26 July 2006

Vanity publishing goes mad?

There is an interesting article in The New York Times. "Technology Rewrites the Book" is about one-off book printing. So anyone can create their own professional looking productions.

This raises a couple of points for science writers. Should all those awards for science books start to specify a minimum print run for entries? Or is it perfectly acceptable to give an award to a book that no one has read? (Did someone mention Hawking's runaway success here? That was one of the great unread books of all time.)

More interesting to some of us, though, is the possibility of keeping books in print. Thirty years ago, I wrote a book on energy technology in the wake of the "crisis" of the 1970s. It sold reasonably well and even went into a reprint. But eventually it reached its "sell by" date and became of purely historic interest.

That book, like many written around the time, still has lessons for those fresh to the whole energy caper. Would it be a good idea to put the thing back on the market? Printing a copy at a time makes this much easier. First, though, I have to scan the thing to create all that text.

23 July 2006

How do you define a science writer?

The Science Writer Awards promoted by The Daily Telegraph and Bayer are an admirable attempt to raise the profile of science writing among young persons. But they send a funny message on the page where they offer "Advice from top science writers". The science writers are outnumbered by luminaries.

There are some honourable examples in there, but the idea that they consult the words of the CEO of Bayer in the UK/Ireland is puzzling. The Daily Telegraph probably realises as much as anyone that words appeared under the CEO's byline were probably the work of a paid writer who "ghosted" the text.

When it comes the the famous names, Professor Steve Jones has written more books than most. And Lord Martin Rees once confided to us that the easiest money he had ever made was an afternoon's work writing something for The Daily Mail, or maybe it was some other tabloid with money to throw around. But another writer in their list, Sir David King, can hardly claim to be a science writer. (A trade secret here, he certainly uses a professional writer to help to craft some of the words that appear under his name.) They don't even seem to feature their own famous science editor.

05 July 2006

Hot papers, cool media?

Sci-Bytes runs an interesting slot on "hot papers" in particular areas of science. The latest SCI-BITES: Hot Paper in Physics is "Universal intrinsic spin Hall effect," by Jairo Sinova and 5 others, Physical Review Letters, 91(12): 126603, published on 26 March 2004.

Now, this is hairy science. But when the rest of the scientific world thinks it is worth referring to, and often, it certainly looks like something that should interest science writers.

A search for "Universal intrinsic spin Hall effect" AND "Jairo Sinova" on Google found 270 hits. None of them, though, at a quick glance, looked like something written by a science writer. Maybe they did not put out a press release.

Searching for "spin Hall effect" AND "Jairo Sinova" turned up 864 hits. One was for a paper a bit later than the one most cited. That did make it into journals like Science. So the word is getting out.

There is an interesting research project here for one of the many students of science in the media. What is the link, if any, between how the scientific community rates a paper and the media coverage it garners? Maybe it is something I can do in my retirement.

02 July 2006

Scientists don't have time to communicate

It is a sign of the times when the Royal Society can write a press release that begins "A 'research driven' culture in British universities is a key barrier to scientists communicating their work with the public".

It isn't that long ago when uncommunicative scientists would have surprised no one. With a few wonderful exceptions – J B S Haldane still bearsreadingg – communication by researchers really only took off in the 1990s. This was thanks mostly to a report commissioned by the Royal Society (the famous Bodmer report) and the subsequent work of something called the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science.

COPUS brought the RS together with the Royal Institution and the British Association for the Advancement of Science to do all sorts of neat things. Before then they ignored one another, with only the BA doing much really "public".

Public Understanding of Science and Technology, far too condescending a label, gave way to Public Engagement in Science and Technology. (At least gave an acronym with some bite.) Such was the mood the times times that research councils even started to specify communication as a condition in the grants they awarded. Some actually set up programmes to pay people to expose themselves, and their science, in public.

The RS's press release is a trailer for a new report. (Be warned that the PDF file of this report is a dog's dinner – too big and hard to read thanks to some tricksy designer bollocks.) The report says that researchers have put communication on the back burner because of other pressures, such as churning our unreadable papers to justify their grants. (The release doesn't put it like that, but it is the best way to describe it.)

We haven't read the full report yet, so we'll stick with lifting another bit from the press release. It says that "45 per cent of respondents said that they would like to spend more time engaging with the non-specialist public about science. 74 per cent of those surveyed reported that they have taken part in at least one science communication or public engagement activity in the past 12 months."

Apart from the last bit being rather vague, and open to exaggeration by researchers wanting to prove their public credentials, this shows a massive change from those pre-COPUS days. It also shows why it was a good thing to shut down COPUS, or not to strive too hard to prevent its meltdown when that happened. The world has moved on. No need to tell scientists to communicate.

There is, though, if we are to believe the press release, a land mine buried in the report. It seems that the more highly rated the research group, the less likely they are to get into PEST.

Far be it for us to suggest that this raises questions about one of the shibboleths of academia, that you have to be great at research to be able to teach. You'd think that the same would apply to telling the public what you do.

01 July 2006

Flash in the PAN

Public awareness mania is spreading. We now have the EU banging on about something called the Public Awareness of Nuclear Science – shouldn't that be public engagement?

It doesn't seem to be about nuclear power so much as about nuclear physics.

"The objective of PANS (Public Awareness of Nuclear Science) was to establish a European-wide network for communicating information on positive achievements, techniques and diverse applications of nuclear physics to the general public."

The announcement is infuriatingly devoid of links to the stuff it writes about. So we had to go dig out a link for something called webSCS. Er, we failed. They don't mention it in the text, but perhaps they meant us to look at NUPEX.

"NUPEX is a free knowledge database on the Internet that offers teachers, pupils and students the opportunity to access information on nuclear science of excellent content and in outstanding form. NUPEX is maintained and monitored by experienced nuclear physicists in Europe. It is prepared in accordance with national teaching plans and the needs expressed by teachers."

Don't you love the bit about "excellent content and in outstanding form"? Not only does it read like a translation into English, it also begs the question. Shouldn't it be up to the reader to make those judgements?