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Re: dressing eccentrically (intentionally) at science conferences :

I do recall Linda Sparke (Wisconsin astronomer) having spiky bright orange hair at some American Astronomical Society meetings. I suspect that some old grey bears waggled in disapproval about this, but I think that as the generation that grew up in the 70's, 80's, and 90's occupies more of academic fields, "eccentric" dress will be less of a stigma, at least in science. (In business, it probably always will be.)

It's funny looking at pictures of astronomers observing back in Hubble's day; they wore jackets and ties. Nowadays, observing runs are when I dress down the most. If you're gonna be up all night eating snacks and taking data, you need to be *comfortable*.


I recall a fellow wearing cargo pants and a T-shirt bearing a large cannabis-leaf logo at the Sixth International Conference on Complex Systems. Funnily enough, it was actually relevant to the subject of his talk, which was on the role endogenous cannabinoids (the ones which exist in your brain even if you don't inhale) play in the nervous system and other places.

With a leather jacket like yours, you should look for a photo-op alongside Neil Gaiman. It makes me think I need to get a leather jacket of my own before I can become a writer (of science or anything else). Two data points is enough to establish a theory, right?


The oddest bit of dress I can recall offhand from my physics career is from Japan, when I spent a week at the Super-Kamiokande neutrino detector. It's buried down in a mine beneath a mountain so that the rock overhead screens out radiation which are not neutrinos. When you're inside the mine, you naturally wear a hardhat, but because this is Japan, you take off your shoes and wear slippers.

Purple hair: good. Balloon analogy: bad. The universe isn't expanding into anything! Down with the balloon analogy!

Jennifer, your advice is very good. I already got the degrees and go to conferences.

Is Babe in the Universe entertaining enough to fit on a blogroll?

This should be required reading for every budding science journalist.

I suggest one more piece of advice: when possible, let the scientists you interviewed review the article. I don't mean that they have final word on the words, but they might catch a mistake in terminology or an unintended shade of meaning.

Hi Jen, lottsa fun tips as always.
Black leather in central park, eh
Do you skate too?

PS - This Jon, doesn't use the Plank constant,
didn't drop the h. Just never had one. lol!

Peter's correct in that it is often helpful to run drafts by the scientists involved. One of the trickest aspects is putting things into lay language while still using scientific terminology correctly; often there is a conflict, or a slight nuance that isn't quite right. (And sometimes you just have to choose, and note your choice accordingly.) When I wrote for INDUSTRIAL PHYSICIST magazine, I always did this. And I can verify that said scientists always focused on technical accuracy and almost never (with one notable exception) tried to change anything substantive just to make themselves look better. :)

The catch is that some of the major mainstream media publications frown on this practice. There is a middle ground: get a scientist in the same field who is NOT interviewed in the article to check out your drafts and make sure you didn't misunderstand something critical. Alternatively, I will sometimes send an email to the source in question, with the draft text of a given paragraph, for example. asking if this is accurate or not. Most editors don't mind if you do this... after all, nobody wants to actively disseminate wrong or misleading information... well, not usually.

Thank you for this insight into your profession. As an undergraduate physics student, I don't really have any idea how scientific journalism works. I had no idea journalists watched arXiv for stories. (and thank you even more for being someone else who thought "The Elegant Universe" became incomprehensible once it actually started dealing with strings)

Thanks so much for this. As an undergraduate I was, in fact, an English major and a physics major, and now I'm a graduate student in astronomy. I really, really miss writing the way I used to and I think eventually I'll have to do something about that!

One thought about the idea that most scientists think academic writing is "the only legitimate form." I'm not sure I believe that's completely true, but what I do think is true (as you point out in the case of Carl Sagan) is that tenure committees think that way. These institutions assign more legitimacy to research and publishing, less to classroom teaching, and even less to anything that involves engaging the public. I've noticed recently what a detrimental effect this has; our department has several new young faculty, who seem to be the type to be really excited about outreach but slightly more excited about, you know, keeping their jobs. Older, tenured faculty who may have the freedom to go back into outreach tend not to take this step. And who can blame them? After several years of behaving as obedient tenure-track nose-to-the-grindstone workers, who's going to be able to shave off several jaded years of life and start thinking about EPO again?

I haven't read "The Elegant Universe" yet; I had considered doing so to study how science popularization is done, if not to learn about strings, but now I figure I should probably read books at the same level in fields where I haven't had a formal education, so I can get the "full experience".

Anyhoo, the folks who hang out here might like to read Greg Egan's public letter "A Plea to Save 'New Scientist'", which is posted to The n-Category Cafe:

Quoting the first paragraph:

"New Scientist is a British-based publication where many thousands of lay people get their information on scientific matters, and (IMHO) it does an excellent job about 70% of the time. But the combination of a
sensationalist bent and a lack of basic knowledge by its writers (most obviously in physics) is rendering it unreliable often enough to constitute a real threat to the public understanding of science."

Hi Blake, a little unfair on The New Scientist. It's been going for a fair while, and covers many sciences among them 'physics'

Physicists themselves can't agree with each other on basic theoretical physics concepts. With more dogma & subsects in the world of theoretical physics than in any other major religion, and some extreme, fundamentalist, internicine rivalries & hatreds, it is not hard to find any general knowledge magazine speckled with a heavy doze of sensationalism, trashed by 'radical' and often themselves rather ill informed and self-deluded so called serious physicists.

Just because one has spent a lot of time trying to grasp one theory (communism, socialism, strings) does not make one better informed or more 'right' or even 'left' than another less informed observer.

