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New Zealand on-line news outlet Stuff has elected to present a science section. Yay!

Some might even say ‘about time’.

In a modest promotional effort, they’ve offered the first of what are to be daily science pictures.

It’s great to see support voiced in the comments. (Sharp readers will notice I have given a heads-up to readers there about our forum.)

’Finally a blokes version of your ridiculous fashion section…’ says Peter (comment 10). Excellent sentiment, but I’ll oppose that science should be ‘for blokes’ – science is for everyone.

cyclonic-twist

Image Credit: NASA / Tony Landis

Tony (in comment 8) writes:

’Great stuff! Looking forward to reading it, but please, no editorials on what you think is right/wrong, harmful/beneficial, just pure science please! For example, I’d hate to read about how someone “thinks” WiFi radiation is bad…’

I’d like to think what Tony is after is that he wants substantive material, work based around evidence, not opinion pieces ‘pushing’ a writer’s viewpoint based on their ’thoughts’.[1]

Good on them for taking it up – go over and encourage them. I’d be happy to see your thoughts on what you’d like to read, too.

Shades of how long is a piece of string, I know, but Tony’s plea leads this writer to wondering, again, just what is it that readers would like to see as ‘general science’ on-line?[2]

This being one of those days[3] let me indulge in some ruminations on science writing as soul food of sorts.

Some newspaper articles on science are light, almost fluffy. I use that word because to my eyes many newspaper articles outside of straight news in New Zealand seem to aim to be fluffy. There’s nothing wrong with being engaging with a lively use of language, of course, but it’s frustrating when there proves to be little real content. This style sometimes strikes me as self-endulgent – the writer is certainly exercising their writerly nous… but sometimes (often) damn-all else.

It’s like watching an old-time comedy with where a pert, if dotty, housewife stereotype busies around dusting what is obviously an absolutely spotless shelf, the polished surface gleaming flawlessly in the stage lights. She’s bubbly and charming as hell, but not actually achieving a sodded thing other than being bubbly and charming for the sake of being bubbly and charming. Itself not a bad thing – in small doses. It’s just if the entire movie is like that, well… You get to a point where you think ’it’s very pretty, but… this is kind-of empty-headed’ (I don’t mean the gal’s character, which might be right, but the movie.)

The real craft of science writing,[4] to me, isn’t just about finding the latest good factoids or pictures. That’s fairly easy, if sometimes time-consuming: usually the factoid or picture is itself enough and the rest mostly padding. Science communication can be that, too, but to me it wants to be more.

The real meat is trying to bring the science to readers in an engaging way. That’s much harder. It demands understanding the background well enough to show what was behind that cool cyclonic twist on the Stuff website (shown above). This wants to go past the short press release material.

Image Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

Image Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

Or tell us what that testing of the James Webb Space Telescope shown (immediately above) is actually doing. Looking at the NASA caption, that big tank is a ’Space Environment Simulator vacuum chamber’ and the thing being lowered into it is Optical Telescope Element Simulator (OSIM). The Stuff website doesn’t point that what the tank is (nor does it link to the NASA site). There’s a story there. That’s a big vacuum chamber! What are the challenges making one that size? How cold do they make it and how do they make it that cold? Can they simulate rapid changes in temperature? Precisely what is the Optical Telescope Element Simulator? (I’m guessing it’s box of the same material as the external skin of the telescope with a bunch of recording gear in it – ?)

They’re great shots, but some might ask ’where’s the beef?’ What science are the pictures showing?

Without the background photographs are ‘science teasers’, teasers being short pitches used to draw readers in. Nothing wrong with the tease, but I like some food after I’ve seen the menu or those pick’n'choose photos some Asian restaurants have.

I like a mixture of styles and content type myself. I couldn’t name one particular thing that ‘is’ science writing, although I prefer that somewhere it has, or links to, more than the ‘surface’ veneer. I could better name what I don’t like to see in science material. (Hey, scientists are strong on criticism!) Stuff that‘s poorly researched or simply wrong. Writers whose material reveals that they don’t really understand how science actually works.

A brief skim suggests the articles on Stuff’s main science page are a good start, although the lack of links or other pointers to the original sources and follow-on material bothers me. Its sort-of a print-edition sin brought across to the on-line world, the unwillingness to spare a couple of lines at the bottom for sources. For on-line material, there’s no real excuse and it denies the curious to follow the story further directly from the page.

Update

Since writing the above I’ve wanted to offer a closer, more critical, look at what’s on offer but simply haven’t time. Readers here may want to read fellow sciblogger David Winter’s take on one of Stuff’s recent science offerings.

Footnotes

1. By way of example, I try when examining claims in media or on other websites, etc., to base what I offer around scientific literature and so on, rather than writing solely in the ‘I think that’ sense. It’s the evidence that matters on these things, not a writer’s ’instincts’.

2. Of course, I have a self-interested reason for asking this!

3. It’s been a frustrating day that has left me wondering about NZ internet services. First the IRD website was struggling, bailing out and not delivering content. (For many businesses GST returns are due today.) Later, Telecom’s SMTP server ‘decided’ to stop accepting out-going email. (At the time of writing [after 7pm] is still is not relaying out-going mail. For the moment I’m waiting it out.) I know it’s Monday, with all that comes with that, but businesses suffer when these sorts of things happen.

4. I’m not referring to the perennial science journalism v. science writing ‘debate’ here.


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