The technologies to watch on 2016

A view of what is coming in technology this year ( Para Español siga este enlace)

I am not a futurist, because I can’t predict the future. But there are three technologies that had significant breakthroughs last year and I think they are poised for huge growth this year.

These are the three technologies I believe you should to watch in 2016:

  1. AI: There was a time when artificial intelligence was seen as the field that would revolutionize our lives. That was several decades ago, and when the promises were not kept, we began thinking that artificial intelligence was limited to university research and to philosophers’ discussions. Now applications of AI are starting to come out of the oven like hot bread and “deep learning” is again a word that makes the inhabitants of Nerdland all rosy-cheeked. If you do not believe me, ask aloud: “OK Google What is deep learning?”. Check your smartphone’s answer. The quality and quantity of information we have now in digital format, accessible in real time over the Internet, and the processing power of computers means that machines can learn much more than we once thought was possible. So much so, that in the United States in 2016 thousands of cars will be learning to drive themselves on the streets full of people.
  2. Genetics: CRISPR is a more accurate, efficient, and cheaper genetic tool than its predecessors. This has allowed many projects to move from preliminary ideas without real feasibility to projects in full swing with spectacular results this year. No wonder Science Magazine declared CRISPR the scientific breakthrough of 2015. An example of last year’s spectacular results is a mosquito genetically modified to stop malaria transmission, a trait inherited by all descendants. In 2016 with the implementation of CRISPR in more laboratories we will see a greater increase in our knowledge of the mechanisms controlling the genetic material, and an explosion in genetic modifications and temporary manipulations at the level of laboratory animals. Although this year will not bring cures for human genetic diseases, multiple applications using CRISPR would enter the world around us.
  3. Reusable rockets: The potential to reduce the costs of putting equipment into orbit by reusing rockets makes space increasingly accessible to private companies and local satellite applications. According to some estimates you can lower the cost of a rocket launch to less than a tenth of the average cost of disposable rockets, opening the space frontier for many more ideas out of this world in 2016. Expect to hear more about private weather prediction services, asteroid mining, or exploration ships with solar sails. All these ideas will be increasingly feasible with the launch’s cost reduction coming this year.
    Other technologies that are gaining momentum for 2016:

Electric Power: More efficient and cheaper technologies to produce and store energy are coming to market, and with them, the cost of technologies such as electric cars become more affordable. In more areas of the developed world using “green” energy will become standard, and cheaper solar panels and batteries will allow replacing gasoline generators in isolated parts of the developing world.

Flexible electronics: this year may see the first commercial wireless sensors that can stick to your skin like a sticker and measure your heart rate throughout the day, or give you a daily measure of sugar in our blood.

In our corner of the world:

Gravitational waves: A few kilometers from Tri-Cities, in Hanford WA, we have a scientific facility with impressive features. Two concrete-covered tunnels, four kilometers long, guard equally-long steal pipes holding a vacuum than is emptier than outer space. These pipes hold inside precious mirrors and super-cushioned lenses designed to measure really small changes of length with the help of a powerful laser. This gigantic measuring device is the heart of LIGO Hanford, one of two similar facilities designed to measure small space distortions due to large perturbations of the gravitational field in our universe. This year LIGO will be scrutinizing the universe to measure “gravitational waves”, one of the predictions of Einstein’s work that we have not yet observed. The results can come at any time, and with this technology we will begin to see the space in a way that we can only imagine before.

Those are my predictions for 2016. Tell me what are yours?

Las tecnologías del 2015 que se tomarán el 2016

De futurista no tengo nada, porque no puedo predecir el futuro, pero hay algunas tecnologías que comenzaron a crecer bastante el año pasado y este año van a crecer de manera descomunal. Estas son las tres a seguir en el 2016.

  1. Inteligencia artificial: Hubo un tiempo cuando la inteligencia artificial se veía como un campo que iba a revolucionar nuestra vida. Eso fue hace varias décadas, y cuando la promesa no se cumplió, pensamos que la inteligencia artificial era un campo que se iba a limitar sólo a estudios en las universidades y discusiones de filósofos. Ahora las aplicaciones están comenzando a salir como pan caliente y el “aprendizaje profundo” es de nuevo una palabrita que hace poner sonrosados a los habitantes de nerdlandia. Si no me cree pregúntele en voz alta a su teléfono inteligente: ” OK Google ¿Qué es aprendizaje profundo?”. La calidad y cantidad de información que tenemos ahora en formato digital, accesible en tiempo real en la internet, y la capacidad de procesamiento de las computadoras hace que las máquinas puedan aprender mucho más de lo que antes pensábamos que era posible. Tanto es así, que en los Estados Unidos en el 2016 miles de autos estarán aprendiendo a manejar en las calles de sus ciudades. Para leer más sobre “aprendizaje profundo”, le recomiendo “El hombre que enseña a las máquinas a entender el lenguaje”.
  2. Genética: CRISPR es una técnica para cortar y pegar genes más precisa, eficiente, y barata que las anteriores. Esto a permitido que muchos proyectos pasaran de estudios en preliminares en desarrollo, a proyectos en plena marcha y con resultados espectaculares este año. Esto llevó a la revista Science a declarar CRISPR el adelanto científico del año en el 2015. Un ejemplo de los resultados del año pasado es la modificación de un mosquito que no transmite la malaria y que heredará esta resistencia a toda su descendencia. En el 2016 con la implementación de esta técnica en más laboratorios veremos un incremento mucho mayor en nuestro conocimiento de la información contenida en el material genético, y una explosión en las modificaciones genéticas a nivel de animales de laboratorio. Aunque este año no nos traerá la curación de enfermedades genéticas en humanos, múltiples aplicaciones que usan CRISPR comenzarán a verse en el mundo que nos rodea.
  3. Cohetes reusables: El potencial de reducir los costos de poner equipos en órbita reusando los cohetes hace que lanzar satélites para aplicaciones locales sea cada vez más accesibles para compañías privadas. En realidad puede bajar los costos de un lanzamiento de un cohete a menos de una décima parte de lo que cuestan en este momento, abriendo la frontera espacial para muchas más ideas fuera de este mundo en el 2016. Desde compañías de predicción de clima privadas, mineras de asteroides, o naves de exploración con velas solares, todas esas ideas tendrán cada vez más posibilidad de convertirse en realidad con la disminución de costos de lanzamiento que viene este año.

