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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 21 2013: Hi Jay,
    I have long wished that scientific papers could be more easily read and understood by the general public. I think your idea of videos being available for people to watch and learn from is a great idea. It would definitely capture more peoples’ attention if instead of reading about an experiment, they could see for themselves how it was done. I hadn’t heard of The Journal of Visual Experiments before but after visiting their website and only having access to a limited number of videos, I can certainly say I wish I could see more. I am not entirely familiar with the legal restrictions behind why these videos cannot be published, but I do think distribution of these videos would be good for the public. Shows like “How it’s Made” have given people an entirely new awareness about how the manufacturing process operates and I would love to see that kind of show be made about scientific research. I think there are a lot of people out there who would be curious enough to watch a show explaining to them the incredible discoveries being made every day. The potential problem I see is that not all research done is very visually stimulating. Much of it is very technical, analyzing data and performing calculations. If a show were to be made, it would have to focus on a broad variety of the most visually interesting experiments being done in order to hold peoples’ interests.
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      Feb 21 2013: One very popular television program around here that demonstrates how one can test hypotheses through ones own experiments is called Myth Busters. It is aimed at young people, but I expect it has a broader following.
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      Feb 22 2013: I see your point. A lot of science experiments involve reading a digital output, while the changes aren't physically visible in the setup.

      What would compel a person to watch a science experiment? The experiment, the discussion in the background, or the conclusion needs to be interesting. I think that there are still many examples that fulfill those requirements.
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      Feb 25 2013: Hi Neema,

      I agree that to attract the general non-scientific community with videos, the experiment has to be visually stimulating. However, having a visual documentation of a research/experiment is still valuable to scientists because they reveal information that may not be so obvious in papers or simply because it is easier to understand. The problem is, these scientific videos will not likely become popular enough to make it on TV. It is still worthwhile to videotape an experiment for a relatively small group of people though, given how inexpensive and easy videotaping is nowadays.

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