01 May 2014

Dark matter in 140 characters or less

Last week Dr. Katie Mack held an "Ask Me Anything" session on Reddit. Dr. Mack is an astrophysicist.  The AMA was on the science subreddit - the section of Reddit where scientists go to talk about science.

But then I noticed one of the questions: "How do you explain dark matter to kids?"

These scientists wanted to figure out how you talk about science with people who don't do science.

Matt Shipman occasionally does this really cool thing where he asks people what they would ask a scientist about a certain topic, and then he presents the questions to the appropriate scientists at NC State.  (He just did one of these about food, and it's great.)  So I thought I'd give something similar a try.

I got the questions from members of a Dad Bloggers Facebook group I'm in. (One of my all-time favorite videos has two dads in lab coats.)  I threw in a few of my own questions in case I couldn't get any takers.

I got the answers from real-life scientists - but since I don't work at a university I just pinged scientists I follow on Twitter and maybe have met at a blogging conference.

Despite its limitations on length, I decided to use Twitter as my medium for a few reasons.  First, it's enormously useful for people with short attention spans or those who use mobile platforms to get their information. Second, it presents an interesting challenge to scientists who want to describe their work.   Can you explain "dark matter" in a single tweet?

Finally - and most importantly - Twitter is an amazingly open platform that can connect people from completely different walks of life with a simple "follow."   If these dads wanted to know more about astrophysics or chemistry or biology, a simple click gives them access to an expert. If these scientists want to know more about how they can describe their work to parents, they have a wealth of resources a click away.

So here's my own little experiment in outreach.

I got some great ones on the doppler effect:

Andrea Kuszewski was particularly helpful with neuroscience:

And there were a few more:

I'm still trying to get tweetable answers for a couple outstanding requests - string theory and wormholes - but I'm confident they will come.  The scientists were very eager to be helpful.

I don't know that these tweets are really the answers to questions - but I do hope they will prompt more questions, and I hope everyone will be connecting more to create a sort of user-generated Twitter glossary of science or something.

You know, just for fun.


Carmen said...

I really liked this article. They were all really interesting. I'd love to read some more!

From Gabe

Tony H. said...

Wow those are some great answers, I'm not much of a science person so I prefer more basic answers.

Korinthia Klein said...

That's a wonderful idea. It really forces you to get to the most basic point of a concept to be able to phrase it in a succinct manner.

(That said, my favorite tweet was reducing Doppler effect down to Beeedooo, beedooo...." because anything that can also make me laugh gets extra points in my mind.)