Bow Shock

Photo by Christian Nielsen at unsplash.com

The film opens with a time-lapse of an astronomical observatory framed against a backdrop of stars rotating slowly overhead in the night sky. We hear foreboding music that suggests the inevitable passage of time. Then we see astronomers at work inside the observatory gathering data from various sensors and arrays aimed at nearby asteroids, distant stars, and far-away galaxies. Throughout the night, the scientists and staff deal with routine problems such as a faulty temperature sensor. Meanwhile, the telescope camera is methodically snapping images of celestial objects.

 The next morning, a young researcher notices an unusual visual pattern in the night’s data—a curved distortion in space that resembles a bow wave generated by a ship moving through the ocean. Such interstellar phenomena are called bow shocks. But this one seems to be different. She takes her discovery to the director of the astronomical institute, who is taping a public service video about their new telescope and state-of-the-art camera, which captures the telescope’s entire field of view and creates a tridimensional cartographic image of the sky. After she finishes recording the voice-over for the video, the director tells the young scientist to put her images from last night’s work on screen. They watch as the computer stitches the images into a time-lapse view of the bow wave moving diagonally across the starscape. The young researcher estimates that it is traveling at about one third the speed of light. More calculations reveal that the bow wave is passing through the Oort Cloud in the outer reaches of our solar system. Whatever it is, it’s right on our doorstep.

Then, the director points out something really astonishing…the bow wave appears to be slowing down.

Although the scenes depicted above are fiction, they were filmed at a very real observatory, newly built for the purpose of wide-field optical surveys of the universe—the Observatorio de Astrofísico de Javalambre located at Sierra de Javalambre in Teruel, Spain. The film, entitled “Bow Shock” is a collaboration between filmmaker Javier Diez and scientists from the Javalambre Physics of the Accelerating Universe Astrophysical Survey (J-PAS). It was screened at the 2016 Imagine Science film festival and later archived at Labocine—a platform for new-wave science films. Watch it here: Bow Shock.

We are all familiar with science fiction films, which often take us to the edges of human imagination: The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner. Alien. But Bow Shock belongs to a new genre called “scientific fiction”, which is a cross-fertilization of science fact and cinema. Emphasis is on getting the technical details right (something Hollywood often fails at) while telling a compelling story (something Hollywood excels at). In this particular film, the observatory and its research goals are real, but the story being told (about the bow wave discovery) is fictional. The idea is to provide an accurate account of the science while telling an intriguing story of how scientists of the future might use this new observatory to spot evidence of extraterrestrial life or other celestial phenomena. It’s an interesting approach that, in my opinion, has a lot of promise.

Bow Shock is a good example of scientific fiction—in this instance with actors playing the parts of scientists and observatory staff. The film is technically sound, well made with eye-popping visuals of astronomical techniques, and tells an intriguing story. Information about the observatory’s unique telescope and camera system is cleverly conveyed in the fictional story by having one of the characters record a public service video summarizing key features of the system. This approach is much more palatable than having a scientist give a dry, awkward speech on camera to introduce the observatory and its equipment. The fictional story about the bow wave does more than capture and hold the viewer’s attention while the more technical aspects are presented. It illustrates how astronomers look for unusual patterns in data collected with telescopes. By featuring the bow wave phenomenon, the film not only shows how astronomical research is conducted, but also how the observatory might make important discoveries in the future.

Of course, the biggest discovery would be to find signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. The film hints at this possibility, and the scientist actors speculate about how First Contact might occur and what response we might expect. This focus on First Contact takes advantage of people’s fascination with the question of whether life exists outside the Earth. There’s also a bit of historical irony in the film when the Spain-based astronomers recall what happened when Spanish conquistadors encountered the people of the New World. The analogy between early (Spanish) explorers sailing the oceans in search of new trade routes and spacefaring aliens sailing across the galaxy suggests to the viewer some potential outcomes based on known historical encounters. In other words, the film gives the viewer a lot to think about, but without resorting to exaggeration of the science.

Using scientific fiction to convey information about science is an interesting idea. Scientists often struggle to talk about their research in a way that is both understandable and appealing to the average person. Scientific fiction might be helpful in this regard, especially to show how a line of research might lead to breakthroughs in the future. By taking this approach, science filmmakers can spark people’s imagination about what discoveries a line of research may reveal. Humans are hard-wired to get their information in the form of a story. And, making such a film could be a lot of fun. Bow Shock was made by professional filmmakers and actors, but such a film could be made by a group of scientists or science students collaborating with film school faculty and students, for example. The scientists would ensure that the technical details were conveyed accurately, and the filmmakers would provide the cinematic expertise and acting talent. Coming up with a fictional story that is scientifically accurate would be challenging, but could be enlightening for the scientists involved. For more examples of scientific fiction films, check out the Labocine series.

