Science Communication—Reaching the Public
December 05, 2018
The Eigenprot is a musical instrument based on the molecular vibrations of 100,000 protein structures. When asked the purpose for this, Markus Buehler of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said to provide an opportunity for the public to interact with materials at the nanoscale. Buehler described this work in the symposium cluster on Broader Impact (Symposia BI01 and BI02). The sound, he said, generates from many overlaying vibrations of the protein molecules, which is analogous to a guitar string. For educational outreach, participants can learn a parallel in terms of hierarchy: music begins with notes, which can advance into a melody, and further into harmony. Similarly, materials begin with an atom, then another atom can be added to it, the grains, and so on. Another application of this new tool can be to understand how mutations or misfolding as seen in many diseases lead to differences in a protein’s vibrations, and how this translates to audible sound. Such studies can offer a new tool, in the lab, to understand molecular defects in a totally different domain, for further analysis.
In an outreach setting, participants would be able to interact with the protein synthesizer in order to create their own sound combination. Here is the sound generated based on PDB ID 101m, playing a C2 note for several bars. This one is generated based on PDB ID 4yz2, playing a C1 note for several bars.
For contrast, here is a simple composition created using three copies of the protein synthesizer (each playing a distinct melody or chord progression), along with a TR-808 drum loop for texture:
Graduate students at Arizona State University launched their own effort in reaching a general audience with a different sound: their podcast, called podQESST. Sebastian Husein said their goal is to present what scientists do in a storytelling format in order to engage their listeners.
Julie Nucci of Cornell University also champions storytelling in order to reach the general public. She introduced a course where students utilize a padcaster—the video recording feature on an iPad—to produce interesting engineering features. The engineering students practice three points in their storytelling efforts: show what you are doing, make it personal, and show why the world cares. While subscribing to these three points may sound easy, it actually takes a lot of practice.
In a Science Communication Workshop held on Sunday, prior to the symposium sessions, Daniel Steinberg and Sara Rodriguez of Princeton University provided ample time for participants to practice communicating their work. The workshop was designed to help researchers to increase their confidence in communicating science to the nonspecialist. One of the activities let the researchers experience the “other side” of the dialogue: A spinning device was set before them—looking as strange to them as their lab work would look to a non-scientist. Putting the shoe on the other foot helps researchers understand what information they need to give.
The ability for materials researchers to reach the public has significance beyond “public outreach.” Mark Miodownik of University College London floated the necessity for materials researchers to consider working with experts in other fields in order to advance the complex materials of the 21st century, for example, self-healing concrete. In order to embrace complex solutions for sustainability, he said, materials researchers may need to work with designers and psychologists, for example; so the ability to communicate science with non-scientists becomes imperative.