Communicating Science Precisely and Accurately

Newton's cradle pendulums swinging back and forth over a copy of Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica.  Image credit: DemonDeLuxe (CC-BY-SA).
Newton’s cradle pendulums swinging back and forth over a copy of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica. Image credit: DemonDeLuxe (CC-BY-SA).

Recently when I was volunteering at my local science museum, I was leading activities on resonance. I had tuning forks, tuned plastic pipes, and a series of pendula with differing lengths on an arm rotated by a much heavier pendulum. The main idea was that when the frequencies of two pendula or a tuning fork and tuned pipe match, then the energy from one could be transferred into the other, making it oscillate. When you hold a tuning fork up to a resonant cavity, and the cavity will sound. Similarly with my pendula, if the pendulum driving the rotating arm is swinging at the same frequency as the natural frequency of one of the pendulua coupled to it, that pendulum will swing too. Other pendula with faster or slower oscillations will be relatively unaffected.

In the course of talking with visitors, I was reminded of a constant challenge for science communication: being precise, accurate, and accessible. Scientific language is often used to convey precisely the conditions or idea in question. And yet, sometimes a more colloquial meaning of a word is understandable. As I was talking about how quickly this pendulum oscillated, and how slowly that one oscillated, it was difficult to maintain a clear, concise distinction between speed (distance/time) and frequency (1/time). It isn’t about the speed with which the pendulum moves, nor is it about how high (how large the amplitude of motion is) the pendulum swings. But frequency isn’t necessarily a word that visitors understand in distinction with a colloquial version of “speed”.

Next week will be a big week for science communication, and you should keep an eye on the science news. The American Geophysical Union (AGU) is having its 2015 Fall Meeting, which is a gathering of more than 20,000 scientists in San Francisco. There will be lots of new results presented, many of them esoteric or incremental, but others will be quite accessible and groundbreaking. Many science journalists will be on hand covering the proceedings, and most of them do an excellent job.

However, there are a few headlines to watch out for. “Water found on Mars!” is a fairly common one, although the announcements, if you investigate a little more deeply, are indeed new when coupled with the precise situation. This past summer, the big announcement of water on Mars was in fact new: liquid water, at the surface, presently. Another headline to watch out for is “[volcano] ready to erupt!” Yes, many volcanoes have magma chambers under them, which may or may not be larger than previously thought. However, most of the time, the magma chambers underneath the volcanoes are actually much more solid/mushy than reports make them out to be.

If you’re interested in following along, I’d recommend reading the AGU blogs, as well as Erik Klemetti’s Eruptions blog. Twitter will also be very busy using the hashtag #AGU15.