Assignment: Popular Science


Learning Goals

The purpose of this assignment is for you to analyze selected aspects of science writing for a popular audience.

The assignment's learning goals:

• Examine critically the imagine of science conveyed in selected popular media;
• Assess writing strategies used to convey specialist knowledge and information to a lay audience;
• Use strategies found in popular science writing in your own work.

Please Note: This assignment has five options. Please choose one option.

Author Guidelines: Option 1

First, choose a resource (a web site, a popular science magazine, the popular science section of a newspaper, the New York Times science section for example, or academic journal) that serves as an outlet for popular science writing. I offer the following examples (but you can certainly select others):

Second, once you have chosen a specific resource, please develop a set of guidelines for an author that would like to publish an article in the resource that you selected. Here, you are assuming the persona of someone — an editor perhaps — that works at the resource (i.e., the specific web site, magazine or newspaper) who is providing guidelines so that the author can successfully publish their work. In the set of guidelines please include the following sections (but please feel free to include others or modify the existing sections) — the questions and observations provided are merely for generating thought, you need not respond to them directly:

    Introduction: Address the purpose of the guidelines and offer an introduction to the resource you have selected.

    Subject Matter: What is the subject matter of the resource and of the articles in it that you have read?

    Context: What is the purpose of the articles in this resource? What, specifically, is this resource trying to address in dealing with science? What should an author know about the context of this resource in writing an article for it?

    Style and Structure: What is the style and structure of article that are submitted to this resource? You may want to provide specific examples (e.g., specific passages and sentences).

    Miscellaneous Items: What additional items should an author take in to account — use of visuals for example — in writing the article?

    Documentation: How are quotes used? What kinds of sources do authors usually cite?

    Conclusion: Summarize the major point of the guidelines.

Requirements
Due: 13 November.
Length: 750-1250 words.
Format: Text posted to the appropriate forum on the wiki. Please work in your work processing program then cut, past and format in the wiki. Feel free to embed digital resources that you create and/or cite.
Citation: Use MLA (Modern Language Association) format.


Book Review: Option 2

Please write a review of an Oxford University Press "Very Short Introduction" on a topic in the natural or social sciences. The review is meant for a broad audience. While many models of reviews exist, perhaps the New York Times book review section might serve as inspiration. Key to your review will be citing examples from the text and explaining how the passages succeed, or do not succeed, in introducing a general audience to a complex idea in the natural or social sciences.

Oxford University Press has launched a series of "Very Short Introductions". These books cover a range of topics, but please select a topic of interest in the nature or social sciences. Examples include The Cell: A Very Short Introduction, The Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short Introduction, and Evolution: A Very Short Introduction.

Requirements
Due: 13 November.
Length: 750-1250 words.
Format: Text posted to the appropriate forum on the wiki. Please work in your work processing program then cut, past and format in the wiki. Feel free to embed digital resources that you create and/or cite.
Citation: Use MLA (Modern Language Association) format.


Metaphor: Option 3

Defined inelegantly, a metaphor is a play on words in which a comparison is made between two seemingly unrelated subjects. Typically, the first object is described as being the second object. For example: "The universe is a mechanical clock." The first object — "the universe" — is rather concisely described because the implicit and explicit attributes of the second object — "a mechanical clock" — provide an evocative description of "the universe." Metaphor, however, is not always used to describe the properties of an object; sometimes metaphor is used for purely aesthetic reasons.

We use metaphors to help define our natural and scientific world and explain our behavior and attitudes. As Anne Eisenberg says, "Once metaphors were the stuff of poetry not proteins — but no more. You are just as likely these days to turn across them in a scientific review as in a sonnet. Despite the 300-year effort by Hobbes, Locke and a legion of logical positivists to confine them to the English classroom, metaphors are suddenly inescapable in technical prose. From chemical scissors and solvent cage to optical molasses and squeezed light, from DNA fingerprints to read-only memory, metaphor is out of the scientific closet" (Scientific American, May 1992, p.144).

Ostensibly, metaphors in popular science writing, and more broadly, serve to convey the meaning of complex ideas or processes to a lay audience. In this 750-1250 word essay please identify, analyze and explain the function of metaphors in any of the articles in The Best American Science Writing. You may choose to examine the use of different metaphors in one essay, compare and contrast the use of a common metaphor shared in two or more essays, compare and contrast the uses of different, related, metaphors in two or more essays, or thoroughly analyze the use of one metaphor in one essay. Whatever focus you choose, please be sure to perform a close reading of the use of metaphor(s) in the essay(s) by going to the text, quoting the requisite passages, and offering a detailed analysis.

