“Assume you are writing for someone with a degree in history.”
As pointed out earlier in the workshop and highlighted elsewhere,1 the primary source of current news events and science and technology information for most people in the United States today is the Internet and television. At the same time, many people continue to look to newspapers, magazines, and books (print media) for this type of information. In this session, speakers discussed the strengths and weaknesses of communicating chemistry and science using print media and the ways traditional print media are evolving to meet the growing demand for Internet content. John Emsley from the University of Cambridge discussed steps to becoming a science writer. Ivan Amato of the Pew Charitable Trusts discussed the opportunities that exist to highlight chemistry. Joy Moore from Seed Media Group provided insights using print media and science blogs to promote a better understanding of chemistry.
John Emsley started this session focusing on popular science writing and chemistry. For those just starting out in this area, he said to write for college magazines or company newsletters, “for the love of the thing, not for any money.” After building up a portfolio, one can then approach publications that will pay for the articles, such as local newspapers and popular science magazines. After working through these steps, he eventually had a column in a national British newspaper called “Molecule of the Month.” Later (about 15 years ago), he was approached to write books. “If you want to become a popular science writer, don’t try and run before you can walk,” Emsley cautioned. He emphasized the need to build up a portfolio of work before attempting to jump into writing a book.
Emsley explained that there are two kinds of science books, those for an academic audience and those for a general audience. Academic books are printed in small numbers (fewer than 1,000) and are for readers who are looking for specialist knowledge. General audience books are printed on a large scale for readers who want to know more about the subject and to be entertained while reading about it. One of the books Emsley wrote, Molecules of Murder, was the result of prompting from his agent. He suggested that Emsley combine popular science and true crime to appeal to a general audience. As a result of that prompting, Emsley ended up writing two books, one called Elements of Murder and one called Molecules of Murder, which are two of his best-selling books.
“Don’t Give up Your Day Job Just Yet”
Emsley talked about what he thinks prevents chemists and other scientists from becoming popular science writers. One factor is the adverse effect it can have on one’s career. Some people in an academic department may view it as taking away from research activities. Another contributing factor is the difficulty scientists have expressing ideas in very simple terms. They are afraid of putting things in print and making mistakes, because people will remember those rather than remember the good points. Another barrier to becoming a popular science writer may be what Emsley calls the “sneers of your peers.” Once those barriers are overcome, it is then possible to think about writing.
Emsley spoke about the common mistakes new writers make. One is assuming the audience is knowledgeable about the material covered. The audience may not understand all
1For more information, see National Science Board. 2008. Science and Engineering Indicators. Arlington, VA: Division of Science Resources Statistics, National Science Foundation. Available at http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind08/c7/c7s1.htm and The Pew Internet and American Life Project at http://www.pewinternet.org/.
FIGURE 3-1 Advice from John Emsley about including chemical formulas in science writing.
SOURCE: John Emsley, University of Cambridge.
the technical words or be interested in having all the details carefully spelled out. There really is no time to do that in popular writing, because “you have got to keep the story flowing, you have got to carry people with you.”
Emsley strongly advised not using technical terms. If it is necessary to use a technical word, then the next word in the sentence has to explain what it is. For example, rather than saying nuclear magnetic resonance, it would be better to say it is a magnetic technique used to determine chemical structures. He also said not to include complex chemical formulas in writing, such as shown in Figure 3-1. He said that structures such as H2O and CO2 are fine, but nothing more sophisticated than that should be used. Otherwise, most readers will not understand it and will tend to stop reading at that point.
Emsley cautioned—as many in journalism do—not to overestimate peoples’ chemical knowledge, but also not to underestimate their intelligence. He also said not to expect people will read every written word. He said he was told when he was a newspaper writer, “Assume you are writing for someone who has got a degree in history, who is no scientist.” A writer also should not assume that people read every word of an article. He said, “Tell the beginning of the story quickly, tell the whole story quickly, and then go into depth later on.” Many people never get past reading the headline of a newspaper article.
Emsley provided some insights on choosing what to write about. He said people want to read about something that is new. They like something that is an answer to a previously unsolved problem or that overturns a widely held belief. They like a news item that promises a better future or appeals to national pride. One place to look for ideas is in areas where chemistry is important to people’s lives. While writing for magazines and newspapers, he would look through the short papers at the back of the Journal of the American Cancer Society. He suggested approaching an editor and saying, “I have just read this, do you want me to write something?” Other “hooks on which you hang a story” that he mentioned included sex, health and money, discovery and novelty, danger and confrontation, and national benefit.
Commenting on how to make chemistry interesting to a nonscientist, Emsley said that it is important to include a lot of human interest information. “The general reader is looking to read about people rather than things,” he said. For example, when talking about a research finding, it is good to give the names of the researchers, their status, age, where they work, and their role in the study.