Otras cosas que estarán dando que hablar este año:

Energía Eléctrica: Tecnologías para producir y almacenar energía cada vez más eficientes y baratas están llegando al mercado, y con ellas el costo de tecnologías como los carros eléctricos se vuelven más accesibles. En algunos espacios del mundo desarrollado el uso de energía “verde” será cada vez más común, y el abaratamiento paneles solares y baterías permitirá que algunos lugares aislados del mundo en desarrollo se reemplacen más generadores a gasolina por métodos alternativos.

Electrónicos flexibles: puede que este año veamos los primeros sensores que podemos pegar a nuestra piel como una calcomanía y que pueden medir nuestro ritmo cardíaco durante todo el día, o darnos una medida del azúcar en nuestra sangre a diario.

En nuestra esquina del mundo:

Ondas gravitacionales: A unos cuantos kilómetros de los Tri-Cities, en Hanford,  tenemos un laboratorio con características impresionantes. Dos tubos de cuatro kilómetros de largo, y con un vacío mayor que el que se encuentra en el espacio, cargan un preciado interior de espejos y lentes súper-amortiguados. Es parte del sistema de LIGO, un experimento que quiere medir la pequeña distorsión del espacio debido a grandes perturbaciones del campo gravitacional en nuestro universo. Este año estará escudriñando el universo para medir estas “ondas gravitacionales”, una de las predicciones del trabajo de Einstein que aún no ha sido comprobada. Los resultados pueden venir en cualquier momento, y con esta tecnología comenzaremos a ver el espacio de una manera que no habíamos podido hacerlo sino en nuestra imaginación.

Esas son mis predicciones para el 2016. Dime ¿Cúales son las tuyas?

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21 Science Stories That Reached You in 2015

When is time to replace the calendar hanging in the kitchen I always do things I am not very keen on doing, but they come with the season. As sure as I will unwillingly write checks with the wrong date during January, I am now looking at my science posts statistics from 2015.

I am sharing with you the posts that reached more people during 2015, thanks to your shares and your likes. It confirms what I already know, that we all love Ed Yong’s writing. But also surprisingly that a lot of very technical stories make it to the top ten (two of them in science communication). My own writing made it to the top of the list. This confirms that you are a good friend, always happy to read and share my writing. I am very grateful for your kindness and support.

I propose a toast: To many more great science stories for years to come!

Most shared and liked Facebook’s Science Salsa stories in 2015:

1

Toy Sharks to Face Your Fears: A #STEM Like Me Story.

“When I first met her, she seemed to be looking at STEM with skepticism, maybe a little fear, like somebody that is staring at the rough sea from the shore.”

by IVAN F. GONZALEZ

2

Let’s See Matt Damon Drive His Mars Rover Over THIS

“Martian dunes are jaw-droppingly beautiful.”

by  PHIL PLAIT

3

Why Don’t We Know the Age of the New Ancient Human, Homo Naledi?

“The simple answer is: Because dating fossils is really difficult. Scientific papers and news reports about new fossils so regularly come with estimates of age that it’s easy forget how hard-won such data can be.”

by ED YONG

4

New Algorithm reduces size of data sets while preserving their mathematical properties

“One way to make big-data analysis computationally practical is to reduce the size of data tables—or matrices, to use the mathematical term—by leaving out a bunch of rows. The trick is that the remaining rows have to be in some sense representative of the ones that were omitted […]”

by LARRY HARDESTY

 

5

How sketching can enhance your science conference experience 

Visual note taking (aka “sketchnoting”) isn’t just for artists.

by BETHANN G. MERKLE

6

What happens when you give scientists comedy improv lessons?

