Four homegrown science media projects worth checking out

By Peter Griffin 03/12/2015

The Science Communicator’s conference was held in Wellington earlier this week and saw a diverse and impressive range of presentations from New Zealand and Australian science communicators. 

I gave a session on the second day of the SCANZ conference showcasing four projects that involve scientists exploring innovative ways to communicate science. All of these projects are only really getting off the ground, so haven’t had much publicity. But they all have huge potential. Check them out and let me know in the comments what you think.

Sci21 is a project spearheaded by Professor Steve Pointing, Director of the Centre for Applied Ecology at AUT University. He set out to develop a series of online videos featuring scientists exploring some of the big issues of the twenty first century. The aim was to start off with 21 videos, which Steve is well on the way to completing.

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So far the videos have featured the likes of nanotechnologist Dr Michelle Dickinson, e-health expert Dr Duncan Babbage, molecular biologist Dr Heather Hendrickson and Professor Pointing himself on astrobiology. They are slickly produced videos featuring each scientist giving a piece to camera – sort of like a TEDtalk but shorter and less of a presentation. The production team developed a set for the background which can be flat-packed and transported should Steve wish to take Sci21 on the road.

The effort to date has so far been funded by Steve himself and AUT University, but Sci21 is intended as a cross-institutional platform that will feature experts from numerous New Zealand institutes – and scientists from other countries too.

A new feature, to be launched tomorrow, will also allow scientists to upload their own videos to be added to the Sci21 platform. These could bet simple 90 second videos shot on a smartphone, outlining a scientific concept. The idea is to have one hub where all of these types of videos can be accessed. Sci21 also has its now Youtube channel, so all the videos will be discoverable and playable there.

Jiwi’s Machines

Jiwi’s Machines takes inspiration from so-called Rube Goldberg machines, complicated contraptions created by the late American cartoonist and sculptor that perform simple tasks – like turning the page of your book. The idea is that using clever videos, integrating story-telling and humour, the science of how these machines work can be explored.

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Joseph Herscher, the New Zealand-born kinetic artist based in New York is the man behind Jiwi’s Machines. He has made some amazing chain reaction machines over the years and has teamed up with TV producer Gemma Gracewood and physicist Professor Richard Easther to bring them to life in the online series called Jiwi’s Machines.

The four-part series received $300,000 in funding from NZ on Air. Each highly-choreographed video is accompanied by a video outlining some of the scientific principles underpinning the physics of the contraptions.

In addition, the Jiwi’s Machines teamed up with MOTAT Museum in September to hold workshops allowing the public to get hands-on with the machines. The project has very high production values with the videos carefully crafted and well-thought out. The videos are available on Youtube and on the Jiwi’s Machines website. Gracewood says extra education materials are being written for Jiwi’s Machines at the moment, which will be ready for the new school year next year.


Gilda Kirkpatrick
Gilda Kirkpatrick

When Auckland “former” socialite Gilda Kirkpatrick came up with her idea for a children’s sci-fi comic book series, she wanted the project to contain some real science so teamed up with University of Auckland astrophysicists Dr J.J. Eldridge and Dr Nicholas Rattenbury to build science into the story-telling. The result is Astarons: Cosmic Guardians, the first volume in what is intended to be a series of comic books that follow the adventures of the eight Astarons – one for each planet, tackling everyday problems in space.

The creators explain:

As the story progresses, readers are introduced to additional characters and information such as dwarf planets, asteroids, supernovas, galaxies, black holes and many more interesting facts about astrophysics at a basic level.

The book was launched in September with a print run of 5,000 books – it sells for $24.99. It is accompanied by an interactive website that expands on aspects of the Astarons world. J.J. was one of the co-writers of the story and told SCANZ that the first book concludes with a cliffhanger that clears the way for another epic adventure in book 2. The project was funded by Kirkpatrick and published through her own company Gilda Kirkpatrick Publishing Ltd.

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Stupid Questions for Scientists

Finally, I previewed an upcoming project from Dr Michelle “Nanogirl” Dickinson, a science comedy podcast that will seek to pair up famous New Zealand comedians with scientists to hopefully create some hilarious yet informative programmes.

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Stupid Questions for Scientists will debut later this month and be hosted by the New Zealand Herald, building on Michelle’s position as science columnist in the Weekend Herald. Comedians already onboard include Matt Heath, Dai Henwood, Urzila Carlson and Jono and Ben sidekick Guy Williams. We only heard a promo clip for the podcast at SCANZ, not a clip from the podcast itself, so we’ll have to wait a couple of weeks to hear what the comedians and scientists came up with.

The podcasts are produced by Paul Spain who also videoed the recordings from multiple angles so hopefully full video of the shows will appear online soon too.

Science and comedy have proven to make a good combination, with the likes of the Infinite Monkey Cage, Professor Blastoff and even Neil de Grasse Tyson’s StarTalk winning fans over with their humorous take on science-related subjects.

My take

These are four very different projects that explore science in widely differing ways. A huge amount of energy, time and a fair bit of money has gone into them. The scientists involved are to be commended for the efforts they have put it – largely unpaid and on their own time. They all have the potential to succeed in their own right. But as I said at SCANZ, the science community needs to get behind these projects to give them the critical mass that will help them develop a following, then further sponsorship and hopefully longterm sustainability.

We haven’t yet seen the rise in New Zealand of a new-media science success story – along the lines of IFLS Science, Veritasium, Reddit Science or Science Friday. One or more of the projects listed above has the potential to achieve similar success – but getting eyeballs and ears is tough for new media start-up ventures. They need our support and partnerships with mainstream media outlets with existing audiences will be important too.

But it is heartening to see some of the innovation underway and the willingness of scientists to roll up their sleeves and work on these types of science communication projects.