Of course, you don’t have to make up a story to create a compelling film about science or scientists. In my next post, I’ll talk about taking a documentary approach to making films about science that resonate with viewers who otherwise have little interest in science.

Teaching Better Communication Skills in Science Courses

In the wake of the recent U.S. presidential election, scientists are redoubling efforts to communicate the importance of science to society. Part of such an effort must be to train the next generation of scientists to be more effective communicators than my generation was. For some years now, there has been a growing movement to improve communication of science. Courses and programs focused on teaching scientists and science students to be better communicators have been implemented at a few institutions of higher learning (for example, the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stoney Brook University). Some science societies (AGU is a great example) also are sponsoring keynote talks at conferences on science communication as well as workshops and webinars that teach members about new communication tools and practices.

Progress has been slow, however, and many science students still receive little, if any, training in science communication. At best, undergraduate and graduate students may be given class assignments that provide training in traditional modes of scientific communication—writing a scientific report or giving a conference talk, for example. Although such skills are necessary for someone to succeed in a scientific career, new skills involving modern communication technologies are increasingly required of science professionals. Furthermore, some experts say that scientists wishing to inform the public about the importance of their work must go where the consumers of science information hang out: social media (Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat) and media-sharing platforms (YouTube, Instagram, Vine). To do so will require 21st century communication tools and knowledge of how to use them. Those who acquire such skills early will be at an advantage later in their careers—an ability to communicate with a diverse audience may even make a difference in getting a job. More broadly, a large cohort of trained scientist communicators can help counter anti-science and pseudo-science movements, which threaten the way science and scientists are perceived by policy makers, the media, and the general public.

Of course, not every science professional can or should become a highly visible communicator on the order of Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson. That level of participation and visibility is not what I am talking about. Instead, I’m suggesting that we raise the overall communication skill level of students just enough so that when they must interact with policy makers or the general public as scientists, they can do so more effectively and confidently. One way to encourage and train students to communicate science is to make learning communication skills part of science courses. In addition to the typical course material, students may be given assignments that help them become better communicators. They might create a talk for the general public; an infographic about an important scientific issue; or a video about a species, habitat, or process covered in the class material. The idea would be to introduce students to 21st century communication methods as well as to begin their training in how to effectively engage audiences outside the scientific community.

So, how might this work in a science class?

Recently, I was asked by a colleague, Dr. Tracy Quirk, at Louisiana State University to speak to her class about how to make videos to share science. The course is called “Plants in Coastal Environments”, which covers the distribution and ecology of plants growing in coastal wetlands and adjacent habitats. The course is taught in conjunction with a university-wide program, Communication Across the Curriculum, which endeavors to enhance students’ communication skills in four areas (speaking, writing, visual, and technological). The course must focus on two of these four communication skills and create class assignments that address the requirements for those selected modes. For example, to demonstrate visual skill to communicate discipline-specific information, students might create a video or some other sophisticated visual product. In a communication-intensive course, a portion of the final grade must reflect communication-based work.

One of the class assignments for this particular class was to select a plant species studied in the course and make a video about it. There were about twenty students, who worked in pairs to design and produce a video about coastal plants such as Avicenna germinans (black mangrove), Spartina alterniflora (smooth cordgrass), or Taxodium distichum (bald cypress). Early in the semester, I gave an hour lecture in which I covered some basic information about planning, filming, and editing a video—enough to help the students avoid common filmmaking mistakes and to give them a few ideas for designing their video projects. The students then worked on their video assignments through the following weeks, many filming parts of their video during class field trips to the coast of Louisiana or, for graduate students, during field trips to their research sites.

I again visited the class near the end of the semester when the students presented their completed videos. I was really impressed by the results. The videos were interesting and told intriguing stories, for example, about how a species adapts to the wetland habitat or the relationship of the species to a broader environmental issue such as the BP oil spill. Each video was required to include some data from the literature relevant to the species, and all the student videographers were able to weave that information into their stories. Overall, I could see that they had paid attention to the suggestions I made in my lecture. Most avoided the novice mistakes I often see in first-time videos. Every video was rated by each student, which provided peer feedback on which aspects were good and which could have been done better. What stood out to me was how much more appealing a video was when a student appeared on camera and told a more personal story or impression to introduce their topic. This approach was engaging and quickly grabbed the viewer’s attention. The other thing I saw was that the students came away from the experience with a better appreciation of what it takes to be an effective science communicator. And that, folks, is an important insight for someone who plans to be a science professional.

Below are two of the videos created by students in this class (direct links to videos here and here):

In summary, by emphasizing the use of communication tools such as video in science class assignments, educators can help raise the overall communication skill level of students and better prepare them to compete in the 21st century. As I said above, the goal is not to create an army of Carl Sagan clones, but simply to help future scientists be a bit more engaging and informative in their interactions with the lay public. A little bit of training in communication can go a long way toward improving the overall level of performance when a scientist is called upon to be interviewed by the news media, to testify before Congress, or to give a public lecture about science.

