Breaking Rules and Writing Science

by Deb on November 22, 2011

Do you know the rules for blogging, or more broadly for internet culture, our new ADHD world? 3-500 words … don’t forget they’re reading on a phone … lots of images to drag them in … attention grabbing headline … controversy is good … but only if you want lots of one-off hits not long term readers.

It’s a trifle scary how well my posts fit the ‘rules’ because my audience is actually children. Technically yes it’s parents, but they’re written with the idea that they will be shared with little ones so I make them as easy to translate as possible. Don’t you find that scary? That maybe, our attention and reading abilities are becoming childlike?

Is it happening in other ways as well – are we becoming childlike in our demand for instant answers, constant stimulation, opinion rather than analysis, breadth rather than depth of thought? Are we becoming childlike in our quest for experience rather than reflection? And is this a bad thing?

I began writing this while returning from a trip to Sydney. I did some of the touristy things, but I spent a lot of time wandering around the Botanic Gardens. Getting there was interesting because of the number of joggers. I think it is fantastic the number of fit, healthy people there appear to be, using the gardens during their lunch hour and enjoying getting outside. But it did feel a little like I was trapped in an old fashioned video game or modern basic app, where the frog needs to jump across the road without being hit by any cars. Once in the gardens I sat on benches, under trees, and spent time watching birds, bats and butterflies. Just looking around me.

The evenings, the reason I was there, were devoted to science writing. Talking to science writers, hearing about science writers, listening to scientists talk about poetry and fiction, meeting journalists, and hearing a Nobel prize-winner being a self-described grumpy old man. But he is a grumpy old man with passion, as you would expect from a Nobel laureate, and a worried one.

And as I indulged myself, with thinking and reading and talking about prose and science and communication and reflection, I naturally thought about this blog. Because in my own, little way, I’m a science communicator.

My own little way.

The point of being in Sydney, the spur for all this reflection, is that I was included in a book. One of my posts from Science@home was selected for The Best Australian Science Writing 2011. I don’t say this to be congratulated, although of course they are gratefully accepted, but because it is the catalyst in my thinking. Until I travelled to Sydney and met the people involved and saw the book with my own eyes, began to read it for myself, it wasn’t real. The feeling of disbelief that my name is linked with Peter Doherty, Robyn Williams, Karl Kruszelnicki, Tim Flannery and Germaine Greer lingers. These are the names I grew up with, these are the books on my shelves, surely there’s been a mistake? Surely I don’t belong there, I’m only a blogger/teacher/aimed at children.

But I’ve concluded that disbelief is itself childish. It would be easy to keep pretending I’m playing around, enjoying a hobby. I may miss out on the satisfaction of saying yes, I wrote that and I’m proud of it, I do belong here, but it also allows me to sidestep the responsibility. The  sinking feeling that if I can do that, then I need to do my part to solve these problems I see before me.

And you know what? I’m ambitious. I don’t want to be another Stephen J. Gould, but I remember the wonder of his books. I know the joy of finding out why Darwin studied orchids or why we have five fingers. He introduced me to both the fascinating minutiae and the grand sweep of time and life itself. I want someone to look back and say, I remember Deb Hodgkin. She taught me that science was fun, and fascinating, and a part of everything we do. She helped me love it, and see that it’s vital in how we face the future. I’m in that book now, and no-one can take that achievement away from me. But I don’t want a one-off thrill. I want to be in the next book, and another, and then in my own. I need to keep that in mind, and make sure what I write is worthy of it.

But after all that reflecting, I don’t want to change Science@home. Talking to children, parents and teachers is what I set out to do. I enjoy doing it and I’m good at it. I think, and I need to keep reminding myself, it’s one of the most important things we can do – how can adults enjoy deep reflectiveness if they haven’t been shown the wonder as children? But extend it a little? That would be nice. To occasionally strike out beyond the laws of the internet and celebrate a detail in lengthy and voluptuous prose. Not to write science poetry, I don’t think I’ll inflict that on you, but to wallow in the poetry of science. To assume that my readers will either join me on my ramble or at least forgive me and check back tomorrow.

And who knows. Possibly you have a long ballet lesson to wait through, and reading this on your phone can help while away the time. Perhaps the lack of images will be kind to your bandwidth.

To practicalities.

I’ve said many times that I love doing the Kid’s Questions, because they are just as fascinating now I’m an adult. Frogs swallow by pushing down with their eyes. Doesn’t that send a shiver down your spine? The realisation that maybe you don’t know the things you take for granted quite as well as you thought you did? Who needs fictional aliens when there are flies with rainbow wings and animals that eat their siblings in utero right here with us?

So keep sending them in to me, and send in your Grown-Up Questions too. Or at least get ready for the occasional trip along the byways, which might not be so easy to explain to your kids but might help remind you of why you’re reading here – the fascination of science is for all ages, and even on the internet we can sometimes take time for depth of thought and mature reflection.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Krys - Baby Massage November 22, 2011 at 4:26 pm

Wow Deb, congratulations!
I love reading your stuff and to be honest, at the moment I need it ADHD style. With a toddler and preschooler filling in much of my day, I don’t get much time to read.
Of course, I’ll still read your longer works, it just might have to be done in shifts!
I’m glad your trip to Sydney has been inspiring.

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Veronica November 22, 2011 at 5:47 pm

Congratulations!!!!

And I’m glad you’re going to keep writing the way you do 🙂
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Deb November 22, 2011 at 5:54 pm

Is that a vote for short and sweet or occasionally rambly 😉

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Veronica November 22, 2011 at 6:00 pm

A bit of both 🙂
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Moira November 27, 2011 at 1:54 pm

Congratulations!
I’m a lurker online for the most part – there’s so much noise without significance already that I don’t want to add to it. That said, I’m commenting here because I think this s really important. My 2yo has a short attention span and that’s ok but I hate to think of her at 12 having the same span because of how information and entertainment are presented to her. I know when I was a student I read widely, including books that are now too tough for me to get through as my time and ability to concentrate has shrunk. Its harder to read longer pieces now and harder to pick out salient arguments and notice bias as I have become accustomed to skip around online.
Without the ability to concentrate, reflect and absorb it’s difficult to think in a mature way or to be truly creative. And both children and adults need that skill.
So yes, I vote for longer pieces too and will figure out babies and toddler to get time to read them.
Thanks for a great blog.

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