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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 26 2013: i wish that were the way to go, but the fact is that real science these days i extremely boring - and i studied to be a biochemist! experiments in most fields are hours of repetition of putting different amounts of stuff in different vials and spinning them or heating them, and if you're lucky you might be able to conclude that yes substance X inhibits process Y! whoop-dee-doo?

    people need to have a background in science to understand what was behind the experiment, and appreciation for the field itself to understand why the experiment is worth doing, but even then the possible future applications of the result are usually unclear, and it will be decades before anything useful and even remotely interesting comes of it. even on this site the most popular video is not about science or even engineering, but the things a non-educator with no teaching experience whatsoever has to say about schools, probably because schools are familiar to almost all. think of all the hype the iphone generated, touchscreens are 60s science but everyone is amazed to have them in their phones.

    it's unfortunate, but science can't be packaged for mass-consumption in a way that doesn't stop it from being science.
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      Feb 26 2013: Hi Ben,

      I appreciate your comment about how scientific experiments by nature are very difficult to package in a way that will make people want to sit and watch. However, I do think there is potential in the presentation of advances in scientific methods. It could essentially be a knock-off of "How Things Work". I feel like perhaps that type of idea is what Jay had in mind when proposing this question. These kinds of videos could inspire people (particularly, the youth) and encourage further scientific innovation.

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