Take medicine, where one day meat is good, the next bad, one day milk & dairy products are good the next day bad. Diets, pharmaceuticals, and even surgery try to hold true for every condition and every patient - yet medical knowledge, conditions, and treatment are in a continuos state of flux.

Incidentally so is 'particle' physics, even applied physics still brings forth new innovations how to turn (sun) light into energy, and so on ...

Nice job. There's a lot of good advice in "A Field Guide for Science Writers," sponsored by NASW.

I had a leg up in that both my parents worked in journalism and PR, so there was no off-putting magic to a first byline: I took it for granted from childhood that you could make a living that way. Also shifted from an all-but-complete undergraduate chemistry major to English, and finally comp.lit.

Analogy and metaphor: beyond the equations themselves, it's ALL analogy and metaphor. There's a whole literature on how the idea of force in physics grew from our kinesthetic experience, and every high-school physics teacher has gone through the explanation of why holding up a heavy weight isn't kinematic "work" even though it makes you tired. You can't avoid analogies -- but you can choose them carefully and deliberately, and warn readers about connotations that may be misleading.

Don't bury the lede.

Hmmm. Acronym finder says this means "live end dead end."

You forgot to mention the important science writing skill of being able to come up with pithy and original analogies for extremely large or extremely small numbers. I always appreciate the well-envisioned illustration of this in a science article. One of my favorites was the writer for Discover magazine who defined a femtosecond by telling me that if I could drive from New York to L.A. in one second, a femtosecond would only carry me a tiny fraction of the diameter of a human hair. But my all time favorite is the simple illustration of the size of one billion that I use in my elementary class: "A million seconds is about twelve days. A billion seconds is about 32 years." I never fail to see an appreciation for a billion being a BIG number dawn on some faces when I use that one.

Hello -

Just wanted to introduce myself as a biology undergrad who has finally decided to be a science writer. I have blue hair. :)

I hope to go through a graduate school science writing program, so far my experiences with science writing (The Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, and an award for students desiring to be science journalists through SFN to attend Neuroscience 2006) have been wonderful. (longest sentence ever)

Thank you for your insightful and informative post.

Lillian Steenblik

If you start some kind of support group for English majors turned science writers, count me in!

you are very Beautiful... =O

I once had Brian Greene as a guest on my show. He totally confused the host (I had to explain to her what he was talking about) but he talks a lot better than he writes.

Hi, Jennifer. (I met you in K.C. Cole's science writing class at USC this past fall.) Would you happen to have the title of the Roald Hoffman article on metaphor? The link above no longer works.



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    Physics Cocktails

    • Heavy G
      The perfect pick-me-up when gravity gets you down.
      2 oz Tequila
      2 oz Triple sec
      2 oz Rose's sweetened lime juice
      7-Up or Sprite
      Mix tequila, triple sec and lime juice in a shaker and pour into a margarita glass. (Salted rim and ice are optional.) Top off with 7-Up/Sprite and let the weight of the world lift off your shoulders.
    • Listening to the Drums of Feynman
      The perfect nightcap after a long day struggling with QED equations.
      1 oz dark rum
      1/2 oz light rum
      1 oz Tia Maria
      2 oz light cream
      Crushed ice
      1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
      In a shaker half-filled with ice, combine the dark and light rum, Tia Maria, and cream. Shake well. Strain into an old fashioned glass almost filled with crushed ice. Dust with the nutmeg, and serve. Bongos optional.
    • Combustible Edison
      Electrify your friends with amazing pyrotechnics!
      2 oz brandy
      1 oz Campari
      1 oz fresh lemon juice
      Combine Campari and lemon juice in shaker filled with cracked ice. Shake and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Heat brandy in chafing dish, then ignite and pour into glass. Cocktail Go BOOM! Plus, Fire = Pretty!
    • Hiroshima Bomber
      Dr. Strangelove's drink of choice.
      3/4 Triple sec
      1/4 oz Bailey's Irish Cream
      2-3 drops Grenadine
      Fill shot glass 3/4 with Triple Sec. Layer Bailey's on top. Drop Grenadine in center of shot; it should billow up like a mushroom cloud. Remember to "duck and cover."
    • Mad Scientist
      Any mad scientist will tell you that flames make drinking more fun. What good is science if no one gets hurt?
      1 oz Midori melon liqueur
      1-1/2 oz sour mix
      1 splash soda water
      151 proof rum
      Mix melon liqueur, sour mix and soda water with ice in shaker. Shake and strain into martini glass. Top with rum and ignite. Try to take over the world.
    • Laser Beam
      Warning: may result in amplified stimulated emission.
      1 oz Southern Comfort
      1/2 oz Amaretto
      1/2 oz sloe gin
      1/2 oz vodka
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      Combine all liquor in a full glass of ice. Shake well. Garnish with orange and cherry. Serve to attractive target of choice.
    • Quantum Theory
      Guaranteed to collapse your wave function:
      3/4 oz Rum
      1/2 oz Strega
      1/4 oz Grand Marnier
      2 oz Pineapple juice
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      Pour rum, strega and Grand Marnier into a collins glass. Add pineapple and fill with sweet and sour. Sip until all the day's super-positioned states disappear.
    • The Black Hole
      So called because after one of these, you have already passed the event horizon of inebriation.
      1 oz. Kahlua
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      .5 oz. Cointreau or Triple Sec
      .5 oz. dark rum
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      Pour into an old-fashioned glass over (scant) ice. Stir gently. Watch time slow.