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Spring 2004

Talking Science

Splats: a Skeleton Key to Science

Science writer PETER MACINNIS embarked upon a project to encapsulate in plain language the key notions of science, happened upon splats and created an electronic science resource with more than a million words of linked text. Peter is still asking himself if some day splats will make a book.

Science curricula come and go, even though the principles of science are constant. Classroom teachers frequently find themselves struggling with new syllabuses, and as they struggle, they lose sight of the basic principles. Without grounding in those principles, students commonly find science counter-intuitive. Meanwhile, those trying to write for the writhing, revolving curricula are reduced to a desperate chase to keep up with the latest fads.

Science writing for the long haul

Every few years, educational leaders change, and the newcomers need to mark out their territory. Sometimes they introduce a new fad, mostly they just dredge up an old fad, with a new name and a different emphasis. Science education is always changing, even though science itself does not seem to go through the same rapid cycles.

As a science writer, I try to make science accessible to ordinary readers, in and out of school. I do this as the science journalist for an online encyclopedia, and in writing books for the general market, living and playing on both sides of the chasm dividing print and electronic media. My books take one theme and develop it, but my electronic writing aims to outline a new piece of science in an essay no longer than this article. The differences between print and electronic media run deeper than that, though, because they involve differing forms of access.

In either medium, I cannot target curricula directly, because the new science I describe isn’t in any curriculum yet. It will be, one day, and pro-active teachers can use the new science now to illustrate ideas that are already a part of the curriculum. I hope that when the new science enters the curriculum in a decade or three, my interviews with the originators, and my explanations of what they did and why, will be waiting. I cannot predict what the curriculum will be then, so I need to write for the eternal verities, as far as I can pin them down.

A year back, I decided to make a list of the key notions of science, to put some direction in my writing. Arbitrarily, I decided to set each proposition down in no more than 160 characters. In one or two sentences, about 30 words, I would expound something that all scientists take for granted, and I would do it again and again. Then, I thought, I would have a sturdy framework, within which to write, for any medium.

As I worked on the list, I came to see these written on colourful cardboard, so they could be stuck on lab walls. Onomatopoeically, I dubbed them ‘splats’, and later I back-created an acronym for the project: ‘Science Principles, Laws, Assumptions, Theories and Something’ (I still have to get the best final word). In its latest form, there are now some 2500 splats, covering all of the main guiding principles, big ideas, call them what you will—the foundations of all the sciences.

Consider this sample splat:

A new technology typically goes through a 20-year development phase before becoming generally adopted and maturing over the next 30 years.

It took 50 years for print technology to mature, a period known to bibliophiles as the incunabula phase. When Gutenberg developed printing, he had no visions of near-universal literacy, newspapers, magazines or libraries. In the same way, we cannot tell what social effects the new technology of hypertext will eventually have. Mostly, we think in a print context, and I must plead guilty as well, but at least I try to break out of that restricting mould.

My splats began as a handy checklist for me to use, transformed into a resource for teachers, then suddenly, the list was book-length. But was it really a book, or was this blinkered thinking? I still hope to find an appropriate way to package the splats as a ‘handbook’ for teachers, parents, students and others seeking a skeleton key to science, but I think I have found a better way. The splats are suited more to an electronic medium than a print one, though they also have a place on walls.

That aside, the splat format is easy to work with, and remarkably effective in distilling a topic, so I think the structure of the splat is worth examining before we look at how they may be packaged electronically. Like limericks, once you master the format, they are easy to dash off.

My collection begins: All of the principles here are open to question. You may change your mind as you learn more, but they work as a basis to invent, make and explain things.

In the middle, it says things like: Because they live in highly competitive environments, many fungi produce antibiotics and other poisons that are able to harm predators or bacteria. Fungi have caused poisoning by ergotism in the past, when the ergot fungus has attacked a rye crop. Other fungi can make nut crops poisonous.

It ends: X-ray astronomy needs to be carried on from spacecraft in space, as the Earth's atmosphere blocks all ofthe radiation at X-ray wavelengths, to our good luck.

In between, I try to get all of the rest of science to fit in. It can be achieved with cascading sequences of statements, but having completed my draft, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. I gave the splats to a few teachers, and their reactions were quite interesting. One said she would stick them on the lab walls, another wanted to give each student one splat from the set as a topic for a five-minute oral presentation, yet another wanted to use them as lesson frameworks, where students could find out what they were supposed to catch onto from that lesson, and so on.

Well, I was pleased to find that people could see new ways to use the splats, but I went my own way. I put them into an HTML framework, threw in an existing science encyclopedic dictionary I had just completed, added a set of biographies of key scientists and hot linked the whole lot together. Now I have a structure which makes effective use of the online medium, so that people who know their stuff can take on board a splat they understand, and move on, but others can dig for supplementary detail.

The grizzled print veteran side of me thinks there is still a book there, but the electronic side has already plugged this into the subscription-based Treasury of Science site I maintain at websterworld.com. The electronic collection now amounts to more than a million words, far too much for a book, but as e-text you see what you need and no more. A mountain of food that would appear daunting when set before you causes no fear when placed on the smorgasbord table.

What is my point?

Let me see if I can deliver that in three final splats.

Science commonly appears counter-intuitive, because statements about science generally involve a form of shorthand, where the key assumptions are left out.

The principles, assumptions and big ideas of science must be set out in simple terms. We need to do this because ideas remain constant as fashions change.

If the key concepts of science are set down in simple terms, they become accessible to people, regardless of their scientific background and training.

A book or a journal is forever, unless you go to a second edition. An electronic version is always open for improvements and additions.

References

A sample of the splats can be found at http://members.ozemail.com.au/~macinnis/scifun/splats.htm

Webster Publishing’s WebsterWorld is available at www.websterworld.com (full access only to subscribers, trial access on request to pmacinnis@websterpublishing.com).

author picture Peter Macinnis is a Sydney-based science writer and broadcaster.

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