Archives for the month of: July, 2012

I exchanged a bit of banter on twitter a few months back about one of my favourite authors of children’s books, Pamela Allen. She’s lyrical, uses fantastic onomatopoeia, and creates her own simple coloured drawings. She’s also not afraid of tackling difficult subjects, like lonliness, the pain of love, the unwritten rules of friendship and imaginary monster friends.

After participating in the June edition of #onsci twitter chat around The Audit of Australian Science Engagement (#aussciaudit), I got thinking about Pamela again. Sometimes the best examples of science engagement work well without explicit reference to science. They’re just good stories. Many of Pamela’s tales are good examples.

In Mr Archimedes Bath, poor old Archimedes tries to work out which of his animal friends is causing his bath to overflow. In a ‘Eureka!’ moment mirroring that  experienced by the ancient Greek scholar by the same name, he realises that it’s the cumulative upwards movement of water with the addition of each bath-sharing creature which results in the water line reaching the top and then overflowing. Sounds trivial, but it was this discovery which purpurtedly led to a method for accurate measurement of the volume of irregular solid objects (see here to read more).

In Who Sank the Boat? and  Alexander’s Outing, water movement is also covered. This time, the crux of the story is based around whether items float or sink in water. Confusingly enough, this theme is covered in Archimedes Principle, which states that ‘the buoyant force is equal to the weight of the displaced water’. The details don’t matter – from the perspective of Pamela Allen, the points are that (1) there are only so many animals you can add to a small wooden boat before it will sink and (2) a wee little baby duck floats, and hence can be miraculously rescued from a deep, dark hole by the gradual addition of water.

Now, dipping and tipping, dipping and tipping, skipping and dripping, quacking and flapping, dripping and skipping, from the fountain to the hole and back again they danced.

Slowly the water rose….up and up and up…until….

Out popped Alexander like the cork out of a bottle.

[excerpt from Alexander’s Outing]

Moving on to another concept in science, Newton’s 2nd Law of Motion states: The acceleration of an object as produced by a net force is directly proportional to the magnitude of the net force, in the same direction as the net force, and inversely proportional to the mass of the object.

It’s a mouthful at the best of times, and darned hard for a kid to wrap his/her head around even as a teenager. Instead, imagine this; what if two friends spotted a delicious looking pear on the branch of a tree. The pear was so irresistible, they decided to grab it off the branch then and there. Darned thing was up too high though, so they got a ladder. Things went a bit wrong when one pal got stuck on the top rung, and ended up being flung through the air to land in a pond nearby.  Just how the physics of Newton’s 2nd law was applied to create a tale whereby the bird resident in that pond ended up delivering the pear into the hands of the two amigos is told in The Pear in the Pear Tree.

A final taste of science can be found in Brown Bread and Honey. While as adults we’re all well-aware of our increasing waistlines, and the ‘kilojoules in’ versus ‘kilojoules out’ rule for maintaining healthy body weight, it can be hard to teach children the message without it boiling down to the ugly mantra ‘if you eat too much, you will get fat!’. Instead, in this beautiful tale we see how the king’s friendship with the stable boy and his appreciation of a sandwich teaches him to love simple food and learn the pleasures of creating it himself.

Conclusion: if you’ve got a kid or two, or even if you don’t, do yourself a favour and get some Pamela. You’ll learn some science and not even know it.

[image taken from Brown Bread and Honey]


Last night I was lucky enough to be on a panel of experienced users of social media for the Australian Science Communicators SA event ‘Social Media for Science Communication’. Hosted by Heather Bray, also on the stage were Sarah Thomas, Mal Chia, Petra Dzurovcinova and Simon Divecha. An archive of twitter activity around the event is available here.

As a freelance science writer, I spoke about my use of twitter for live tweeting and hashtag chats, using storify as an archiving tool, and for connecting with others across Australia and internationally.

But now in the 24 hours subsequent to the event, I’ve had all sorts of thoughts on just how I could have presented the value of social media better to an audience of scientists and communicators some of whom appeared quite apprehensive about its real value. In particular, I’m not sure I managed to convey how much of an impact social media has on my daily thought processes.

The bottom line is that social media links me in with social and academic communities that would otherwise be beyond my reach as a solo operator.

Here are some details:

My office is at my family home.

Each weekday morning I leap out of bed before my children stir, and read the news. Not in printed form – I open my computer, and scroll through pickups of key-words (known as ‘hashtags’ – for example, #tdf for tweets on the Tour de France, #scio13 for those on the 2013 Science on the Web conference) I’ve set up in my social media dashboard HootSuite (Tweetdeck is also good). Tweets from @abcnews are also handy. Any links that look enticing, I open and read.

Within Hootsuite, I also operate my morning ‘water cooler’ conversations – I check the columns set up for public and private tweets directed straight at me, and pan lists of my most entertaining and tried-and-true twitter pals to see what they’re reading, sharing and creating. Some are scientists, many are not. If I catch someone online at the same time, sometimes we have real-time banter.

Around 6.30am, I’m on duty for porridge cooking, sandwich making, hair braiding, shoe finding and uniform ironing. From 8am to 9am, I’m chief of transport. Then I have a coffee and get on with work tasks  – current clients include The Robinson Institute, BioInnovation SA, COSMOS magazine and my former employer Bridge8. In between, I tackle the mountains of washing that breed in my laundry and think about what kind of bookshelves would really work on that wall in the living room which has been empty for 3 years. When I need fresh air, I run.

And I’m on twitter and Facebook constantly. I post links to what I’m reading. I post questions about who I can contact to help me write a story on specialist topics. I tell everyone I need new ankle boots. I whinge about my toddler’s tantrums.  I retweet cool stuff that others post – science , current affairs: anything well-written, really. I let people know about my latest piece of writing. I make coffee appointments with other science communicators. I tell Lance Armstrong that I love him.

From 2.45pm, I’m back on duty with my kids: talking through the ills of the day, overseeing homework, ferrying to and from sports and getting dinner on the go. Whilst flipping fish fillets, I usually check twitter and Facebook again, getting a feel for what my colleagues and friends have achieved and experienced that day. Evenings often include social media too, sometimes frivolous stuff but also the private Facebook group I’ve set up for our school’s Parents and Friends Association. It’s a fantastic way to add to the community experience of being in a school environment: we swap news and views, confirm times and dates for sporting occasions, double-check exactly which uniform the kids are supposed to wear on Friday.

About once a fortnight, I run away to a science event in the evenings, like Research Tuesdays at the University of Adelaide, or Sprigg Lectures at the SA Museum.

In reality then, I’m using social media intermittently for 12+ hours every working day. It informs me, it connects me, it markets me. That’s my take-home message.

[photo thanks to Heather Bray]

Tonight I’m thrilled to be a panel member for the Australian Science Communicators SA event ‘Social media in Science Communication’.

The event flier can be viewed by clicking on this link: Soc Med Sci Comm Jul ASCSA

Amongst other things, I’ll be referring to an article I wrote with Kristin Alford earlier this year: Social Media for Marketing Science

Hope to see you there!

[photo thanks to Marcella Bona on flickr]