Posted tagged ‘writing’

Thinking like a novice: the bottom up approach to explaining nano

March 2, 2010


I’ve gone back to square one. I’m a complete novice again.

I’ve said before that the way to explain science is to try to make a connection with your audience. This means two things; to be passionate, and to be responsive enough to adjust your own view to that of the audience, rather than the expert.

The problem with being on the expert’s side of the fence is that after a while some ideas can become so familiar we don’t even think about them any more, especially if we talk to other scientists on a day to day basis. So to think like a novice it’s necessary to smash apart what we know and put it all back together from scratch.

For example, take a simple statement about nanoscience, that the properties of materials change when made small enough. All you have to do to reach the beginner’s state of mind is to keep asking the simplest possible questions until you run out of answers. It doesn’t take long. (more…)

Future Jobs Report: Response from Rohit Talwar

February 12, 2010


Here’s a response from Rohit Talwar of Fast Future, to criticisms of their recent “Shape of Jobs to Come” report outlined in this blog, EvidenceMatters, HolfordWatch and Gimpy’s Blog. I have included the entire response unedited.

Personally, I don’t feel the main criticisms are adequately addressed. For example, he talks of “weak signals”, where there are few primary sources from which to draw information. However this is not the case  for the 20 jobs listed, where there is a huge amount of relevant information. Also, whether sources are referenced or not, copying and pasting text from websites is not “acceptable practice” in any field. Saying “we cannot accept responsibility for whether others have chosen to reprint material from the report without citing the original sources”, is not good enough, especially when these exerpts are used in the press release where no references are included.

Basing horizon scans on other horizon scans seems like a closed loop approach to me, cross referencing to give a mutual semblance of credibility. Anyway, I’ve made my case, over to Mr. Talwar.


Thank you for your note outlining your concerns regarding ‘The shape of jobs to come’ report. I think the best thing to do is to explain the methodology we used – which is common for horizon scanning projects of this nature. The methodology is also outlined in the report, which I believe you have. For convenience, I have also pasted the relevant methodology section of the report below.


No Small Matter: first ever 10minus9 book review

January 27, 2010


Just got hold of a copy of No Small Matter: Science on the Nanoscale by Frankel and Whitesides. Here’s my tuppence worth…

Seriously, this book is a work of art, and worth buying just to look at the pictures. It’s a nice concept, coupling some incredible conceptual photography with superbly written explanatory text, covering a wide range of subjects in bite-size chunks. It’s a coffee-table nano book. Great stuff.

Not putting a link to Amazon- go and to get your bookshop to get hold of it!

Why science writing is like sex

January 26, 2010


After last week’s depressing story, I wanted to write about something a bit more positive this time round. It’s about communication of science, and how attitude is everything.

Science is thought of as dull, but only because it’s often communicated in a dull way. As scientists, we’re trained to write in a particular way for the benefit of other scientists, but it doesn’t work if you try to use the same language with the lay public.

I want to talk about a different approach. Language is amazing. It lets you connect with people on a deep level, and share images and ideas and emotions. But language is a massive barrier if you use the wrong words the wrong way.

These are my three rules for science writing, and they have nothing to do with scientific knowledge or technical writing skill, but everything to do with attitude. (more…)

Toasters: “more deadly than sharks”

January 22, 2010


Just seen this on the Daily Mail website, under the terrifying headline “Killers in your kitchen: Gender-bending packaging, exploding floor cleaners and toasters more deadly than sharks…”

Various kitchen based items are rated on a danger scale from 1 to 5. Dishcloths come in at a deadly 4/5;

Damp dishcloths and sponges, left to fester for weeks on end, may contain several tens of thousands of individual micro-organisms per square inch.

In fact, a dirty damp dishcloth probably contains the highest concentration of pathogens anywhere in the house – including the inside of your toilet.

Wiping your surfaces with one of these feculent horrors will convert a clean and wholesome surface into something reminiscent of a Third World sewer.

Wow. Scary stuff. But don’t think antibacterial products will save you from domestic peril, they are rated at 3/5;

A huge market exists for the numerous ‘antibacterial’ products aimed at that obsessive segment of the population that sees germs lurking in every corner…

There are three problems here. First, triclosan itself has been linked to hormonal problems in animal tests.

Second, the one per cent of germs that survive the antibacterial onslaught are going to be tough little blighters, and within a few hours they will have divided and redivided and replaced other, feebler germs.

It also includes the classic statement;

There is no evidence that a properly used and undamaged microwave oven poses any health risk whatsoever.

but still gives Microwaves a paranoia rating of 4/5. Chip pans hold the title of ultimate mega deadly ninja killer, at 5/5. Yeah they can be pretty dangerous, but as dangerous as it’s possible to be? Only slightly more dangerous than a microwave? Personally I’d give this a rating of 5/5:

There’s an excellent documentary about this guy here

Yes, I can link this to nanotech! It’s about public perception of risk. If the science editor of the Daily Mail has such staggering inability to see that the reason more people die because of toasters than sharks is because vastly more people encounter toasters on a daily basis, how can he be expected to report rationally on the risks of something complex like nanotechnology?

Thanks to @EvidenceMatters for tweeting the Daily Mail story

Nanotechnology: What’s in a name? Part 1

January 15, 2010

Correction: It appears the term “nanotechnology” was first used by Norio Taniguchi in 1974, not Eric Drexler. However, Drexler certainly popularised the use of the word.


The soft machines blog this week brings up an old debate between opposing views of nanotechnology. To summarize, there is a small but influential number of scientists who believe that the true potential of nanotechnology lies in ultra miniaturisation of everyday manufacturing capabilities. For example, individual atoms or molecules moved and an assembled to build fantastic new materials and machines (known as molecular manufacturing).

This view was originally championed by Eric Drexler in his book Engines of Creation in the mid 80’s, where he coined the term nanotechnology to describe his ideas. The opposing view is that the properties of materials on the nanoscale, and the way these properties can be tuned for industrial applications, are of huge scientific interest and more immediate technological importance. The majority of nanoscience research falls into the second category, and many are skeptical about whether the first is even possible.

Both camps use the term nanotechnology, but they describe rather different things. The molecular manufacturing lobby argue that the term has been misappropriated by scientists in other fields, jumping onto the nanotech funding bandwagon and diverting money from molecular manufacturing research.

There are technical arguments between the two groups, which I’ll come to another time, but for now I’m interested in public perception. It’s impossible to enforce restrictions on the use of the term now. No matter how the word nanotechnology is defined in legal or technical terms, people will understand and use it in different ways; it’s the nature of language that no one person owns the word.

Isn’t it important, given the public and political interest in nanotechnology, that we know what we’re talking about?

To be continued…. In the meantime, here’s a video of a proposed scheme for molecular manufacturing

Updates, now every Tuesday and Friday

January 14, 2010

So that readers know when to check for updates, from now on I’ll be posting every Tuesday and Friday. I’m new to the blogging game, so feel free to send me your comments, suggestions, questions or abuse!


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