 

“Improv is something you expect to find on Saturday Night Live, not in the science lab. A couple of acting teachers, however, are beginning to introduce improv acting and communication techniques to the science syllabus. “

by ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN

7

A Fossil Snake With Four Legs

 “And then, if my jaw hadn’t already dropped enough, it dropped right to the floor,” says Martill. The little creature had a pair of hind legs. “I thought: bloody hell! And I looked closer and the little label said: Unknown fossil. Understatement!”

by ED YONG

8

Scientists Finally Decide Which Bit of This Weird Animal is the Head 

“In 1977, British palaeontologist Simon Conway-Morris discovered the fossil of a truly weird animal, which he named Hallucigenia because of its “bizarre and dream-like quality”. He wasn’t kidding. The creature was so strange that it took fourteen years for scientists to work out which way up it stood. And now, nearly four decades after its original discovery, we finally know—clearly and conclusively—which end is the head”

by ED YONG

9

Mars has flowing rivers of briny water

“Salty or “briny” water melts more readily than regular water, and the salts found in these flowing streaks could lower the freezing point of this Martian water to a temperature range seen during the summer.”

by NSIKAN AKPAN

10

Red Crabs Invade San Diego Shores

Stranding may have been related with warmer waters or toxins.

By MARIO AGUILERA

11

Quantum-dot spectrometer is small enough to function within a smartphone

“If incorporated into small handheld devices, this type of spectrometer could be used to diagnose skin conditions or analyze urine samples, Bao says. They could also be used to track vital signs such as pulse and oxygen level, or to measure exposure to different frequencies of ultraviolet light, which vary greatly in their ability to damage skin.”

by ANNE TRAFTON

12

How to Program One of the Gut’s Most Common Microbes

“If you want to turn a microbe into a gut ranger, you’re better off starting with a species that’s well-adapted there. And there are few better choices than Bacteroides thetaiotamicron—B-theta to its friends”

by ED YONG

13

Diagnosing Diseases with Origami Microscopes

 “While Foldscopes used for diagnostic testing come pre-folded to ensure high quality control, the ones sent out for educational purposes through the Ten Thousand Microscope Project are folded and built by the users. He hopes that school children, hackers, and tinkerers all over the world will build on and add to the microscopes. While Prakash isn’t quite dropping these Foldscopes from airplanes, he’s certainly getting them into the hands of children all around the world.”

by  LAUREN FARRAR

14

Scientists are developing a shield to protect astronauts from cosmic radiation

“The technology is pretty much essential if we want astronauts to safely spend any significant amount of time in space. In addition to causing potential cognitive decline, it’s believed that prolonged exposure to cosmic rays may increase the likelihood of astronauts developing various types of cancers.”

by PETER DOCKRILL

15

16 on-point responses from female scientists to Nobel winner’s sexist comments

“How do you respond to sexist comments if you’re a female scientist who has been told that you should be in a single-sex lab because male scientists might fall in love with you? You mock them on Twitter, of course.”

by BLATHNAID HEALY

16

400-Year-Old Arctic Plants Frozen by Glaciers Come Back From the Dead

“The findings, which were presented at a National Academy of Sciences meeting, gives researchers a clue about how ecosystems survive cyclical ice ages. A host of other plants, some never before seen by modern scientists, are emerging from the shadows as well – including cyanobacteria and green terrestrial algae.”

by TAFLINE LAYLIN

17

How a Jellyfish-Obsessed Engineer Upended Our Understanding of Swimming

 “With an engineer’s hubris, I thought they’d be simple,” he recalls. They jet forwards by contracting their umbrella-shaped bells and pushing water towards their tentacles. They were, quite literally, not rocket science. He soon realized that he was wrong.

By ED YONG

18

Why Scientists Are Upset About The Facebook Filter Bubble Study 

“The study’s conclusion discusses how a person is more likely to click on and like stories that support their own beliefs, which means people tend to create their own filter bubbles. That’s true, but it’s not the point—the point is that the news feed algorithm also filters out diverse opinions. As Tufekci says, it is disingenuous of the researchers to change the focus of their paper. […]”

By DAVID LUMB

19

Beards are not dirtier than clean shave: Germ phobia debunked by a microbiologist.

“Your Beard Is Covered in Bacteria. So is everything else. Don’t fall for the latest viral freak-out.”

By DAVID COIL

20

Inspiring Illustrations of Awesome Female Scientists

“While women in science and math are still underrepresented in popular culture, artists like Rachel Ignotofsky […] are inspired by them and want to remind others of their essential place in our history.”

by ALISON NASTASI

21

Dinosaur Feathers Discovered in Canadian Amber

“Some of these feathers strongly resemble those of diving water birds today (and the researchers include one example of a modern diving bird feather so you can compare them). Other structures, however, look nothing like feathers of today”

by ANNALEE NEWITZ

Toy Sharks to Face Your Fears: A STEM Like Me Story.

