Author Archives: Todd Hanson

Todd Hanson is an anthropologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory studying the practices, cultural landscapes, folklore, and material culture of contemporary and historic American physics.

The Five Scientist Pledge: Who are the scientists in your neighborhood?

Three weeks ago, on August 15 and the eve of Australia’s annual National Science Week, Australia’s Chief Scientist issued a challenge: by the end of that week he wanted everyone to know the names of at least five living Australian scientists. This did not mean just Nobel laureates or the historically famous, but five living Australian university professors, corporate researchers, or postgraduates—anyone professionally involved in scientific R&D. The Australians were challenged to get to know the scientists living among them, to learn who were the scientists living in their neighborhoods. Growing up in Wisconsin, the only bona-fide scientist I ever met as a child was an aging astronomer who had been recruited from nocturnal life to conduct visitor tours of Yerkes Observatory. Pale and phlegmatic, he was deeply passionate about celestial studies and our meeting would be influential in furthering my interest in astronomy. Strangely, I would not meet any more of these curious geniuses until college, where they then populating the various departments of biology, chemistry, geology, physics and the like. For my children, the story has been profoundly different. (read more...)

The Three-Minute Thesis in Science

In the world of business they call it the “elevator pitch”: a short, pithy speech that summarizes the unique aspects of a product or service to interest a potential customer or client. So named because it ideally lasts no longer than the span of an average elevator ride—which the management guru Tom Peters once considered to be two minutes—the purpose of the elevator pitch is to capture and hold someone’s attention in order to sell an idea quickly. Under Peters and others, the elevator pitch became a requisite part of 20th century business. In the world of science, where verbosity is a practiced, even revered, art, the need to capture and hold someone’s attention in order to quickly sell an idea has never seemed quite as necessary. Yet when taxpayer money is increasingly used to fund research, taxpayers generally expect scientists to communicate briefly the findings of that research in understandable terms. In this expectation, the ability to discuss one’s research succinctly in everyday language can be as equally artful. Enter the Three-Minute Thesis. (read more...)

The Rise of Citizen Science, Part II: Building Capacity

Earlier this month, I posted about how a principled approach to citizen science could help shape the field. In this second part, I look at one novel online project that’s helping citizen scientists connect both with each other and with scientific researchers and research teams that want (or need) their help. Thanks to a Pathways grant from the National Science Foundation, a web-based resource called SciStarter 2.0 is a global public science engagement tool in-the-making. While SciStarter 2.0 is now simply a website, it may someday be much more. I asked Darlene Cavalier, Professor of Practice at Arizona State University, and founder of the original SciStarter program, to tell me a bit about it. According to Cavalier, the NSF funding and recent move of SciStarter to ASU enabled the team to pivot from an initial emphasis on the web-based system as a project finder (helping people find science projects) toward providing more support for all participants by making it easier to find people (both fellow citizen scientists and/or researchers in need of their contributions) and to keep track of everyone’s contributions. Such an approach not only formalizes the process for finding and participating in science, but it also helps, says Cavalier, “to enhance, diversify, and validate a participant’s involvement in citizen science.” (read more...)

The Rise of Citizen Science, Part I: A Principled Approach

This is the first in a two-part series about the rise of citizen science, from CASTAC Contributing Editor Todd Hanson. When it comes to science, Albert Einstein was an amateur. Well, at least he was during the time he made his most groundbreaking contributions to physics. From 1902 to 1908, Einstein’s day job was that of an assistant patent examiner at the Swiss Federal Office for Intellectual Property. It was during these six years as an avocational scientist that he developed his theories that transformed physics. Working as what we would today call a “citizen scientist,” the four papers he published would become a foundation of modern physics. While Einstein’s case may be unique, a lesson from his life is that ignoring the contributions of those scientists and scholars unaffiliated with university or research institutions is done at society’s risk. The bifurcation of scientists into professional and amateur is a relatively recent and arbitrary occurrence. Several notable eighteenth and nineteenth century “gentlemen scientists” had no direct affiliation to corporate or public institutions, including Robert Boyle, Henry Cavendish, and Charles Darwin, and were not paid scientists, or even science professors, for much or even all of their lives–but were nonetheless immensely important in the history of science. Historically, the divide increased as professional scientists were generally better educated in their fields and paid positions in universities and, later, corporations increased. Still, the general public interest in scientific matters was strong and although amateurs were rarely welcomed into science’s inner circles, they continued to work unpaid, and mostly unacknowledged on scientific matters. (read more...)

