Is science literature an essential tool for democratizing research, or is it a relic of a pre-internet age? During the excellent World Science Festival in New York a few weeks ago, I sensed this unspoken question percolating through many of the "we-love-science-lit" sessions I attended, and I was intrigued. Could it be possible that the whole concept of sci-lit is so last millennium? And if yes, what does a lady do for her science fix in 2013?
I first spotted this covert subversion emanating from the stage itself: specifically, from one of the authors of the genre, who was speaking on a 'science and story' panel. The panel host innocently invited each panel member to share his or her own personal science literature recommendations. As our panelists considered their answers, the audience sat alert, pens poised, ready to dash out and buy whatever gems were given the stamp of approval by their sci-lit heroes. The responses were unremarkable, until one of the panelists demurred, and my ears perked up: "I don't read science literature," he said. "If I want to understand something about science, I just go and have lunch with a scientist and have them explain it to me."
Of course, the fun of being a science writer -- perhaps even the key function of science writers -- is that he can get access to the original sources, thanks to the power of his pen. Having lunched with the scientist (and hit the books), his job is then to interpret and communicate the information he receives in compelling ways to a much wider audience. But as I thought about it, I wasn't sure that this approach translates to democratizing the information at all -- the lay reader is stuck with, at best, secondhand information, interpreted by a middle man. That has its pros and cons.
But of course not just anyone can sit down to lunch with an eminent scientist whenever they feel like it. And not just anyone can get that scientist to explain his or her research at precisely the right level. That privilege has always relied on on having some background information, some reputation, some connections, some incentive... basically, having the key to a door that your average person tends to lack. In response to this author's "recommendation," a sardonic tweet immediately mused: "Is he offering us his little black book?"
Obviously he was not, but this comment sent my mind leaping back to a World Science Festival session I'd attended earlier that day, where eminent astrophysicist (and author of a new sci-lit book) Mario Livio had asked his audience if anyone was following him on Twitter. At which one man piped up -- somewhat smugly -- that he refuses to use social media.
First, that's no longer as cool as you think, sir. But secondly, think of the implications behind Livio's simple question. Livio is on Twitter. Numerous scientists are on Twitter. We don't need to borrow that science writer's little black book at all: we all have our own, and it is anything but little.
Social media is making it possible for anyone with an internet account to have (virtual) lunch with a wide array of leading scientists. Scientists are tweeting, they're using blogs to communicate directly with people who are interested, and thanks to how social media works, anybody can enter the conversation. Anybody can ask questions, straight to the source. They can get numerous viewpoints, essentially for free. They can see the original data. Even science writers can reach their audiences directly, any time of the day or night. To me, all that starts to sound more like genuinely democratizing research.
So, does this mean that social media is sounding a death knell for science literature? I think not. Because while talented scientists can also be talented and enthusiastic communicators with the public, this isn't always the case. Because while many scientists use social media, if we ditched the books and relied on them engaging every interested party in conversation individually, they probably wouldn't have time to do any science. Because it's not a case of either/or. Because while some prefer to go straight to the source, others absorb information in different ways. And critically, because people value stories, metaphors, color, and understanding science through a lens of human impact and experience.
As a medical student struggling to memorize dry, extensive lists of symptoms for particular diseases, I often daydreamed about writing an evidence-based medical fiction series inspired by my childhood reading, Judy Blume's Deenie. Say what you like, but that book emblazoned Blume-interpreted, emotion-tinted scoliosis facts circa 1973 into my memory forever in a way that no list ever would.
There are plenty of ways to learn things, but there is clearly no one universal best way. One man's lunch with a scientist is another man's lunch with a good sci-lit book. So, Mr I-Don't-Use-Social-Media... and Mr Lunch-With-A-Scientist, instead of implicitly disparaging other people's approaches, why not rejoice and respect that there are so many traditional and evolving ways to learn and share and discuss and devour science knowledge - and for those planning that lunch, it is exciting that everyone's little black book now includes people like Mario Livio.