A real-life story about making connections in STEM:

I had a wonderful experience with the STEM Like Me program, and I want to share it with you. A lucky coincidence makes it a great story about human connection. First I need to explain how I use toy sharks for education, but I think it is worth reading all the way to the end just for the unexpected ending.

wpid-img_20150828_134453_sophia_adam_wthin.jpg

 Getting ready for STEM Like Me

I wasn’t ready when I was asked to participate in STEM Like Me, a new program that brings STEM practitioners to schools in Washington’s Mid-Columbia region. I may know my science, but I did not have a STEM hands-on activity kit ready for interacting with the students. To solve that problem I did what any respectable scientists with some training in communication and shoestring budget will do, build his own kit:

  • First, I tried to learn what the students wanted to hear about STEM from me. That was easy: “Oceans and sharks” was at the top of the list.
  • Second, I built a storytelling arch in my mind, a story that had a student I recently met as my intended audience.
  • Third, I went to a store and searched for toy sharks on sale. With the materials I had on hand, the story finally took solid form.

Toy sharks, and a personal confession.

Wen I talk with the students, the story starts with a personal confession: I was afraid of the ocean when I was a kid. Waves and surf scared me. Can you imagine an Oceanographer that is afraid of the ocean? Well, I faced my fears when I was 10-11 years old. Thanks to being able to face my fears I am now an Oceanographer, and some of the happiest times of my life have been at sea. In parallel I talk about sharks, their unbelievable keen senses ( I did my PhD in electroreception) and how diverse and wonderful sharks and rays are.

Hands-on with the sharks:

The students get to grab some toy sharks, rays, and marine mammals. I instruct them to separate the toys in three categories, sharks (tiburones), rays (rayas), and others (otros). After separating them correctly I tell them there is still a toy that is wrongly categorized, actually, it can’t be found in nature.

There a couple of really weird-looking sharks and rays, and students point at them, but the incorrect toy is the blood-thirsty shark that looks more like the one in “Jaws” or “Sharknado”. The artist probably copied a movie poster and forgot to put the right number of gills on it. I finish by wondering what amazing things can we learn about sharks if we face our fears about them?

wpid-wp-1440795775693.png

 

The coincidence that made all the pieces come together:

This explanation was to give you the context for the most wonderful of the coincidences. Do you remember I had in mind a particular student as my intended audience when I designed my story? She happen to be a student in the school I got to test my new STEM Like Me shark kit. She is a soft-spoken, self-driven, bilingual girl. I believe she will do very well either as a STEM professional or at any other career she chooses to work at. But when I first met her, she seemed to be looking at STEM with skepticism, maybe a little bit of fear, like somebody that is staring at the rough seas from the the shore.

I designed my story having her on mind. Part inspired by what she told me, part inspired for what I wish I have told her when I first talked with her. I wanted to tell her it was OK to have fears, but facing them may bring wonderful benefits. In other words, smart people may take risks that could bring them to a life of fulfillment and knowledge.

At the end of my activity with the toy sharks at her school, one of the students was really excited and he told me: “I learned that sharks are awesome!”. That made me happy. Then, I saw my “intended audience” student leaving to the next table. I was wondering what did she learn?

She turned around, she smiled and told me: “ I learned I should face my fears. Thanks!”

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Such a beautiful blue expanse to explore, but so many unknowns lurking under the water. Should she jump in the ocean or not?

This is not a story about salvation

It was a great feeling to hear the words “I learned I should face my fears”. But I do not believe I designed a magic kit in a plastic box that brings instant courage for students. This story is about personal connections. I am a fortunate guy that got to study wonderful animals partly because when I was her age I decided I wasn’t afraid of the ocean any more, and jumped into the breaking waves. My story connected with her, she saw her experience somehow reflected in my experience, and that was really good. But this story is also about being able to reassure students. It should tell them their daily courage and efforts are appreciated. This particular student helped me translate some of the Spanish words I used in front of her classmates, and braved sentences in her rusty Spanish. She was taking after-school classes with a science component already. She was already taking steps that required overcoming her fears, steps that can bring happiness to her future.

I wish she had told me “I learned I should keep facing my fears”. I wish the conversation had made clear she is already doing an awesome job, that kids in general are already doing an awesome job. But there are always imperfections in the happy endings… and I know I still can improve the story inside the box for the next school visit. After all, toy sharks are a fun, multi-purpose, STEM education prop.

“If you smell something, say something” great #scicomm advice from John Stewart

Bullshit is everywhere

“Bullshit is everywhere”, said John Stewart during his final appearance at “The Daily Show”. Some bullshit is necessary or at least innocuous, like the white lies we tell other people. It works like “an important social contract fertilizer, and keeps people from make each others cry all day”. But Stewart wanted to use his last night at the TV show to talk about “the premeditated institutional bullshit designed to obscure and distract”. Steward classifies this institutional “guano” in three flavors:

The 3 kinds of bullshit according to John Stewart:

1) Making bad things sound like good things:

“Organic All Natural Cupcakes”, because Factory-made Sugar Oatmeal Balls doesn’t sell.

2) Hiding bad things under mountains of bullshit (added complexity for obscuring the facts).

Just try to follow the Political Campaign Finance Laws. Unlimited amounts of anonymous cash can be funneled under several mechanisms.

3) Bullshit of infinite possibility

We cannot do anything, because we don’t yet know everything. Until then, teach the controversy, don’t try to act on what you do know now.