Emsley ended his remarks with this: “It is difficult to start out writing. When I lecture students at Cambridge, I always end up saying, become a writer, but don’t give up your day job just yet.”
Ivan Amato elaborated on the reasons he thinks the field of chemistry does not get the attention it deserves:
1. Chemistry is the back story. For example, stories written about pharmaceutical drugs tend to focus on the impact of the drug, such as saving a person’s life, rather than about the brilliant chemistry and reaction discovery that went into putting that drug into the hands of a physician.
2. Chemistry is hard. Amato said, “Chemistry is why so many pre-meds do not go on to medical school. It is the thing that took the 4.0 or 3.5 [grade point average] down to 2.5.” Chemistry is often thought of as being hard and not the most enjoyable experience, rather than something that is fun and interesting.
3. Chemistry is invisible. While chemistry is everywhere, in materials, medicines, fuels, and more, it tends to go unnoticed by most nonscientists. “The molecular bases of things are invisible and they are a harder thing to talk about than looking up at night at the stars or a medical drama where there is life and death,” said Amato.
4. Chemistry is an umbrella term. Chemistry covers many areas of specialization that are not always identified as chemistry. Areas under the disciplinary umbrella of chemistry can also be somewhat disparate, such as polymer chemistry and biological chemistry.
5. Chemistry is an arcane language. Talking about chemistry can be like talking in a foreign language. Amato said, “I think it is very hard for the chemistry community or for anyone who gets close and works with this language all the time to keep it in mind.”
6. Chemists are culturally biased against publicity. This is not peculiar to chemistry, but it is a cultural issue that comes both from the science community and from the editors and the editorial boards of journals. There seems to be a sense of power that comes from using tough language that only specialists can understand.
BOX 3-1 MEN AND MOLECULES
by Roald Hoffmann
Cantilevered methyl groups,
battered in endless anharmonic motion.
A molecule swims,
dispersing its functionality,
scattering its reactive centers.
Not every collision,
not every punctilious trajectory
by which billiard-ball complexes
arrive at their calculable meeting places
leads to reaction.
Most encounters end in
a harmless sideways swipe.
An exchange of momentum,
a mere deflection.
And so it is for us.
The hard knock must be just right.
The eyes need lock, and
glimmers of intent penetrate.
The setting counts.
A soft brush of mohair
or touch of hand.
A perfumed breeze.
Men (and women) are not
as different from molecules
as they think.
SOURCE: Printed with permission of Roald Hoffman.
In Awe of Chemistry
Amato then proposed that one way to counteract the negative views is for chemists to celebrate and draw more attention to the Periodic Table of Elements. For example, he highlighted Theodore Gray’s elaborately detailed wooden Periodic Table.2 When Amato looks at the Periodic Table, he feels a sense of awe. He said, “It is a magnificent thing. If you think about what this is representing, not only is it an incredible consolidation of a vast amount of scientific research and discovery and intellectual effort and brilliance, but it is a representation in some ways of everything that ever was, is, or will be. That is a very awesome thing.”
However, the chemistry community squanders that opportunity. Amato explained, “[The periodic table] is all of the Hubble images of astronomy, right there, for the chemistry community, if a certain kind of language and ways of thinking about it and embracing it can be worked on.” He shared poetry about the Periodic Table. He wrote a poem called God’s Table.3 Chemistry Nobel laureate Roald Hoffmann has also written a poem titled “Men and Molecules” (Box 3-1).4 Amato described the Periodic Table as a “mandala of creation. It is every color, every texture. It is an encryption of everything that ever was, is, or will be.” He said “teachers should tell students to take off their goggles and gloves and stare at the table,” and the table should be “set in a rococo frame, gold leafed and intricate, flanked by candles day and night, never coiled up like a window shade, unfurled merely for academic reference.”
Amato explained that poetry is hardly tapped as a way to communicate chemistry. When Amato was with the American Chemical Society (ACS), Hoffmann actually did a poetry reading at an ACS national meeting in the McCormick Exhibition Convention Hall in Chicago. Amato described how Hoffmann was surrounded by analytical instruments, mass spectrometers, spectrophotometers, glassware, pipettes, and other displays, and “in a tiny part of real estate in the vast Convention Hall of the ACS meeting, there were about 200 people, standing room only, listening to Roald Hoffmann talk about chemistry with emotion.”
Amato emphasized the idea that chemistry is in culture, not apart from it, and that it really is all around us. He said that “we don’t actually have to reinvent the wheel, although that is fun to do and I think we should try. There are examples out there that should be inspirational. I love this idea of a hugely corporate funded reservoir of money [proposed earlier by Stephen Lyons] for creative people to begin to follow through on some of these examples.”
