Thanks to the rise of the internet and the growing trend toward research papers being made freely available, people can increasingly bypass these journalistic distortions and read the words of scientists for themselves.
It’s an idea that is attractive to some, but which fails to stand up to scrutiny. There are scientists who see the importance of getting their ideas across to those outside the scientific community and are good at it, but they are in the minority. Many academics spend most of their time around other people who know their field and as a result find it hard to express themselves in ways that non-experts understand. Research papers are generally aimed at those who know the subject already and are sometimes written in what can only be described as incomprehensible jargon. To the rest of us, many studies may as well be presented in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Even when research is written up in an understandable form, there is the issue of time. While most of us could get our heads around a few studies, there are subjects that would require the reading of dozens of papers to get a rounded picture. Someone seeking to educate themselves about the issues of the day – be it climate change, genetic testing or particle physics – would need a lot of spare time to do so if they only had access to learned journals.
As science advances, the new knowledge it generates is becoming ever more fascinating and, in some cases, crucial to our continued survival as a species. This makes it all the more vital that those in wider society are meaningfully engaged. So the task of presenting research findings and the issues around them in a clear, accurate and simplified form is important. It’s a job that requires a group of professionals who can get to grips quickly with the basics of lots of different fields, have contacts that can simplify the search for information and are interested in tracking subjects over time. Perhaps most importantly they must be able to convey the excitement of scientific discovery in an engaging and comprehensible way.
As science advances, the new knowledge it generates is becoming ever more fascinating
These are all skills that the five writers of The Eden Articles: Almost Everything You Wanted to Know About the Death of Comedy, Where Aliens Live and Other Matters of Import possess. Some call themselves journalists, while others among them do not. Yet they all have a track record of presenting science in the forms of television programmes, journalism and books for mainstream audiences. While they are more generally used to approaching these topics from a neutral and dispassionate perspective, for this eBook they were asked to argue their case about a subject they are interested in.
- Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock explains how space telescopes are providing an ever-more accurate picture of what is out there in space beyond the confines of Earth’s atmosphere, the solar system and in other galaxies. She believes that the chances of our planet being the only one to support life are statistically extremely remote, while raising questions about what form extra-terrestrial life might take and casting doubt on the likelihood of our making contact.
- Dr Adam Rutherford discusses the common accusation levelled at scientists that they are "playing God". The latest discipline the phrase has been used against is synthetic biology. Adam places the accusation in its historical context of critiques of other major scientific developments and argues that these things, not to mention everything from early farming to the development of childhood vaccines, are all just ways in which we manipulate our environment to improve our lives. If these things are to be defined as playing God then scientists should play on with pride, he argues.
- Dr Alice Roberts looks at how scientists are using new techniques and combining findings from multiple disciplines to shed light on the mystery of why so many species of large animals became extinct towards the end of the last Ice Age. Specifically, researchers are starting to tease out a deeper understanding of the relative roles of ancient humans and climate change. Alongside research indicating how our ancestors began to cause changes to the climate as many as 8,000 years ago, she argues that all the evidence suggests that modern humans should urgently take greater action to minimise our environmental impacts.
- Dr Kevin Fong places human space exploration into the wider context of historical human exploration to highlight patterns and lessons for future. He shows how the benefits of expeditions and missions have often been hidden until long after the pioneers set out, and how harnessing the ingenuity of commercial operators can improve efficiencies and lead to new and exciting knowledge.
- Ben Miller takes a different, more light-hearted approach to science communication, as befits his membership of the rare breed that is the astrophysicist-turned-comedian. His death on stage at a comedy club 20 years ago led to him to ponder the evolutionary role of humour. He sees lessons in comedy for the student of evolution and tracks trends in the historical evolution of the art. This leads Ben to predict that comedy will evolve out and die. But not for another 3,988 years.
The result of asking these five writers to give their views upon such a wide-ranging selection of topics is a pot pourri of fascinating insights, interesting predictions, provocative opinions and humorous observations. Taken together they help demonstrate that for the full potential of science to be realised, we need individuals from a broad spectrum of perspectives to bring the discovery of new scientific knowledge to life, and encourage greater interest, engagement and debate about it for the benefit of us all.