Here come the spiders: the importance of imagery

Imagery is a hugely important aspect of science communication. This is especially true when the language used to describe a scientific breakthrough is largely unfamiliar to a lay audience.

We remember images, generally, far better than we do words. Anyone can describe a scene from their favourite novel, but very few will remember the words. The image is what lasts.

Yesterday, the Daily Mail ran a story entitled “Meet the nano-spiders: The DNA robots that could one day be walking through your body”. Now, to me, the combined imagery of: (a) spiders, (b) robots, and (c) things inside my body equals a bad thing.

Actually, most of the science included in the article isn’t too bad, as long as you aren’t a biologist and you ignore the fact that the “spiders” in question only have four legs. It’s based on an article in the journal Nature , which you can find here if so inclined (Nature 465, 206–210).

The main point of the research is simply that they’ve made some very small structures which move around following a pre-determined track on a surface. The “spiders” carried out ” sequences of actions such as ‘start’, ‘follow’, ‘turn’ and ‘stop’” (Nature). It’s very, very basic in terms of robotic behaviour. If you look at the mechanics of it, it’s pretty cool that it can be done, but it’s a far cry from “armies of surgeon robots that could clean human arteries or build computer components.” (Mail)

The point I’m making is that, although it’s great that work like this is publicised, the linguistic and visual imagery vastly overpowers the actual science in the article. Just compare this picture:

to this one:

Robots of the future could operate at the nano-scale level

I don’t think I need to point out which one is from Nature and which one is from the Mail, nor which I think is more memorable. It makes it very hard to communicate real science when you have to fight this kind of image.

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3 Comments on “Here come the spiders: the importance of imagery”

  1. martywalpole Says:

    I’m learning a lot from you. You enthrall me James, really.

  2. That’s a truly terrible example of the enduring problem of appallingly misleading nanotechnology imagery. The problem, though, is that the picture editors who select these stock images don’t know any better – they just search their image library for something labelled nano-robot or nanobot and that’s what they find. We need to find some way of getting visually attractive but more realistic images out there – but it’s not easy. Ridiculing this sort of thing’s a good place to start, though!

  3. phdr Says:

    I agree: for the main part, the text does have a go at explaining how the devices work, but ignores the aims and possible applications stated in both papers (Turing-universal algorithmic behaviour, nanoscale production line that may allow synthesis of new chemical species).
    After explaining the DNA side of things, having to launch into the details of chemical production techniques could be seen as making the article hard going. Instead, it’s easier to pursue the idea that these things could be used to kill off bad cells or unblock blood clots – a context people are already familiar with from science fiction/grey goo.
    Papers in general should have faith in a reader’s ability to take in more than one idea at a time if it is explained well. If the science is presented well there’s no need to resort to cheap tricks (visually and in the text) to get someone’s attention .

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