Saturday, September 27, 2008

If it bleeds, it leads?

I was browsing around the science magazine websites this weekend, admiring this year’s winners of the International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge. The contest has a lofty purpose, laid out on its homepage at the National Science Foundation

Some of science’s most powerful statements are not made in words. From the diagrams of DaVinci to Rosalind Franklin’s x-rays, visualization of research has a long and literally illustrious history. To illustrate is to enlighten.

How many people would have heard of fractal geometry or the double helix or solar flares if they had been described solely in words? In a world where science literacy is dismayingly rare, illustrations provide the most immediate and influential connection between scientists and other citizens, and the best hope for nurturing popular interest. Indeed, they are now a necessity for public understanding of research developments.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) and Science created the International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge to celebrate that grand tradition—and to encourage its continued growth. The spirit of the competition is for communicating science, engineering and technology for education and journalistic purposes.
Well now, that’s pretty cool. And so are the images. You can see thumbnails at NSF, and nice big slideshows at National Geographic and msnbc.

I couldn’t help noticing how many of the stories announcing the winners led not with this 1st place photo of diatoms, called ‘The Glass Forest’…
Photo by Mario De Stefano, The Second University of Naples

...but with this honorable mention image of the a squid's fanged suckers, ‘Squid Suckers: The Little Monsters That Feed the Beast.’
Photo by Jessica D. Schiffman and Caroline L. Schauer, Drexel University
What is it about the scary side of science that is so much more appealing? Now that I think about it, I realize I’ve always loaded my earth and biological science courses with earthquakes and volcanoes, plagues and pestilence and things that go bump in the night. It’s an easy hook, but I wonder if it’s the best one. Is repeated reference to the violent and the flashy parts of biological processes simply a way to engage students so they pay some attention to the duller stuff? Or does making biology seem more like the latest video game than part of ordinary life distance them from understanding their real place in the natural world? By emphasizing nature red in tooth and claw, are we teaching science or presenting edutainment?

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