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Jay Dalal
  • Jay Dalal
  • South Ozone Park, NY
  • United States

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Why don't we treat science experiments like primetime TV?

Hodgkin and Huxley are credited with explaining the ionic mechanisms that underlie action potentials in neurons. Their experiment involved thrusting an electrode down the giant axon of a squid. They demonstrated their experimental methods on video, which can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/5vqscw There's something hypnotizing about watching meticulous lab preparation. On YouTube, the Hodgkin-Huxley squid video has over 14,000 views. I think it's reasonable to say that there are far more people today watching the video than there are people reading about the experimental method as described in their 1952 papers: http://tinyurl.com/ayta342

But low readership should be expected. Scientific papers are filled with jargon because they're written primarily for people who are an expert in the field. Videos, on the other hand, use visual language and can be appreciated by anyone.

When the findings of elaborate experiments have mass appeal, news sources may reduce the procedure and apparatus to only one paragraph. Imagine if news journalists supplemented their headlines about latest cancer-preventing diet with video footage of the experiment. I think the audience would be more critical, and some would be more likely to look for the original paper. Videos invite curiosity more effectively than text, and can inspire new uses for highly-specialized lab equipment.

But the biggest barrier to that ideal is intellectual property law. The Journal of Visual Experiments ( www.jove.com ) has an archive of high-quality, well-edited videos of research experiments, but the audience is limited to paying customers and institutions. Perhaps the distribution of such videos can be funded with web advertising alone.

The show "How it's Made" glorifies the manufacturing industry. Do you think footage and video editing of will similarly transform the public's perception of scientific research someday? If not, who or what is standing in its way?


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    Feb 23 2013: Jay,

    I think that science will never be able to reach primetime status. Think about the human population and the average intellect level. Science and experimentation (such as that of Hogdkin and Huxley) are things of high intellect. Most people in the world will not understand what is going on, leaving them to not care about the subject as a whole. Now think about primetime television. The stuff that makes it on the air is what satisfies 'most' of the people who watch TV. I would have to say that most of these people are simply uninterested in science. Obviously, discoveries such as that of Hogdkin and Huxley are important to the science world, but they stand much lower on the totem pole to the general public.

    As a side note, I love "How It's Made"... its Canadian producers know how to put on a good technical show that you wouldn't normally see on prime time TV.. and get viewers! I personally wish there were more science-based prime time shows, but I also understand why there is such a large void in that category.
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      Feb 23 2013: I agree that a highly scientific show would not be widely accepted by the TV-watching public.

      However I reject the idea that most people /cannot/ be interested in science. I believe that most children are curious about everything, but as they get older, they begin to think that they are not smart enough to understand science, or that science is for boring people and social outcasts.

      I guess that there are at least two questions raised by this discussion: How can we make the general public (especially the youth) more interested in performing scientific research? This is difficult because of the reputation that the field has.

      But also: How can we better communicate scientific experimentation methods to a wide scientific community?
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        Feb 24 2013: At the urban middle school where I taught, kids were typically very interested in science.It helps that science tends to be very inquiry/experiment based in school these days and that there is so much very public excitement around high profile discoveries.

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