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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 24 2013: Hey Jay!

    The footage of Hodgkin-Huxley and the squid experiment is wonderful; it's almost hypnotizing in its mundanity until you realize the weight of the experiment that they're conducting. In saying that, I think that there needs to be both: we need scientific papers to provide the background necessary to appreciate fully the research being conducted, but we also need a means of showing the research and its importance to the general public. In the comments below, somebody mentioned this being akin to Mythbusters, but in reality the portion of the general public that watches Mythbusters doesn't get a firmer grasp on the science involved in the experiments. Those that have a working knowledge of physics definitely appreciate it, but I have friends who are art majors, who have never taken a physics class in their life, and they LOVE the show. They don't understand the science, even after watching, but it is a program they enjoy. Still, how many people would still watch without the explosions and the personalities of the people on screen?

    I think the real problem is the level of science education expected of most people. In order for these videos to make a real difference, the scientific background just needs to be there. Maybe in the future we will have a more scientifically literate public, but in the meantime, I just don't think cool footage alone is enough to make people appreciate research in a significant way.
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      J D

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      Feb 25 2013: I see. So TV series need to have long-term interest in order to succeed. But there's a tradeoff between popularity and academic depth.

      Maybe we don't need to turn everyone into researchers then. I think that a real difference can be made if people simply became more skeptical of non-scientific sources of information.

      Maybe people don't need to be shown many different experiments to understand what goes into making a sound conclusion. A couple of very good, interesting, and thorough examples, in the form of a documentary movie?, are what people need to see.

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