Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Some Thoughts on ScienceOnline 2011

To indulge in a bit of cliche, it seems like yesterday that I was eagerly waiting for registration to open for ScienceOnline 2011. Then, before I knew what had happened, Glendon Mellow tweeted at me and I found myself a member of the Art and Science panel. Me! A panelist! At a conference!

And, as it tends to do on the back end of the calendar, time slipped by quicker than I imagined it would. Between the holidays, putting together applications for grad school, keeping up with this blog, and work, ScienceOnline was able to sneak up on me. I'll be leaving for Raleigh-Durham, NC, on Thursday morning, and the next four days will be chock full of science communication talk. I'm really excited, and will not allow my newb status to be a mark of shame. The reason I'm attending this conference, the first I'll have been to, is that I'm pretty comfortable in the belief that I've found the thing I'd like to do forever. How will I weasel my way into the professional science communication community? I'm not totally sure. I know that I want to continue writing and doing graphic design. I'm just not sure what percentage of my time they will each take up, and this conference is going to be a way to help me figure that out.

My main point with this post is to discuss the Art and Science discussion. Glendon has been a leading voice in the conversation over how the two pursuits influence and comment on each other, and until he invited me to join in, I didn't realize that I had been taking part in that converstaion in my own way. But looking back at LITC as it has evolved, I realize that much of what I write about has to do with the line between the two. Glendon approaches it from a fine art background. I approach it from a design background and lifelong love of illustration. My own ability as a draftsman is, to put it punningly, sketchy. But I've always been a visual thinker, and in the last three years I've brought my design skills up to a respectable level, and am committed to improving them further in school.

To be honest, I feel that I have poor reading comprehension. I won't go into that in too much detail, but when I think about those things I've read, bemoaning the way much of the content seems to have slipped through my memory like sand through a sieve, I find that I still retain striking visual impressions of what I read. Taking Richard Fortey's Trilobite for an example, I can virtually see the author in the unforgiving cold of Spitsbergen, the titular creatures buzzing through Ordovician seas in multitudes, and treacherous Beeny Cliff in Cornwall. I don't think I'm alone in this, though I hope I'm in the minority when it comes to retaining so little of what I read, and I think it's because we cannot help but take the abstractions of written language and translate them into something that might live in the sensual world we inhabit.

This is fascinating to me. I'm thinking about this a lot, and I hope I that I can articulate it in a meaningful way at the conference. Hell, if I can articulate a single worthwhile idea at the conference, I'll consider it a victory!
I'm also thinking about the difference between art and design. Certainly, both are methods of communicating. And though I don't consider myself an artist, I know that there is something artistic in the choices I make as a designer. There is some expression involved. But it's not as free as true artistic expression. It lives within smaller boundaries and depends on the mercy of multiple masters. Design infuses science communication at all levels, and having spent the last year and a half writing this blog and learning about how science is done, I believe I can make a contribution. Feel free to share your thoughts on science, design, and art below.
Sorry for the lack of dinosaurian content here, but the blog will probably be a little quiet for the next week. I'll post what I can while I'm at the conference (follow me @anatotitan on Twitter, as well as the hashtag #scio11), and I'll share my experiences next week.


  1. Good point about visual memory vs. word memory. The conference sounds exciting. Good luck!

  2. Best of luck with your panel, David. I have no doubts you'll articulate quite a bit! I'm just sorry I won't be there to hear it.

  3. David I've always found your blog to be representative of one of the most effective and important types of science communication: the "wow! neat-o!" type of communication.

    It's important because it's a gateway into larger scientific themes. By highlighting the fascination many people had in their childhood and can still tap into, you introduce modern concepts in paleontology and anatomy in your posts. It's entertaining and informative.

    Art and illustration are sometimes seen as the side-dish to science journalism and study - no, scratch that, they are sometimes seen as the garnish, not really important, but nice embellishments. The wow-factor in science is also sometimes regarded in a lesser role. But both are central to science.

    Maybe we can inspire some attendees to #scio11 to give both imagery and wow-factors their proper due.


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