“The best defense against bullshit is vigilance”

I have stepped in all three on Stewart’s list: Healthy lifestyle advice full of anti-science, articles obscuring their limitations, and the global warming “controversy” are just part of a longer list of examples.  But now as a science communicator I have learned to recognize the bullshit, and to avoid it. I have been vigilant to avoid turds on my way, but I have often failed to speak out when I see them. Have we as science communicators done our best to call the bullshit when we see it?  Here is where I think Stewart’s advice is relevant for science communication:

“If you smell something, say something”

Stewart calls to play the “I spy of bullshit” game. Can we as science communicators stay positive, and at the same time stay vigilant? Can we say something every time we smell bullshit?  I think we can.

Here is the video:

Publicity stunt damages Word Heritage Site, enrages Peruvians

Red lines depict damage done to Nazca Lines
Picture shows iconic Hummingbird in the protected archeological site of the Nazca lines. Red lines show area damaged by Greenpeace activists step’s and banner. Photo credit: Cap. Juan Carlos Ruiz

The Nazca lines are shallow scratches in the sand, made just deep enough to uncover a bright-colored sand that contrast beautifully with a dark top layer of sand and gravel. The most attractive of the lines depict animals that are only distinguishable from the air, but the most intriguing ones are large geometrical forms and mile-long lines pointing to specific directions, signaling to things important for the indigenous population thousands of years ago, but that we have not completely deciphered yet.

Last Monday, December 8th, a group of members of Greenpeace from seven different countries (none of them Peruvian) entered a protected archaeological site surrounding the figure of ” El Colibrí” (the hummingbird) to install a banner visible from the air. They did it without authorization, without proper inspection of local archaeologists, and without wearing the obligatory protective gear (think snowshoes but designed for the Nazca sand).

Nazca Line protective gear:

Proper protective gear to work near the Nazca lines (http://geoextrema.com/2014/12/greenpeace-atenta-contra-las-lineas-de-nazca/)
Proper protective gear to work near the Nazca lines (http://geoextrema.com/2014/12/greenpeace-atenta-contra-las-lineas-de-nazca/)

As a publicity stunt probably bodes very well for Greenpeace, it is timed with the COP 20 in Lima, Perú. And every single newspaper in Perú will be covering it. But they damaged a beloved symbol for the Peruvians, declared a World Heritage Site by the Unesco. The stunt is not gaining popular support for their cause in Perú, specially because a protest with a banner in a foreign language placed  in one of the most recognized national symbols rubs the wrong way to many Peruvians. The fact that they damaged the lines by ignoring the proper procedures to treat such a valuable archeological site makes their stunt very risky, as they may face legal prosecution.

This is not the first time the lines are damaged in modern times.  Clandestine mining, the perils of continuous tourist overflights, and recreational vehicles circulating around the figures have taken a toll in the protected area. Keeping the lines intact for the future generations is a constant battle. The María Reiche foundation is one of the Peruvian institutions trying to preserve the lines, and they have a very simple response to Greenpeace: “To protect our environment doesn’t mean to destroy our heritage”.

Hopefully this latest damage would bring enough attention not only to Greenpeace, but to the Nazca lines, a wonderful cultural heritage of humanity that needs more attention, and better protection.

Update 12/10/2014. For people not familiar with the state of the lines before the banner, here is a link to a picture taken on April 2014. http://www.tripadvisor.cl/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g304044-i96658006-Nazca_Ica_Region.html

Useful links (in Spanish):

COP 20: Greenpeace hace protesta en las líneas de Nazca

GREENPEACE ATENTA CONTRA LAS LINEAS DE NAZCA

9 FOTOS QUE DEMUESTRAN QUE LOS GENIOS DE GREENPEACE SÍ DAÑARON LAS LÍNEAS DE NAZCA

Mincul: Greenpeace cometió una infracción en las líneas de Nasca

Los geoglifos de Nasca y Palpa (Ica-Perú). Tres Factores que contribuyen a su destrucción paulatina y constante.

VIDEO: Giant Greenpeace protest banner set up beside ancient Nazca Lines – no comment TV

Science or Ciencia? Carolina’s Story

carolinasstory

A story based in reality (Para Español siga este enlace)

Carolina’s ears started feeling really hot. It wasn’t because of the temperature inside the laboratory, it was because of her embarrassment. To Carolina’s classmates she was Carol, they had no idea that she spoke Spanish, or that her grandmother barely spoke English.

Abuela Rita wasn’t the source of the embarrassment. Carolina was proud of her grandmother, a single mother that raised a family by herself with a custodial job. But when her grandmother spoke in Spanish during the high-school field trip to the University and called her by her full name, Carolina felt as if her grandmother had left her naked in front of her classmates.

Carolina wanted to tell all the other students that she was very proud of her grandmother. Abuela Rita was the reason she got interested in science in the first place. Rita told Carolina many bedtime stories when she was a little girl. Stories about all the sparkling glassware and blinking instruments that she saw when cleaning the laboratories at the University, and about some of the friendly scientists that talked with her daily when she picked up the trash. It was abuela Rita who convinced Carolina’s parents to let her go to the a free after-school science program, and it was abuela Rita who got her the internship at Dr. Jones’ laboratory. But Carolina did not manage to say any of that, she just managed to say hola to her grandmother and then hide in a corner, hoping the ultra-centrifuge machine operated by the postdoc in the white coat would distract her classmates attention.

