This is a series of Q&As with young and up-and-coming science, health and environmental writers and reporters. They have recently hatched in the Incubators (science writing programs at schools of journalism), have even more recently fledged (graduated), and are now making their mark as wonderful new voices explaining science to the public.
I recently met Jon in person at this year’s SpotOn London conference. An energetic character, Jon can be totally outgoing one minute with a beer in one hand only to completely change the next, once he dons his glasses and immerses himself into some science conversations. Jon blogs about palaeontology, dinosaurs and science policy and communication at the European Geosciences Union’s blog network. He also co-hosts a podcast series called Palaeocast.
I’m really glad to welcome Jon on The SA Incubator to talk a little bit about his blogging and his past life studying in a museum!
Hello and welcome to The SA Incubator. So, how did you get infatuated with science?
Hi Khalil - thanks for having me here, it’s all very bewildering for this hatchling! This one’s always a tough question - it’s difficult to pinpoint a precise moment or feeling in your life when you become enraptured, or at least vaguely interested, with science. For myself, as dull as it sounds, I think was just through the natural progression of academic life, coupled with an aggressive desire for information. Science gives you quite a lot of freedom, and the ability to explore and navigate new threads of knowledge, and I guess it’s the idea that you’re doing things which no-one else has (I hope) which drives me on. So, it’s not that I got infatuated with science at any time - I am continually bewildered with what the world produces, and how we chip into our scientific understanding of it with each new discovery.
You initially studied Earth Science before moving to palaeontology. Quite a change, wouldn’t you agree? How did that happen?
Yeah, Palaeontology is just one very small portion of the vast Earth Science system, and typically people who move into the field have a background in Biology or Zoology. I actually started out doing Planetary Geology, as it was a pretty rare course at University, and what could actually be cooler than studying the matter of the universe (the stuff we can see, anyway). Turns out the answer to that is dinosaurs. He doesn’t know this, but Phil Manning from Manchester University was such an enthusiastic palaeontologist, he indirectly convinced me that that was what I wanted to be (except with more hair). I made the switch to mainstream Geology to attend his lectures, and the love for the subject was reborn.
When you studied for your MSc, you were primarily based at the Natural History Museum in London. Unfortunately, museums are nowadays many times associated with boredom. What role do you think museums should play in society?
Clearly you don’t go to the right museums! Museums aren’t meant for everyone, some people just don’t have, and never will have an interest in science and an appreciation of the complex beauty of the natural world around them. But for those that do have an interest and the desire to learn more, museums are shining beacons of knowledge, and the practical demonstration of that knowledge. They also house vast repositories of data and physical collections, and are invaluable for the progression and preservation of scientific knowledge. Museums nowadays go beyond the typical ‘display case’ format, and are far more interactive than they’ve ever been. As such,they are vital players in the complex tapestry of communicating science to the public. It would, then, help if the government decided to stop slashing their funding.
Let’s talk about your blog, Green Tea and Velociraptors, a little. First off, what’s with the name!? Secondly, how has your experience with science blogging been so far?
Erm, the name. Get me a pint one day, and I’ll tell you. Let’s just say I came up with it after a trip to Amsterdam. I’ve only been blogging for just under a year now, and still don’t think I’ve quite got the hang of it. People always say to pick your target audience, whether it be particular social group, age range, or based on literacy, and write focussing on that. That’s a pretty difficult thing to do, as every hit you get will be anonymous with respect to these characteristics, and at the end of it you don’t really know who you’re writing for demographically. Who you’re aiming for could be completely different from who actually reads and absorbs your writing. It could be anyone who can use a computer. So yeah, it’s quite confusing at times, but at the end of the day I think if you’ve got something worth writing about, and you think other people need to know about it, irrespective of which social category you want to lump them in, then it’s worth writing about. At the beginning it’s tough, as you get little traffic, and if you’re anything like me your writing will be totally naff. But after sticking with it, I can see the evolution of my writing style over time, so for personal development it was totally worth it. I’m also trying to ‘blog my PhD’ at the moment, which I figured would be a cool way of opening up the PhD process, as well as helping to consolidate my thoughts.
