It’s been three years and seven months…

(in Martian years) since I last updated this blog. In Earth years, it’s been closer to five. I’m inspired to post on this blog again because of a job posting I saw online for a writer and social media maven for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. I’m going to apply, though the odds are slim, because it looks like it would use both my desire to work in science communication and my developing MLIS skills. So there you are. Science communication — #SciComm — is a dream I continue to hold on to.

Last week I, along with many, many other people, watched NASA’s new rover, Perseverance, land on Mars last Thursday (18 February 2021 at about 1:55 pm PST). A couple of things about the landing program struck me.

First, there were a lot of women involved with the Mars mission. I didn’t keep track, so I don’t know for sure, but I was glad to see them. Also, of the three “kid scientists” I saw asking questions about the mission, one was a Black girl, one was Latina, and the third was a Latino boy. I loved seeing this sort of diversity in a program devoted to science.

Second, the end of the program featured a montage of children cheering in front of dioramas, pictures, posters, models, and so on, of Mars and various missions. I loved that. The choice of music that they played over the montage — David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” — was… odd. Even though the Perseverance mission is exactly about finding life on Mars, the song is, according to Bowie, about a young girl who sees the promise of a greater world beyond hers and is frustrated that she has no access to it. An odd juxtaposition, but I guess I understand the media team’s thinking. “It’s about Mars!”

But watching the landing itself was the highlight.

One of my favorite things to watch is a NASA mission control center when a mission is completed: when a lander lands on the Moon, or on an asteroid or flies past Pluto or lands on Mars. The ranks of scientists burst into applause. There’s such exuberance, relief, and even joy in that room that viewers can’t help share in it. Even if you weren’t in that room, if you didn’t participate in the mission, don’t even work for NASA or JPL, that’s something you can share in. Hundreds of women and men participated, but it’s something that we did.

I still get chills every time I watch the landing video. And I’m excited for what the new Mars rover will accomplish.

A Brief Thought on Science Communication

I know, it’s been a long time — months, in fact — since I’ve posted here. That’s too long. The problem, though, is that since I decided to do some science blogging, I’ve simply found it difficult to find topics that haven’t already been discussed to death elsewhere. That’s my own shortcoming, though. I need to get over that. It’s like the notion that in fiction, there are only three (or five, or seven, or a billion, depending on which “expert” you speak to) original plots, but it’s your own spin on that plot that will make your story great. The topic of the zika virus has been done to death, but who’s to say I won’t have something useful to add to that anyway?

My other worry is that I still have much to learn with regards to reading scientific papers and other original sources. I don’t want to be the type of “science” journalist who relies on press releases — or worse, dubious articles in the news — about science. Science is a complicated process, and in order to learn anything, you have to take the long view, and accept that Facebook memes and Twitter messages simply cannot convey the actual richness and information that science has to offer.

I want to be the kind of communicator who takes this stuff seriously, who actually studies and learns the material, and who can report not only scientific findings but the scientific process in a way which is not only informative but entertaining as well. I doubt that a Facebook meme which breathlessly exclaims “DARK CHOCOLATE CURES LUNG CANCER” will ever link to an actual study that probably shows no such thing except in certain lab studies that did not include human trials, but one can always dream.

Good science communication, versus bad. John Oliver nails it in the segment below:

In a time when it seems that ignorance is considered a virtue and intelligence and wisdom are scorned, it’s hard to believe that anyone would go out of their way to follow up on actual studies. We all have a lot to learn.

Especially me.

On Penguin Teeth

Photograph credit: Clinton Berry
A Toothed Penguin?

In honor of #WorldPenguinDay (April 25), I thought it would be appropriate that my inaugural post should be about penguins. Specifically, about penguin teeth.

The picture to the left is my wife’s profile picture on Google. It’s nightmarish. Alien. About to eat you with its fearsome, gnashing teeth. Grrr. It’s an Adélie penguin, and it looks like it’s about to tear you apart and pull you into its gullet.

Penguins being birds, though, have no teeth. What this particular species does have is a very, very sharp beak, and backwards-pointing spines lining their mouths and tongues. These spines force their prey down their throat, and prevent whatever they’re eating from squirming back up to freedom.

In short: Penguins do not have teeth. But knowing that a really huge one, with its backwards-facing tongue spines, could swallow you whole without even chewing is probably pretty frightening.