There were only two Hispanics in the after-school science program, Carolina and Margarita, but they never spoke Spanish. Their English was flawless and Carol and Maggie never dropped a hint of their roots in a different culture. But it is not that Carolina had abandoned Spanish, it is more like Spanish abandoned her.

Her parent’s English wasn’t perfect, and they spoke Spanglish at home, but Carolina’s parents insisted that Carolina learn only English at school. Carolina’s Spanish was a product of Rita’s stubborn character, the Spanish-books section at the library, and the overwhelmingly Hispanic barrio she lived in all her childhood. Spanish was how she played and danced with friends. It was the language were she felt at home, with the words that tasted like Rita’s “huevos rancheros” and smelled like “jasmines” in a rainy afternoon. But as soon as Carolina got interested in science, Spanish became a hindrance.

Spanish-speaking TV at home wasn’t that much fun anymore, and neither was the radio. She did not see or hear about Hispanic woman doing what she wanted to do. Only guys in white coats speaking English or fake german accents. Her family and friends in “el barrio” did not really understand what she did after school. Mostly because she only knew the English words for what she wanted to describe, but also because science wasn’t part of “el barrio’s” daily life, she became distant from her friends. Sadly Carolina’s World was split. A switch flipped inside her brain, and every time science was on her mind the World could only speak English.

There was a brief time in Carolina’s life when Spanish and science lived gracefully together inside of her: it was when Rita was in the hospital. Carolina was the perfect interpreter when abuela Rita required treatment for “cataratas”. The medical instructions were overwhelming for Rita, but Carolina took the time to decipher the sometimes unintelligible instructions in “Spanish” and put them in a language that her grandmother could understand. She checked everything in both English and Spanish, and took what worked best for Rita.

The staff in the hospital that treated abuela Rita still remember her. They know she speaks Spanish and they call her Carolina. But two years later on the field trip she isn’t Carolina anymore. She is Carol, and her classmate’s faces show incredulity when her grandmother changes her daily cleaning rounds to stop by Dr. Jones’ laboratory to say “hola Carolina”.

What happened in the last two years? Why did Carolina feel so embarrassed? How did she become Carol? What made her renounce her cultural identity in order to become an aspiring scientist?

Those questions were part of a conversation with Luis Quevedo a Sunday morning of March in Raleigh, North Carolina. Carolina is a fictional character that was born that morning. We had just finished a great Science Online Together meeting when we finally met in person with Mónica Feliú-Mójer and Marga Gual Soler. The ideas and discussion among the four of us, with great feedback from people at the conference and our community gave birth to something bigger and more urgent: More and Better Science en Español: a Call to Action published in Scientific American Blogs, and the Red Comuniciencia.

Do you wonder what we lose when people like abuela Rita don’t get context-relevant Spanish information about health? Wonder why Carolina needs to become Carol in order to become a scientist? Just want “más ciencia en español” now, Please join us!

Gracias.

Ivan Fernando Gonzalez

SPANISH:

La historia de Carolina


Carolina empezó a sentir que sus orejas se ponían rojas. No fue a causa de la temperatura en el interior del laboratorio, sino a causa de la vergüenza que sentía. Para los compañeros de Carolina ella se llamaba Carol, ellos tampoco tenían idea de que ella hablaba español, o que su abuela apenas hablaba un Inglés entrecortado.

La abuela Rita no era la causante de su vergüenza. Carolina estaba orgullosa de su abuela, una madre soltera que crió sola a sus hijos y los educó con un salario de aseadora. Pero cuando su abuela habló en español durante la visita de la escuela secundaria a la Universidad donde ella trabajaba como aseadora y llamó a su nieta por su nombre completo, Carolina sintió como si su abuela la había dejado desnuda delante de sus compañeros de clase.

Carolina quería decirle a todos los otros estudiantes que estaba muy orgullosa de su abuela. Que abuela Rita fue la razón por la que ella se interesó por la ciencia en el primer lugar. Que Rita le contó a Carolina muchos cuentos cuando era una niña pequeña. Historias acerca de los muchos frascos de vidrio con formas imposibles y los instrumentos de luces parpadeantes que ella veía cuando hacía la limpieza de los laboratorios de la Universidad. Rita también le contó acerca de lo que hacían algunos de los científicos con los que charlaba todos los días cuando ella recogía la basura. Fue abuela Rita quien convenció a los padres de Carolina que la dejaran ir a los talleres de ciencia después de sus clases, y fue abuela Rita quien le consiguió el internado de verano en el laboratorio del Dr. Jones. Pero Carolina no logró decir nada de lo que quería decir, ella sólo atinó a decirle hola a su abuela, y luego a esconderse en un rincón, con la esperanza que la ultra-centrifugadora operada por el postdoc de la bata blanca distraería la atención de sus compañeros, que no paraban de mirarla.

