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April 12, 2011

Wanted: multilingual scientists

I have been writing a lot lately about scientific images, their power of communication as a visual language, and their interactions with other languages, like the visual language of art. My mentor, Nick Christie-Blick, sent me a link from the National Science Foundation's website that made me think about this visual language, and the language that science employs overall, from a different perspective.

"Helping the Public Get Beyond a Blind Date With Science"

In this video, Alan Alda, M*A*S*H's Hawkeye Pierce and now professor at Stony Brook University, talks about some of the successes and failures of scientific communication beyond the scientific community. I have been exploring the development of professional scientific languages as key to the progress of science. Alda poignantly discusses how, in a world where profesional science is deeply imbedded in our everyday existence, a new language that merges complex scientific topics with clear, accessible diction is essential to bridge the gap between scientists and the public.

I think it is incredibly interesting that the technical languages, both written and visual, that professional science has created for itself may actually impede the future progress of science. Science needs money to progress, plain and simple. Scientists need to communicate effectively with non-scientists--particularly with politicians and other individuals involved in the allocation of money--the significance, worthiness, and fascinating nature of their work. As my previous readings have shown, social and cultural conditions and connections were crucial to the success of early scientific endeavors, and that fact has not changed in the many years since. Often, these social and cultural ties are averted, misunderstood as a biased presence in the "objective" world of science.

To simply avoid the ties of science to a broader society, however, is nonproductive. Alder expresses this so eloquently in his 25 minute talk on the NSF website, and I encourage anyone who reads this post to take 25 minutes and watch the clip. Whether a scientist or non-scientist, this talk has a powerful effect. It has certainly made me consider the social implications of my choice to become a scientist.

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