Letting science communication (and a cat) out of the box

This is the introduction to a talk I gave in Oslo last Friday, Sept. 12, 2014, at a conference on science communications. A video of the complete talk, including the more serious part, can be seen at this link. It’s the last two film segments on the page.

Thank you Unni for that very kind introduction. It was all true, even the parts that sounded like some weird movie that you would probably never recommend to your friends. My name is Russ Hodge and it’s a great pleasure to speak at this wonderful event. I’ve been to Oslo many times and always enjoy the trip to your beautiful city. I come here every year the first week of December to teach a course on presentations skills to molecular biologists. I don’t know how successful it is, but nobody has ever died during it, or even been seriously injured, and they keep inviting me back, so you may draw your own conclusions.

I couldn’t remember exactly how many times I have been to Oslo, so last night I sat down and tried to figure it out. I came the first time in 2007, and have come one time every year since, so I could apply this formula:

2014 –  2007 = 7

I use the same formula when somebody asks me how old I am. Here, of course, the calculation doesn’t work out; you have to add another trip to include both 2007 and 2008. Subtraction can be sneaky that way.

Now this is a biological problem (the migratory patterns of a human being, me), and I used a calculator on my computer to solve it. That makes it an example of bioinformatics. Everyone says bioinformatics is really hard, but I didn’t find it that bad at all. Of course it depends on the methods you use. For example, bioinformaticians sometimes use Markov models or Monte Carlo simulations, but those would have been a whole lot harder, especially since I don’t know what they are. So I just used basic subtraction. (By the way, I have to do the same thing when somebody asks me how old I am.)


Russ, puzzling over a problem in bioinformatics

Of course these results don’t have any statistical validity, so I added this:

(2014 –  2007) + 1 = 8    (p < 0.05)

I know even less about statistics than bioinformatics, but I do know that statisticans always put a p in there somewhere, and it’s always greater or lesser than some other number, so there you go. If you want to know more about this, we’ll be hearing later from a biostatistician, Jo Røslien, and I’m sure he’ll be glad to explain it to you.

Eight trips to Oslo, wow. There aren’t many places in the world I’ve been eight times. I’ve probably been home a few more times than that. If you ask my wife, she might not agree, but then, she’s not a bioinformatician.

When you’ve been to a place eight times you’re practically a native. That’s how I feel about Oslo. Of course, I don’t speak a single word of Norwegian, which makes me a strange sort of native. Sort of a foreign native. Still, Oslo has some surprises even for a native. For example, when I arrived yesterday, Oslo looked DIFFERENT. Was there more than one Oslo? Had I flown to the wrong one? It took me a while to figure out the problem, but I finally did: all my other trips have been in DECEMBER. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but it’s DARK in December. I arrive in Norway, get off the plane, and I just automatically say, “Would somebody please turn on the lights?”

In science, the hardest part of finding an answer is sometimes clearly identifying the problem, and that was certainly true in this case. Once I knew that Oslo was too bright, there was a simple solution – just put on some sunglasses.

So once again, thank you for inviting me to Oslo, where I feel like a native, but a special kind of native, who only comes out in the dark and has poor communication skills. Maybe a native Norwegian bioinformatician. Or a native Norwegian vampire. Or a native Norwegian bioinformatician vampire. If you have any of those in Norway, that’s exactly how I feel.

* * * *

Science communication is serious business, and I do have some serious things to say about it, and I promise I will. But one of the most important things I have to say about it is that we ought to have more FUN at it. I’ve been a professional science communicator for 17 years. It’s a great job, but sometimes it’s hard. You run up against a lot of walls. If you could see them coming, you could avoid them, but they’re sneaky, and they’re mostly invisible. You’re writing an article, or you’re talking to someone, and boom, you run against an invisible wall, and you go flying on your ass. Over and over again.

I’m going to talk quite a bit about invisible walls today. These walls are in the minds of scientists, and in the minds of science communicators, and in the minds of the people we’re trying to talk to. I’m going to talk about ways to make invisible walls visible, and what that means for science and science communication.

But first let me say that if you see somebody run along, and he bangs into an invisible wall and falls down, and then he gets up and starts running and it happens all over again, you’re probably going to laugh. It’s not so funny when it happens to yourself… Well, why not? Why not laugh at ourselves a little bit? So I decided to start a CRUSADE to make science communication more FUN.

Now the crusades of history involved huge armies of religious people setting out to take over a foreign country. I’m not religious, and my crusade is very small; in fact, there are no followers except for a few people who read my blog and may be seriously disturbed. But a lot of great ideas start small. That’s also true of bad ideas, I know. The trick is to tell the difference. How? Only time will tell. I’m still at the very beginning of my crusade, the early planning phase, sort of the grant application phase. For example, I haven’t picked which country this crusade will invade. Maybe Norway? We’ll see.

So today I’m going to talk about invisible walls, and making science communication fun, and hopefully say something useful along the way. We’ll see.

* * * *

Sometimes I think science communication is difficult because we’ve gotten ourselves into a box and we need to get out. This inspired the title of my talk, LETTING SCIENCE COMMUNICATION OUT OF THE BOX, in case you’ve forgotten. There’s also a CAT in the title, which you may also have forgotten, but that’s okay, I’ve just reminded you.

I’m sure most of you realize I’m alluding to a famous experiment proposed by the physicist Erwin Schrödinger. In fact, one of the speakers this afternoon, Chris Vøløy, is involved in a project called Schrödinger’s cat. Actually his project is called “Schrødingers katt” , which is Norwegian, so I might be translating it wrong. For all I know, in Norwegian this might mean “Einstein’s parrot.” Chris, are you here? Did I get this right?