Sólo había dos hispanos en los talleres de ciencia de su escuela, Carolina y Margarita, pero ellas nunca hablaban español entre ellas. Su Inglés era impecable y Carol nunca dejó en clase que los compañeros conocieran sus raíces familiares. Pero no es que Carolina haya buscado abandonar el español, pasó más bien que el español abandonó a Carolina.

El Inglés de sus padres no era perfecto, y ellos hablaban spanglish en casa. Pero los padres de Carolina insistieron en que Carolina hablara Inglés en la casa y en la escuela. El Español de Carolina fue un producto de la obstinación de abuela Rita, de los libros en Español de la biblioteca, y del barrio mayoritariamente hispano donde Carolina vivió toda su infancia. El idioma Español era el lenguaje de los juegos y de los bailes con los amigos. Era la lengua del corazón, con palabras que hacían que los “huevos rancheros” de Rita sí supieran a lo que eran y con flores que olían a jazmines en una tarde lluviosa, nunca “tasty scrambled eggs” o “fragrant jasmine”. Sin embargo, tan pronto como Carolina se interesó en la ciencia, el Español se convirtió en un obstáculo.

La TV en español ya no era tan divertida, y tampoco lo era la radio. Carolina no veía ni oía acerca de mujeres hispanas haciendo lo que ella quería hacer. Sólo hombres blancos en batas blancas hablando en Inglés con subtítulos en Español, o peor aún, cómicos de pelo alborotado con acentos alemanes falsos. Su familia y sus amigos en el barrio no entendían realmente lo que ella hacía en los talleres de ciencia después de la escuela. Sobre todo porque ella sólo sabía las palabras en inglés para lo que quería describir, pero también porque la ciencia no era parte de la vida diaria de el barrio. En cierta manera la ciencia la distanció de sus amigos y su familia. Tristemente el mundo de Carolina se dividió. Un interruptor se encendió en su cerebro, y cada vez que la ciencia estaba en su mente el mundo sólo podía hablar Inglés.

No siempre había sido así. Hubo un breve momento en la vida de Carolina cuando Español y ciencia vivían en paz dentro de ella: fue hace dos años cuando abuela Rita estuvo en el hospital. Carolina era el intérprete perfecto cuando Rita necesitó un tratamiento para las cataratas. Las instrucciones médicas abrumaban a la abuela Rita, pero Carolina se tomó el tiempo para descifrar las instrucciones que venían en “Español”, con palabras a veces  ininteligibles, y las puso siempre en un lenguaje que su abuela podía entender. Revisó todo en Inglés y Español, y tomó de ambos lo que funcionaba mejor para Rita.

El personal del hospital que trató a abuela Rita todavía recuerdan a la joven nieta. Ellos saben que ella habla español y se llama Carolina. Sin embargo, dos años más tarde, en la excursión de su clase ella ya no es Carolina. Ella es Carol, y las caras de sus compañeros de clase muestran incredulidad cuando su abuela cambia sus rondas de limpieza diaria de pasar por el laboratorio del Dr. Jones para decir “hola Carolina”.

¿Qué ha pasado en los últimos dos años? ¿Por qué Carolina se siente tan avergonzada? ¿Cómo pudo Carolina convertirse en Carol? ¿Qué le hizo renunciar a su identidad cultural con el fin de convertirse en una aspirante a científica?

Esas preguntas fueron parte de una conversación con Luis Quevedo un domingo por la mañana de Marzo en Raleigh, Carolina del Norte. Carolina es un personaje de ficción que nació esa mañana. Acabábamos de terminar un gran conferencia en Science Online Together donde finalmente nos conocimos en persona con Mónica Feliú-Mojer y Marga Gual Soler. Las ideas y la discusión entre los cuatro, con una gran respuesta de la gente en la conferencia y nuestra comunidad dio a luz a algo más grande y más urgente: Más y mejor ciencia en Español: un llamado a la acción publicado en Scientific AmericanBlogs y también la Red Comuniciencia.

¿Se pregunta qué perdemos cuando gente como la abuela Rita no reciben información en su idioma, contextuada, y relevante sobre salud? ¿Se pregunta por qué tiene que convertirse Carolina en Carol con el fin de convertirse en una científica? ¿Sólo quiere “Más Ciencia en español”? Por favor, únase a nosotros!

Gracias.

Ivan Fernando Gonzalez

The seven things you should know about Non-English science communication

SciolangRoom
Picture: by @Luis_Quevedo, Sciolang Room at Science Online Together 2014

The background: What is ScioLang?

The Non-English science communication discussion session at ScienceOnline Together (ScioLang) started as mission impossible. My mission, if I decided to accept it, was to generate a discussion in a room full of strangers about how science is created, shared, and communicated beyond English-speaking audiences. So many languages in the world, so many communication needs, and so many national realities to explore, but only one hour to talk about them. It is just not enough time! But there are always strategies to face challenging tasks, and I called other people for help: The ScioLang volunteer ambassadors became the nexus to make this task less daunting, as each of them brought a unique perspective from a different language, making the discussion more diverse and giving a voice to people outside ScienceOnline. They started conversations on Twitter and other social media, sometimes several weeks before the live session, and gathered an impressive amount of feedback in their respective languages.

Some of the ambassadors attended ScienceOnline Together, some of them only participated online. With their help we had a total of fourteen languages represented on Twitter and nine languages represented in the room. It is thanks to those volunteers, and the audience in the room, that ScioLang became a very productive space of discussion. In short, even if this is a personal post, and all opinions are mine, they are based in the work and ideas of lots of people.

Seven take home messages from ScioLang:

  1. If you want to reach the world, you need to reach beyond English-speaking audiences. National languages are the best way to communicate with decision-makers, general public, and multilinguals that react more favorably to content in their native tongue. There is a reality that will not change in the near future: Native English speakers are less than 6% of the world population, and science communication needs to be multilingual to reach global audiences. Even in English-speaking nations, big migrant populations require that science communicators use multilingual channels. By population, United States is the fifth largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, and those 32 million people are better reached in their own language. In USA, and other large countries, global considerations become local due to recent migratory patterns: one of the participants in the Sciolang discussion is a teacher from a district with over sixty different student’s languages. Even if kids learn English at school, they shouldn’t need to choose between their cultural identity and science.
  2. English has become the “Lingua Franca” of science. International science journals are overwhelmingly publishing in English, a trend started three decades ago. English is a great tool for international collaboration, but English proficiency is not universal and creates an uneven playfield for the creation and sharing of science. Monolingual English-speakers are also missing out global science outcomes that don’t get translated to English. Conversely, scientific papers only published in non-English languages limit their outreach and impact.
  3. English has different levels of penetration in Science education internationally. While in Germany is fair to expect advanced science education programs to be taught in English, in Italy those classes are more often taught in Italian. In India people that has access to science education usually has a strong English-language background, while in Spanish-speaking countries English literacy in science may be high but inability to speak it fluently may be an issue. Often, English-spoken entertainment content is used to improve English verbal proficiency in lieu of formal education.

    sciolang
    ScioLang in a nutshell for you: Know your audience, and seek help from a diverse pool of collaborators. Modified by @gonzalezivanf from wikimedia
  4. The state of development of science communication in world languages is uneven. German has a vibrant landscape of publications and science communication outlets, but Arabic lacks outlets with original content and most of the top-level science is generated and shared in English. Therefore their communication needs and audience’s science literacy levels are quite different, beyond the expected cultural differences. Often countries have well recognized national champions of science communication, but sometimes they are isolated examples in a landscape where local initiatives are mostly non-existent or invisible. Some languages may have several science communication initiatives but lack enough shared references or main outlets to articulate those initiatives in a national movement. I believe the experience in Indonesian and Filipino Twitter discussions, and partly in Spanish too, was that some science communication names started appearing during Twitter exchanges and populating a landscape that initially seemed bare.
  5. Translation is second-best to create original content. Yes, great science communication content is scarce in some languages, and direct translation from English is welcomed, but often this “deficit model” will fail to engage global audiences. Translated material supporting the theory of evolution against detractors will fall flat in a Germany where evolution is just not an issue. If you want to engage German-speaking audiences then talk about atomic energy, or other issues affecting them. If you are going to talk about atomic energy, use footage of an energy plant in Germany, interview German scientists when possible. If you are going to talk about healthy diets after cancer treatment in Mexico, use examples with food that is actually consumed by your audience. If you are going to talk about seed dispersion in Puerto Rico, use plants examples that are common in the Caribbean.
  6. Use the help of native speakers to walk safely between the cultural landmines. Subjects of interest and way of treatment do matter. From the contentious tone in English-speaking social media that is seen as extremely rude in some other cultures (such as Swahili-speaking cultures), to the sense of humor that doesn’t necessarily translate, treatment of a subject requires the help of a local guide to avoid cultural landmines. Conversely, some subjects are just not appropriate for all audiences, for example, talking about obesity will disengage an audience in Brazil that is mostly concerned about chronic malnourishment and poverty.
  7. Context-relevant content is king in science communication. Science is usually contextualized by English-speaking people to English-Speaking audiences. If you do a direct translation without review of the subject and relevant context you may end up alienating your non-English-speaking  audiences with a context that is hard to relate. Ask for help from people that know the audience you want to reach. What subjects are relevant to them? What context is significant to them? The answers to those questions are fundamental for successful science communication beyond English-speaking audiences.

What to do next?

Visit the ScioLang forum for more resources of trusted networks and persons that speak different languages. Talk to your friends and neighbors, you may be surprised of the resources around you that have not been taped yet. But more important, enjoy the adventure of learning about the world of science that you may have missed.

For more information about the ScioLang session read Cristina Russo’s notes and Adam Taylor’s Storify. Thanks to Science Online and Karyn Traphagen for the opportunity to have this discussion, Cristina Russo and Tim Skellett for their comments on this post, the ScioLang ambassadors, and specially Cristina Rigutto for her notes on Italian scicomm and Beatrice Lugger for her notes in German scicomm.