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From solar cells to regional climate impacts, APS “Wiki Scientists” are making the science clearer, one page at a time.
By Cassidy Villeneuve | September 14, 2023
Credit: Werner Slocum / NREL
A farmer tills soil on a Colorado farm where research on agrivoltaics — growing crops under solar panels — takes place.
Boasting nearly 60 million pages and 18 billion monthly page views, Wikipedia is an information heavyweight, chock-full of what seems like everything. But look more closely, and the cracks show: Millions of pages have out-of-date or incomplete information, and many topics are missing entirely.
It’s up to the public to make edits — and since 2019, physicists have stepped up to the plate. APS has trained 110 members, from high schoolers to a Nobel Prize laureate, to improve Wikipedia’s coverage of physicists and their work, from scientist biographies to quantum computing. These newly minted editors have practiced science writing on a global stage.
Now, they’re filling gaps in content on climate change mitigation. For Allie Lau, a public engagement manager at APS, it made sense to focus a Wikipedia training on energy and climate science. “This is an area of importance to the Society and its members,” Lau says.
The virtual trainings — six so far — let participants connect across disciplines and countries. By adding up-to-date climate research to Wikipedia, APS “Wiki Scientists,” as they’re called, are helping to fill major gaps in public understanding, including those outlined below.
#1: Adding research on renewable energy technologies.
Nations are racing to invent, improve, and deploy technologies that slow or stop climate change. Technological progress happens quickly — and Morgaine Mandigo-Stoba, a physicist and Wiki Scientist, is trying to make sure Wikipedia keeps pace.
“Taking a topic that at its core is very technical, and making it useful and interesting to a broad audience like this, is a really fun challenge,” she says.
Mandigo-Stoba recently expanded the article on thin-film solar cells, adding an array of useful details — what the cells are made of and how they work, for example. She even included a diagram of her own design. The page now attracts 5,000 readers each month.
“One thing we talked about in the [Wiki-editing] course is that people can feel a lot of anxiety around taking action against climate change,” she says. “One way to alleviate that is to simply expose them to possible solutions. I hope that this page can help.”
The article is one of several on renewable energies that Wiki Scientists have improved, including pages on solar and wind energy production. One participant added to a page on wind power, detailing the physics at work; the page gets 25,000 readers per month.
#2: Connecting climate change to daily life.
Climate change is on Americans’ minds: 70% are alarmed, concerned, or cautious about it, according to recent research. But many struggle to understand the science and connect climate change with their own lives; even fewer know how to help.
This makes region-specific information vital. So when APS member Maggie Geppert stumbled on the Wikipedia page on climate change in Illinois, she immediately spotted issues, and a chance to help. “It was in bad shape,” Geppert. “It was a series of long quotes from a single source from 2016.”
Improving the page felt personal. “It’s about where I live,” she says. “My students will be able to read it and relate to the places and climate conditions it describes.”
She added all-new information, from projected climate change effects, like frequent flooding and harmful algal blooms, to current mitigation efforts in Illinois, like a job-training program for workers transitioning to renewable energy.
Current efforts felt like an especially important piece of the story. “[Climate change is] really, really big and really, really hard, but there are people who are willing to take action now,” says.
#3: Introducing the public to real scientists.
A Wikipedia biography recognizes a scientist in real time, boosting her credibility, changing stereotypes about what scientists look like, and building trust in research. This is especially important for scientists in politicized fields, like those who study climate.
By writing these biographies, Wiki Scientists put faces to climate research. For example, editors have updated profiles for Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Katharine Hayhoe, and Kate Marvel, showcasing their contributions for thousands of readers every day.
For many of these editors, getting started felt hard, but the work paid dividends. “Once you get over the fear of editing something which potentially will be read by many people, editing Wikipedia is not that difficult,” one APS Wiki Scientist noted. “And the benefit is that you are making real contributions to pages that are read by many.”
And the Wiki course is a chance to connect. “This class was an opportunity for me to mix with physicists in all different places around the world, at many different stages in their career,” Geppert says. “It was a lot of fun.”
Cassidy Villeneuve is a technical writer and climate interpreter based in Chicago.
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