From Cave to Rave: What Digital Technologies and Social Media Could Mean for Paleoanthropology

A month ago, global science news was abuzz with the addition of a new ancestor to our human family. The revelation of the discovery and recovery by paleoanthropologists of more than 1,500 hominid bones belonging to the new genus Homo naledi from a South African cave was momentous. And while the discovery may be of interest to CASTAC Blog readers simply as anthropological news, what I think makes it particularly germane to our ongoing colloquy is how the research was planned and conducted and how news of the discovery was disseminated by digital means. From FaceBook to Twitter, from digital imaging to scientific visualization, and from National Geographic to eLife, the pervasive use of digital technologies and social media in the project made possible the acceleration of an extraordinary scientific discovery that is already challenging established paleoanthropology dogma. The tale of how Homo naledi went from cave to rave is intriguing, but the story behind the story, of how the digital practices the researchers used stand to become the modus operandi for future projects, is even more so. (read more...)

Entertaining Science: A report from a colloquy at the intersection of science and entertainment

As you read this post, members of a community of like-minded scholars are unwinding after a weekend symposium at the UK’s University of Manchester. The symposium Stories About Science—Exploring Science Communication and Entertainment Media explored the intersections of science with entertainment from various disciplinary perspectives and as experienced by a diverse range of publics. Organized through the University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM), the SAS symposium was the brainchild of the Playing God Project of CHSTM’s Science and Entertainment Laboratory research group. So what, you may ask, does any of this have to do with CASTAC? Well, as an anthropologist invested in exploring ethnographically the cultural qualities of humanity’s intersections with science, I was interested in efforts by the symposium’s presenters, not unlike CASTAC’s own, to understand significant cultural aspects of science in contemporary society. Perhaps more intriguingly, I saw it as a potential opportunity to further our goal of fostering discussions between anthropologists and other STS scholars. To that end, I contacted several SAS symposiasts to get a sense of what they presented at SAS. Colloquy topics ran from explorations of gender for fictional television scientists to the ways legitimate scientists are presented in the media to the power of comics in science communication. (read more...)

Are You Singing of Science?

In January, researchers from National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan and Alpen-Adria-Universität in Austria published a study in the journal Public Understanding of Science exploring the use of science words as lyrical elements in popular Taiwanese mainstream music. The intent of the study was to understand better how non-scientists were using science terminology in creating pop music songs, and perhaps learn something about bridging social contexts by exploring aspects of the most fundamental element of science communication: words. The study examined the content and quantity of scientific terms and expressions distributed throughout mainstream music lyrics as a potential reflection of the presence of science into Taiwanese popular culture and life. Starting with a list of 4526 songs created between 1990 and 2012 generated from the Golden Melody Awards, Asia’s mainstream music awards, the authors then reduced the sample based on the “relation of lyrics to science/technology” criterion. A total of 377 songs were ultimately selected for analysis by a panel of three researchers from the fields of science communication, communication, and popular culture. They examined the lyrics looking for scientific and technological terms, scientific metaphors, and/or expressions of scientific implications, and then categorized them as scientific activity or products, scientific research subjects, or cultural idioms. In those 377 songs, the researchers found 858 science words or phrases. (read more...)

And the State of American’s Understanding of Science is…Not Bad

For me, Christmas sometimes comes twice a year. The release of the National Science Foundation’s biennial quantitative data report to Congress on the state of American science, engineering, and technology, The Science and Engineering Indicators (SEI), made 2014 one of those years. This year, the SEI has mostly good news about public attitudes and American’s understanding of science and technology. Good enough, I think, to merit sharing here. For starters, Americans seem to be getting a bit more science news in their lives. For example, the number of minutes of annual nightly weekday television newscast airtime devoted to science, space, and technology has averaged about 2% of broadcast network (ABC, CBS, and NBC) news between 2000 and 2012, but crept up above 3% in the most recently reported data. (read more...)