Schrödinger’s cat is a THOUGHT experiment, which means the cat is an imaginary cat. Now if a biologist were to do an experiment with an imaginary animal, he’d face a challenge getting his paper published, but in physics you can get away with these things.

Nobody has ever done Schrödinger’s experiment, or if they have, they won’t tell you about it, because it would violate all kinds of regulations about the ethical treatment of animals. Okay, it’s a metaphorical cat, but even metaphorical animals deserve some respect.


Erwin Schrödinger and his cat

Schrödinger’s experiment also violates all kinds of rules of common sense (for example, the difficulty of getting a cat into a box). Again, in a thought experiment that doesn’t matter. For example, in a thought experiment I could be the King of Norway. Or the Queen of Norway.

Anyway, Schrödinger’s experiment with the cat is interesting for science communication because it’s unethical, illegal, probably impossible, and on top of that, NOBODY UNDERSTANDS WHAT IT MEANS. Well, it meant that Erwin Schrödinger didn’t like cats very much. But other than that nobody really understands it. And yet 79 years later here we are still talking about it. If that’s not successful science communication, I don’t know what is.

Basically the experiment involves locking up a cat in a steel box with one atom of a radioactive substance that would decay after a certain period. Now it’s a bit irritating that Schrödinger leaves some details of the experiment vague, and others he explains in great detail. For example, he doesn’t mention what type of atom you should pick, or how you capture only one atom, or how you know you’ve got the right one. Another detail he doesn’t explain is whether in this experiment, he is the King of Norway or not.

But he does go into detail about the placement of the atom in a Geiger counter. Once everything is in place, if the atom decays, “the counter tube discharges and through a relay releases a hammer that shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid.” In case you don’t know, that’s a particularly nasty type of poison. Anyway, you’re not supposed to look into the box. The question is this: At some point, the half-life of the radioactive substance, there is a 50 percent chance that the cat will be alive. Schrödinger doesn’t tell us what the probability is that the cat will be dead, but there’s a formula for this somewhere; you can find it on the Internet.

With all of this Schrödinger wanted to make a specific point. Schrödinger says that until somebody opens the box, the cat is in an indeterminate state. It’s not really alive and not really dead. Actually he puts it a different way, and if you ask me, it’s a pretty disgusting. He says, “The living and dead cat (pardon the expression) [will be] mixed or smeared out in equal parts.”

This is why I said it’s important to choose the right radioactive substance. If you have a substance that decays in one hour, that’s fine. But suppose you pick a substance that takes longer to decay, a lot longer. Maybe weeks or years. I don’t know if you’ve ever kept a cat in a box for a really long time, but I’m telling you, it smells bad. It smells bad whether the cat is dead or alive, but those are different kinds of bad smells. You’ll definitely know. And even if you don’t, the cat will know.

Now as I said, this is a thought experiment, so we don’t have to care that much about the methods, or the results, or the discussion. Today Schrödinger would never get this published, except on a blog, or in The Journal of Impossible, Ridiculous, and Pretty Disgusting Thought Experiments. Well, maybe not. I know the editors of that journal personally and they might not even publish it.

In fact, there is a group of people in California who are actually doing this experiment, or at least an experiment that’s pretty close. I’m sure you’ve heard of them. I’m talking about those companies that offer cryopreservation. You pay the company a lot of money and when you die, they will wrap you up in tin foil and freeze you. The idea is that in 100 or 200 years, or 1000 years, or a million years, scientists will be able to cure the disease that killed you. They’ll even be able to cure it after you’re dead, which is pretty wonderful.

This is supposing, of course, that in one million years the company will still exist, and that California will still exist, rather than sinking in an earthquake, and that in one million years there has never been a power blackout in California. Right. In a state that elected Arnold Schwarzenneger governor. Good luck. In fact, there have already been blackouts. You have to hope the company has some big batteries somewhere, with a lifetime somewhat longer than the battery on your laptop.

Anyway, if the electricity has stayed on all the time, and if somebody remembers the human popsicles stored in the freezer in the basement, and if science learns to cure cancer and Alzheimer’s disease and develops some sort of nanotechnology to repair the damage that being frozen for a million years causes to a human body, maybe those people will be revived. You can pop them into the microwave. But first remove the aluminum foil. You shouldn’t put aluminum foil into a microwave. I’ve tried, and the results are not pretty.

The frozen people will probably wake up in some sort of Star Trek universe, where there’s all kinds of new technology they have to learn. The iPhone one million point five. People who use Macs will have an advantage. I’m sure we’ll still have Macs in a million years. But we won’t have PCs. PCs will have become extinct, like dinosaurs, maybe because of an asteroid strike.

Well, until all that happens, those people in California are in a state like that of Schrödinger’s cat. Except for the part about being mixed or smeared out. That’s might happen if the electricity goes out. But if everything goes well for a million years, we hope they’ll be reasonably intact. It’s hard to say. They’ll probably be fatter – water swells a bit when it turns to ice – but they’ll have been transformed from a state of death to a state of life. So yes, I guess you can say that currently, those people are in an indeterminate state like Schrödinger’s imaginary cat.

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I am a science writer at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, author of fiction and popular science books, an artist, and a professional musician who performs on the viola da gamba and Medieval and Renaissance stringed instruments. I edit manuscripts of all types and teach the full range of scientific communication skills. I am doing theoretical work in this subject - see for example https://goodsciencewriting.wordpress.com/2018/03/11/ghosts-models-and-meaning-in-science/

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