Here are some thought questions (you are not required to answer them directly) to help focus your analysis:

    • What concepts or processes are the metaphors attempting to help define? Elaborate on the concept and how the metaphor helps, or hinders, how it is explained. Does the use of metaphor, in this instance, help explain a concept or process to a lay audience? Why or why not? Are metaphors regarding the concepts or processes used among specialists in the field?

    • Many people think that metaphors are only used in poetry and literature. We use them so much that we are not even aware we are doing so. What are some metaphors you use frequently? Do these metaphors appear in the readings? Give examples of them and elaborate on their meaning. Are you aware that you are using metaphors? Is the writer aware of using metaphors? Do they lose their meaning when they become clichés?

    • Can metaphors simplify concepts too much? Do they serve a necessary function even with their limitations? What might some of the dangers be in using metaphors? What might some of the advantages be? Give specific examples from the readings.

Perhaps this article,"The Metaphor, Unchained", from American Scientist might help frame some of the issues you will address.

Requirements
Due: 13 November.
Length: 750-1250 words.
Format: Text posted to the appropriate forum on the wiki. Please work in your work processing program then cut, past and format in the wiki. Feel free to embed digital resources that you create and/or cite.
Citation: Use MLA (Modern Language Association) format.


Process Description: Option 4

Please write a 750 to 1250 word description of a technological artifact, or of a scientific or technical process, for HowStuffWorks.com.

    First, take a look at published "How ... Works" articles on HowStuffWorks.com. Through a close reading of sample articles identify the form of the article, the intended audience, the style employed, the level of technical discourse and jargon, and the use of visual images and hypertext links.

    Second, choose a technological artifact or scientific or technical process the web site's audience will find interesting and with which you are familiar. While the originality of your submission is highly valued, you may find articles on the site cover, to some degree, the same subject in which you are interested. No matter. If the artifact or process you choose has been described in a previous article, you can offer a unique approach or perspective not found in the article (e.g., describing more or less fully an aspect of the technology or the process than the article or adopting a different point of view). Ultimately, what qualifies as "unique" is left to your discretion.

Requirements
Due: 13 November.
Length: 750-1250 words.
Format: Text posted to the appropriate forum on the wiki. Please work in your work processing program then cut, past and format in the wiki. Feel free to embed digital resources that you create and/or cite.
Citation: Use MLA (Modern Language Association) format.


Science On Screen: Option 5

I am a fan of the television show Breaking Bad. If you are unfamiliar with the show, I will forgo a summary except to note the plot centers on the travails of a chemist, Walter White, and the processes involved in cooking crystal meth. Walter White's use of science to get into, and out of, extraordinarily complex and dangerous situations makes the show compelling viewing and, one might assume, may well serve as an inspiration for a few young students' legal pursuit of chemistry (much like the CSI franchise did for forensic science). If time and curiosity allow please listen to, or read, a discussion of "The Science Behind 'Breaking Bad'".

The portrayal of science, chemistry particularly, in Breaking Bad raises fascinating questions not only about the science proper (see Daniel Lametti's "Is It Hard To Make Methylamine?" in Slate), but also about the nature of scientific apprenticeship, laboratory technology, organization and pollution, experimental replication, quality control and availability, and regulation and distribution of raw materials needed for chemical experiments. These questions go beyond the image of science found in textbooks and get at issues that make scientific disciplines worthy of our interest.

In a 750-1250 word essay that cites at least five sources, please answer the following question: "Is Walter White doing science?"

As part of this essay you must clearly establish, based on your research and by citing sources, what is, and is not, science — and why, by giving specific, detailed examples, what Walter White is doing does, or does not qualify.

If you are not a fan of Breaking Bad, please feel free to substitute another genre and/or character to critically examine the issue of the popular portrayal of science on screen.

Requirements
Due: 13 November.
Length: 750-1250 words.
Format: Text posted to the appropriate forum on the wiki. Please work in your work processing program then cut, past and format in the wiki. Feel free to embed digital resources that you create and/or cite.
Citation: At least five sources. Use MLA (Modern Language Association) format.

Science Writing