I’ve been sent a paper today to see if we can put out a press release for it. It’s fascinating and it touches on a famous philosophical problem. Does red really look red? This paper looks at plants from a bee’s eye view. That changes a few ways that you can see plants. They become bigger, relatively speaking, and connections between then differ because you can fly. Another way things change is that red flowers no longer look red. Bees see further into the UV spectrum than humans, but they can’t see the red part of the spectrum. So do they see black? Black is a good idea, and it’s the authors.
I’m not sure how helpful this is though. The paper isn’t musing on the nature of reality, its research into pollination by a specific type of bee. Does this observation explain why the research is novel, or does it distract from the interesting things the team has found. Fortunately this paper has a very accessible problem, so there won’t be a struggle to explain why the research is tackling a real problem.
We’ll also have some genomics papers coming up. They’re good too, but they’re difficult to talk about to a lay audience. For example when talking about genes how much information is being transferred? A common tactic is to say that N gigabytes of data are in a speck of DNA. It sounds good by realistically I don’t know how much information is in a Gigabyte. I know numerically, but I can’t usefully imagine it. I doesn’t help that I can look at two identical photos, one raw from the camera is 6MB and the other as a JPEG is 250K. Yet on my screen they look exactly the same.
An alternative is to consider information as the equivalent of books. I know what a typical novel is like so the information could be the equivalent of so many million books. The problem is can you really imagine a million books? A similar problem has been tackled by John Finnemore in Cabin Pressure where the characters attempt to imagine a hundred otters with the aid of their plane, GERTI.
Another problem is a matter of experience. Genetic Modification is often presented as a bit like copying and pasting a function from one computer program to another. This is true, but it overlooks our experience of computers. The aim of the analogy is to say there’s no danger, but we know computers crash on a regular basis. The function analogy is sensible, but it overlooks how we really use computers.
So today’s work is get excited about some new research (easy) and then try to explain why its exciting to someone who doesn’t care (more difficult). This has to be done in a way that shows quickly what the problem without any analogies distracting from the important part of the paper.
i know some researcher cringe at using analogies. Why can’t we let the research speak for itself? The answer is: how many members of the public have a background in plant sciences? It’s not about dumbing down. The people who are interested in this will be intelligent. It’s about giving these people a starting point to find out more about the research that’s going on.