The Complexity of Science in 140 Characters

500 Words | Written by Lee Schneider

Last week’s post on Medium about science and pop culture stirred up something of an online storm. Some scientists on Twitter felt that they ought to be left alone to do science and didn’t need to communicate all that much with the public. Other scientists and science journalists seemed happy, because the more talk about science, the better.

I felt the disconnect keenly. Those doing science often think one way about communication and those who to write about science have a different view. It’s not often an easy relationship between these two camps. You want a couple examples? Ed Yong writes ‘A Guide for Scientists on Giving Comments to Journalists’ with the idea of offering to optimize conversations between scientists and journalists. Chad Orzel fired back on his blog that some of the guide rubbed him the wrong way. Emily Darling writes in The Conversation that It’s Time for Scientists to Tweet. RealScientists has a Twitter stream that does just that. While over on Ben Lillie’s Tumblr, he writes compellingly about why one of the world’s top theoretical physicists cares so much about doing science that he wouldn’t think of trying to write a pop book. In a video on Lille’s Tumblr, we hear particle theorist Nima Arkani-Hamed say that his real job as a scientist is to push physics forward and try to learn something new about the way nature works.

Can’t argue with that. Granted, no matter how much I and others might ask for more accessibility to science and science thinking, some scientists will say ‘Hey, don’t bother us. Can’t you see we’re busy doing science?’ Other scientists may look askance at public communications as self-promotion and therefore distasteful.

Is it necessary at all to widely communicate science and science thinking? I’d say yes. To get funding at least, communicating to one’s peers is a form of self-preservation for scientists, but communicating with everybody else is self-preservation for us all. We need science to boldly enter the public conversation and raise the level of that conversation. We need design thinking to solve social problems. Are science fiction movies sometimes silly? Sure. Do they get the science wrong? A lot. But so many scientists I’ve interviewed for various documentaries have told me that their first and lasting introduction to science was through a movie, a tv show or a piece of speculative fiction. A bit of pop culture sparked their interest and we are all the better for that.

Ben Lillie, who is director of The Story Collider and a Contributing Editor for, puts it this way: ‘I’d say communication is so important it should be done by people who are obsessed with doing it well.’ A big yes to that. Nobody wants to force scientists to blog. (Because forced blogging would be sad.) But for those who want to, there are a myriad of communications channels now that didn’t exist even a few years ago. NASA’s Instagram feed is looking pretty good. The Story Collider itself is a super resource. Consider, also, one of the world’s great paradoxes: The complexity of science seems often to work well operating under the 140-character restrictions of Twitter. There are great science conversations going on there, and some worthwhile disagreements online.


  1. I agree… but, what has to be overcomer: Scientists and academics don’t like to be subject to “flame wars”, and “opportunists” looking to make a name, at their expense.

    Going public, in blogs, is an act of “in your face”, and takes “supreme self-confidence”.

  2. Lee Schneider

    Agreed, and this is the dilemma of most writers, bloggers and journalists, too. If we’re first to bring something up, we will almost certainly be the first to draw criticism. But that’s the game. As someone once said, ‘If everyone agrees with you, you’re too late.’

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