Your blog is all about palaeontology, dinosaurs... and science communication. What role do you think young science bloggers, such as yourself, have in science communication?
That’s a huge question, and an insanely difficult one to answer without beer. Can you wait a few hours? .. It’s difficult to say, without alienating ‘older’ science bloggers, most of whom are exceptional scientists and writers in their own right. I guess, maybe, younger science writers have a bit more energy and enthusiasm to put into posts? It’s quite difficult to generalise any group of science bloggers, as there are so many out there each with their own unique and wonderful styles of writing (two of my favourite bloggers atm are Jane Robb and Brian Switek - both highly inspiring writers!). I think overall though, it’s about accessibility. You don’t have to be a scientist to write about science, that’s for sure; what matters is the way you convey the process and results of scientific endeavours in a digestible and engaging format, and you don’t have to be ‘young’ to do that! A lot of the time science is intrinsically complex, but it’s not about ‘dumbing it down’ for public consumption - it’s about communicating that complexity in a manner that is informative, educational, and understandable. I think each blogger out there knows why they do what they do, and I don’t want to put any sort of label on why they do it - it’s the fact that they are doing it which is important, for an unfathomable myriad of reasons. The way forward for science communication, I think, is not to sit around talking about how to do it, the different audiences, the style of writing, but to actually go out there and do it, while maintaining high degrees of diversity and flexibility. Science blogging is but a fraction of what we can do, but it’s still a pretty powerful tool on its own.
Which posts of yours do you like the most?
I don’t like any of them.
Hmm, okay! Moving on then... Science blogging is but one form of science communication. Incidentally, you are also involved in a paleontology podcast. What does the podcast format bring to the table that blogging doesn’t? Do you think the two forms complement one another?
Yep, I co-host a new series with Dave Marshall and Joe Keating called Palaeocast (shameless plug: www.palaeocast.com), which Dave came up with when he realised there was a huge gap in the communications market here. I like to think that the podcasts we produce are informal like blogs, but as we conduct them in an interview format with researchers, they’re more conversational and put the audience in the place of the interviewers and right at the forefront of science. The two are definitely complementary - we also have numerous images and explanatory text with each episode, in a sort of pseudo-blog format. Generally, they’re both different modes of communication, depending on exactly what you want to talk about and how you want to go about doing it. I blog mostly about current research in the field, but lack the dimensionality of actually being directly involved with the research. The podcasts take this one step further, and provide the background, the details, the science behind the science I guess? Research articles, as I’m sure we all know, are often horrid. They contain so much complicated terminology (necessary for the field, usually, as the power of words comes from their precision), that unravelling the lexicon of science-speak can be a strenuous and often fruitless task. Blogs, podcasts, direct engagement are all needed to actually get the sci-meat out there. Besides, it’s pretty good fun making them too. We mustn’t forget that, although digital communication is powerful, it can never substitute for actual direct public engagement with science.
Finally, what are your plans for the future? Do you intend to keep writing about palaeontology and science communication? Any other topics you’d like to try covering?
Plans for the future. Hm. I think we’ll definitely be continuing with Palaeocast, taking it to the next level too by live-streaming from Palaeo conferences and even developing it into an educational tool. I’ll keep writing about Palaeontology, but there’s only so much that can be achieved by writing about science communication. It’s an inherently practical activity, so I guess I’ve just got to find the time around my PhD to keep at it! I don’t know what the future of Palaeontology holds, but you can bet that wherever it goes, I’ll be chasing it and bashing it with my keyboard until some sort of text begins to form. I’m looking forward to seeing if the onset of increasing open access publications (at least in the UK) changes the face of the way in which we need to communicate science, and also looking a bit more into the interaction between this and science policy issues.
Thanks for having me - it’s been an honour!
Previously in this series: