I mentioned this about a month ago to this list, so I’d like to remind everyone about a great public outreach opportunity. We’re currently signed up for several slots in the 365DaysOfAstronomy.org podcast. This is a podcast open to submission from all over the world about any topic of interest related to astronomy. As such, people from all over the world with hugely varying degrees of expertise download and listen to this podcast. This is a great opportunity to get involved in public outreach, get your name out in front of the general public, as well as an important addition to your CV or grad school application. If you’d like to know more about the site and the podcast in general, I suggest reading through their “about” page.
I started doing these as an undergrad at Columbia University. The grad students there mobilized to establish a “Columbia Mondays” recurring series during 2009. We did quite a bit of them, and you can find links to all of them from here. I was thinking we could do something similar for astrobiology at JHU. We can do podcasts on any topic you like–current events, your research, hobbies, etc–as long as you can link it back to astronomy/astrobiology in some way. I’ve done about 6 of these myself, ranging from a discussion of the Galileo probe’s discoveries at Jupiter, the science behind detecting moons around extrasolar planets, to an exploration of my interest in the history of astronomy.
Doing a podcast requires writing a transcript, recording yourself reading the transcript, and then uploading everything to the site. The writing part requires the most time and research, but if we do this as a collaborative effort (someone writes about an area of interest, the rest of us providing copy-edit and revisions) it should go quickly. Then, using David Coren’s suggestion, we can record and edit the podcast at the Digital Media Center in Mattin in just a couple of hours.
We have four dates reserved on the calendar: Feb 12, April 25, Sept 26, and Nov 28. The very first one is Darwin’s birthday. We should do something Darwinian related. Let me know if you’re interested in doing this first one. We’ve got to have it submitted February 7th.
As we grow as an organization, we’re slowly starting to make use of tools like Google Docs to get business done. Here’s a post over at Astrobetter that delves into one group’s experiences with using Google Docs to write an NSF proposal.
The huge advantage of using Google Docs to write the proposal was that we could all work on the same document at the same time. There was never various versions floating around or emailing comments back and forth that would need to be laboriously incorporated. Instead, we highlighted sentences that we needed to discuss and left notes and comments directly in the text. You can even see the other people’s cursor and selected text so you can either avoid working on the same bit of text at the same time or watch another person’s edits in real time. A couple days before the deadline, we all edited and polished each other’s text. If we weren’t sure about the edit, we highlighted it and the used the sidebar chat to quickly come to a resolution. I think this simultaneous polishing by three different people got us to a high-quality final product extremely efficiently.
Here’s a list of scientific writing tips from a science journalist that are good to follow regardless of whether you’re writing a journal article or an email to a friend. They dissect a famous human genome paper from Nature to address points about using jargon, long and short sentences, subjective and objective clauses, active verbs, and speculative voice. My favorite piece of advice is “you should be able to read a sentence out loud in one breath.”
Here’s a great article in the current issue of Nature about writing research papers.
One of the problems, perhaps, is that analyses of writing rarely seem to be very scientific. Advice is qualitative and descriptive; there’s no objective way to test which of two essays or two scientific papers is crafted more effectively. I’ve learned the difficulties of teaching good writing in some recent seminars I’ve given, with a colleague, to PhD students and postdocs. It’s easy to point out good and bad examples, less easy to identify the principles of effective written communication. Break your thoughts up into manageable pieces and express them in simple sentences. Ensure each paragraph expresses one coherent point. Let more complex arguments emerge by stringing simpler points together. And try to write more or less as one speaks, with ideas arriving sequentially, rather than in parallel.