective “I’m a reporter” card. Instead of spending years on the same project, I experienced the taster’s delight of sampling the fruits of innumerable graduate-student hours of research in few-day bites. For the science aficionado, it’s the ultimate in instant gratification.
And then there’s the great challenge of taking a scientific concept, experiment or idea and making it vividly understandable, yet true.
This delicate balance was highlighted by a gem tossed out by a prominent science journalist at the wrap-up meeting following the fellowship: If your stories make the scientists happy, then you’re not doing your job.
As a PhD candidate in Biophysics waltzing into the newsroom, I’d like to think that I didn’t leave behind a trail of cringing, disenchanted scientists in my wake.
Vanity aside, my fellowship gave me some valuable insight into the tightrope that science writers must walk. How does one balance the rigor demanded by scientists with making the science understandable to the reader? Is the science writer’s goal to simply pass on the news or to educate?
I don’t have great answers to these questions. But I now have a broader context to frame these questions, and I keep them in the back of my head when I write. So I think I’m off to a good start… My scientific research experience has taught me that asking the right questions is one of the hardest skills to learn.
My short time at The Sacramento Bee was delightful. Despite being in a medium-sized regional newspaper without a science section, I was given the freedom to tackle hard science while minimizing my contribution to science-lite pieces. I learned about a large variety of topics ranging from four million year old extinct viruses, to the world’s largest particle accelerator buried 300 feet under the Swiss-French border. Hopefully Bubba learned a little as well.