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  • 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 25 2013: Hey Jay,

    I think that a lot of the problem rests in disintrest. I recently found myself very frustrated when trying to show off a friends resume to a (clearly disinterested head-in-their-iphone) friend of mine. It wasn't that she didnt understand the engineering and inventing that went into his accomplishments, it was that, rather, she didnt feel as though the discovery/invention was useful, or even if it was, it was't available in the nearest shop!

    I know that if a TV series that documented the works of a lab would either fail, or the science would have to be secondary to the dramatic chaos that would be written into the lives of the cute college interns who help the scientists work.

    Finally, I want to encourage you, and raise your spirits! The new ever-growing discoveries are not lost onto the world. Perhaps not on TV, but on the internet I always see things on reddit, stumbleupon and facebook that discuss new achievements, inventions and ideas being worked on today. For instance, a facebook page (in)appropriately titled "i f***king love science" ("3,658,224 likes ยท 5,682,294 talking about this") posts graphics, links and articles about modern discoveries, as well as a weekly image summarizing the most important and relevant discoveries of the preceding week! If you dont mind the occasional f-bomb on your news feed, I definitely recommend subscribing to their page!
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      J D

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      Feb 26 2013: Hey, maybe there's some potential in mixing science with trashy reality tv. It sounds like some science exposure's better than zero, which is what I imagine too many people at home are seeing. We can take baby steps in the right direction if we don't forget the end goal :) Could this idea potentially mislead people, or can the scientific research and the people be independent?
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        Feb 26 2013: I would definitely be interested in something like that. It's funny, because I know certain people that even though they're not chef's themselves they are very interested in competitive cooking shows. Perhaps, a component of science can be turned into something like that.

        I agree with Avi, and as many commenters posted on this conversation- an entire documentation of a scientist's research might be too boring. Even for the most interested scientist! But as you mentioned in your prompt, maybe episodes/clips of scientific research can be edited to cut out all the boring stuff. That's a major reason why I enjoy being a part of this TED community so much. There is an extraordinary amount of videos that explain years of scientific research in a 5 minute clip and I really get to enjoy it that way.

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