If you are a science educator and are interested in learning more about how to teach better communication skills or if you are a student wanting to acquire those skills, there are many tools and resources available (for example, see the AAAS site or the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science).

How to Get and Keep Your Video Viewer’s Attention

Video is a fantastic medium for the communication of science. However, it’s not an easy medium to master, especially for science professionals who are not typically trained in filmmaking techniques. I’m not talking about the technological challenges of using audiovisual equipment and software, though. I’m talking about how to design a video that others want to watch.

When I first began making videos about my research, I approached the process like a scientist rather than a filmmaker. My natural inclination was to communicate the way I had been trained as a science professional. We are taught to communicate by presenting a logical series of facts and findings, supported by data—lots of data. We are also taught, in the interest of accuracy and precision, to include excruciating detail—all the uncertainties and limitations of our findings. And, we must look and sound serious when delivering a science message—otherwise, our colleagues won’t find us credible. This approach may work just fine with our peers but does not necessarily work for other audiences. In fact, it often fails miserably with the general public.

In the beginning, it never occurred to me that I needed to look at things from a filmmaker’s viewpoint rather than from a scientist’s viewpoint (this insight continues to be the one that most surprises and confounds the science professionals who attend my workshops and webinars). But over time, I gradually realized that using video as a communication tool required me to meet the video viewer’s expectations, which is different from someone reading an article or listening to a conference presentation. This is true even if the viewer happens to be a scientist with specialized knowledge of the topic. We all interact with videos in the same way. In addition to gaining information, we expect that information will be delivered in a certain way—one that doesn’t bore us to tears. Too often, though, that information is presented like a bad-tasting medicine (take this, it’s good for you). Not surprisingly, few people want to watch.

So, what does work?

For the answer, one need only look at popular science video channels on YouTube: Veritasium, Smarter Every Day, MinutePhysics, and ASAPscience. In fact, let’s look at an example video from Veritasium by Derek Muller who creates videos about science (often physics) and then I’ll talk a bit about why it’s so effective.

OK. This is one of the more popular videos on the Veritasium channel: 8,967,145 views since its posting February 24, 2014. That works out to an average of about 10,400 views per day. Many of his other videos have similarly received millions of views; one has almost 33 million views. The popularity of the overall style of Veritasium’s videos is further evidenced by the number of subscribers to the channel: more than 3.5 million people. So I think it’s safe to conclude that these videos are very popular and that the channel has succeeded in reaching a lot of people.

What specific features set Veritasium’s videos apart—features that you might employ to improve your science videos? Here is my analysis:

  1. Lead with Awesome. A lot of science videos, especially those created by scientists, start out with a long, boring exposition. In contrast, most of the videos on Veritasium start with a bang. Little time is spent at the beginning explaining or introducing the scientific concept to be featured in the video (that information is provided later). The videos on the Veritasium channel typically open with a “hook” such as a question, an intriguing observation, or an amazing demonstration. In other words, the video gets right to the point in the first few seconds. The video, “2, 4, 8” is a good example. In the first ten seconds, the video asks if you can figure out the rule behind the number series. Also, notice that no time is wasted on awkward introductions of the people in the video, including the host, Derek Muller.
  2. Challenge Misconceptions Carefully. Many of Veritasium’s videos try to correct common misconceptions about scientific concepts, but in an indirect, non-threatening way. A direct approach might have a scientist on camera list common misconceptions and explain why they are wrong. This tactic is often not effective, partly because the viewer may feel that they are being “talked down to” or lectured  by someone with superior knowledge—and they become more resistant to hearing the truth. Instead, Muller interviews average citizens on the street to get them to reveal common preconceived notions or misunderstandings about a particular subject. The expert then leads everyone, including the viewer, to the correct answer. In “2, 4, 8”, we see a series of people struggling to figure out what “rule” Muller has in mind. The viewer can’t help but play along. The outcome is that instead of being a passive receptacle for information, the viewer becomes an active participant in the exercise that eventually reveals the answer to the puzzle. The expert (Muller) then explains (briefly) the significance of the exercise.
  3. Don’t Over Polish. I think people are turned off by “shock and awe” science videos that contain over-the-top animations and are produced at great cost by film studios. One reason may be that such videos seem to be desperately trying to get the viewer’s attention with special effects rather than relying on the awesomeness of the science. The Veritasium videos are technically sound, but not “slick”, and one gets the idea that these are low-budget productions. In the “2, 4, 8” example, the video was shot on the street by Muller’s mother who operated the camera. Such unpolished videos appeal to many viewers and may even enhance their admiration of them.
  4. Be as Brief as Possible. Most of the videos on the Veritasium channel are brief—just a few minutes in length—enough time to get across the basic concept without trying the viewer’s patience. The “2, 4, 8” video was just under five minutes. But there is no perfect length. A video should be as long as necessary to get across the message. The scientist videographer is often tempted to cram in more details, but too many details can obscure the message. The “2, 4, 8” video could have included much more information about the scientific method, but this would have been overkill. We just don’t need a long lecture about confirmation bias or Karl Popper to “get the no”.
  5. Keep the Viewer’s Interest. Veritasium videos, including “2, 4, 8”, are designed so that the viewer gets invested in watching the entire thing. The longer you watch, the more interesting things you get to see and hear about. As a viewer, you are interested not only in the answer to the riddle but whether you can figure out the “rule” before any of the people Muller is interviewing. If you figure out the rule early in the video, you continue watching to see if you are correct and also how long it takes the other people. If you don’t figure out the rule, you continue watching to see what the answer is. Either way, you’re hooked. Check out the comments below the “2, 4, 8” video. Many commenters talked about whether and when they figured out the answer.

