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J D
  • J D
  • 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,

    What a question! I'm glad you mentioned the online video format for science education and things. In fact, there is a whole Youtube science community (Veritasium, Periodic Videos, etc.) dedicated to these kinds of visual experiments. But this raises an interesting point that although television is one of the main communications mediums in the world today, I don't think it will always be so. So, it might be that scientific content might never reach the television. However, the television watchers might eventually reach the scientific content on the internet (the song "Video Killed the Radio Star" comes to mind).

    I love your concept, though. It's so important to make sure that people who have even a very low understanding of science (but have high interest) have access to short methods of conveying information that will help make the world smarter. Which is why I love TED-Ed, as well as Youtube channels such as SciShow among other things. So, maybe it's better for science to remain off of long-form media such as television?
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      J D

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      Feb 24 2013: I agree, it looks like we're moving towards more interactive ways of watching videos. And online streaming is an even better way to watch academic videos because it allows us to digest information at our own pace, rewind and rewatch, or pause and learn outside of the video.

      You touch on another important point: People are discouraged from learning whenever they can't find an answer to their question, especially an answer that they can understand. Information can be presented in a way that accommodates everyone, or in many ways designed for different levels of prior knowledge. Which is better?

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