Oh, I almost forgot the most important aspect of these videos: they are fun to watch! Here’s one more from Veritasium to illustrate the point:

Drone Footage: Think Cinematic

I came across a nice 3-part series of videos by Sebastian Wöber that provide some tips about getting better aerial footage with drones and working with drone footage during editing. Wöber made these videos because he said that although there were a lot of technical, how-to tutorials out there, none showed how to get really cinematic-quality footage with a drone.

If you are thinking about buying a drone for filmmaking or you already have one and wish to improve the quality of your footage, these videos may help.

Wöber used a DJI Inspire 1 to make his points. Some of the topics covered in part 1 include safety considerations, details about the Inspire 1, setting up a shot (perspectives), and lighting considerations. In parts 2 and 3, he goes into more detail about the limitations of the camera in the Inspire 1 and using After Effects to make corrections during editing (these tips are a bit more technical and require more experience with professional filmmaking and editing techniques).

Overall, though, his suggestions are good for those videographers interested in getting more cinematic aerial footage of landscapes. If you are an amateur videographer, you will find part 1 the most useful, which I’ve embedded below. You can find all three videos and more information on the Cinema5D website.

 

Muddy Mangrove Movie-Fest

mangrovemud_klmckeeIt was the third day of the conference, and we had just finished a walking tour of a local mangrove forest and shoreline at Ludmilla Bay, north of Darwin in the Northern Territory, Australia. Everyone was hot, thirsty, and sweaty as we filed into the air-conditioned auditorium at Charles Darwin University for the “Muddy Mangrove Movie-Fest”. We were about to be treated to a viewing of several videos made by researchers, conservation groups, and independent filmmakers–all focused on the topic of the conference–mangroves.

Earlier this month, I had traveled back to Australia to attend another meeting of the Australian Mangrove and Saltmarsh Network. The previous year I had been invited by the organizers to give one of the keynote talks. My presentation was titled “Communication Tools and Strategies for the 21st Century Scientist” in which I encouraged students and scientists to consider using the new media (blogs, video, social media, etc.) to share their work more widely within and beyond the scientific community.

Apparently, the attendees of the 2015 AMSN conference liked my message because they started planning a movie-fest for the next meeting that I was now attending in Darwin. The Muddy Mangrove Movie-Fest was opened by acknowledging me as the inspiration for it. I was thrilled to have been able to motivate others to go out and make videos about mangroves and mangrove research. Even better was to be present for the official screening of those videos at the 2016 AMSN conference.

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You can see the list of videos that were screened in the image at left. Not all of the Muddy Mangrove Movie-Fest videos are online, but some are. In fact, I had already seen and highlighted on this blog (Use Video to Share Your Dissertation) one of these videos (not knowing that it was to be featured at the Darwin conference).

I met the Ph.D. student, Mike Miloshis, featured in that video (Rise of the Mary River) at the Darwin conference earlier in the week. He came up and introduced himself and asked, “Aren’t you the Scientist Videographer?” I laughed and said that I certainly was. Then it hit me that I was talking to the student in the video I had critiqued on this blog.

As the lights dimmed and the first video began, I thought, “What a great idea–having a session at a science conference featuring videos created by attendees about their research.” Some of the videos were informative, some were inspirational, and some were funny. But the audience seemed to enjoy all of them. I know I did.

Here are the Muddy Mangrove Movie-Fest videos that are online (if anyone knows where the others are posted, please let me know):

Rise of the Mary River

Reducing the Risk of Disasters through Nature-Based Solutions: Mangroves

How to Get a Great Sediment Core

The Sinking State of Mangroves

Coastal Habitat Archive and Monitoring Program (CHAMP)