Amato discussed examples of chemistry in the cinema. One of his favorite movies from 1940 is The Man in the White Suit, in which the main character invents a new polymer that can be turned into a fiber for making a perfect fabric that never wrinkles and never stains. Another movie is Lorenzo’s Oil, which Amato described as a “great human” and “chemistry-rich” story about a couple who tries to find a cure for their child who has a rare medical disorder.
Amato also highlighted examples of chemistry in literature, such as the book Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks. He said, “If there is ever a book-length love letter to chemistry, this book is it.” He said there could be no better public relations coup—and something that should be done for the chemistry community and the public at large—than to turn that book into a movie. “This is where I think we should get corporate money to do this.” Other books Amato highlighted included The Periodic
2www.theodoregray.com/PeriodicTable/ (accessed November 12, 2010). Also, see B. Halford. 2007. Theodore Gray: Element enthusiast talks about making a periodic table for the 21st century. Chemical and Engineering News 85(48): 50.
FIGURE 3-2 Engraving of a magnified view of cork tissue showing the cellular structures; a branch from a cork tree is also shown.
SOURCE: Robert Hooke (1635-1703), Micrographia. U.S. National Library of Medicine, History of Medicine Division.
Although his main focus has been words and writing, Amato said, one of the things that has made a big impression on him is the imagery found in the primary research literature. Many of the images can be thought of as art. He said, “You can focus on the aesthetic components of it even as you think about the scientific content.” He provided examples of imagery from the early days of science, including examples from early optical instruments, telescopes and microscopes. One from Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, which he said is “one of the most important early microscope images in the history of science.” For example, there is the slice of cork that Robert Hooke looked at under his microscope; he saw the compartments and thought they looked like the cells of a monastery—so he called them cells (Figure 3-2).
Other examples of impactful images Amato showed included a flea from Victorian times and the brain from a book by Thomas Willis, who was a contemporary of Isaac Newton. Another example given was the work of cellular neuroanatomist Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1906 with Camillo Golgi “in recognition of their work on the structure of the nervous system.” Cajal helped develop various silver-based other kinds of dyes that enabled him to visualize the cellular details, such as the retina neurons shown in Figure 3-3.
Amato also showed covers of Science and Nature magazines, which are magazines that “have recognized the beauty of the imagery of data forever.” He thinks of the covers as “a temporally distributed walk in a science gallery.” A cover from Science is shown in Figure 3-4. He then provided many examples of images from his book Super Vision. Many of the examples used scanning probe microscopies, which he described as “the Hubble instrument of chemistry if someone so chooses to embrace it that way and push it.”
Amato also explained how artists are capturing images from within science labs.8 For example, there is a photographer who collaborates with a surface scientist at the University of Georgia. This scientist works with metal oxide powders and generates structures that the photographer finds beautiful in Ansel Adams-type landscapes.
Amato discussed two more creative examples of communicating chemistry. He said that one of the best speakers he has ever heard on the Periodic Table is an artist named Rebecca Kamen.9 She is a local Washington, D.C., area artist, who knows all about the history of the Periodic Table and generated her own sculptural interpretation of the Periodic Table (Figure 3-5), titled “Divining Nature: An Elemental Garden.”10 In an exhibition of the work, she included dancers and music to create what Amato described as an “unbelievable experience.” He described how Kamen brought together “communities and populations that would never even think about chemistry or want to have anything to do with it.” It was one of the most
5P. Levi, R. Rosenthal, and N. Ascherson. 1995. The Periodic Table. London: D. Campbell.
6N. Stephenson. 1995. The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. New York: Bantam Dell.
7C.A. Bradley. 2009. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. New York: Delacorte Press.
8One important example not discussed in the workshop is the collaborative work of Felice Frankel at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and George Whitesides at Harvard University. See F. Frankel, and G.M. Whitesides 2009. No Small Matter: Science on the Nanoscale. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. For more information, see http://www.felicefrankel.com/index.html (accessed April 13, 2011).
10I. Amato. 2009. Rebecca Kamen: A sculptor nurtures an elemental garden. Chemical and Engineering News.87(40):43-43. For more information, see http://pubs.acs.org/cen/science/87/8740sci3.html(accessed December 26, 2010).
FIGURE 3-3 Various types of nerve structures in the retina by Nobel Prize winner Santiago Ramón y Cajal, based on visualization of cellular details using silver-based dyes.
SOURCE: U.S. National Library of Medicine, History of Medicine Division.
engaging presentations of the Periodic Table he said he has ever seen, rivaling that of his past chemistry professors.
Another art form Amato mentioned was theatrical plays. One example given was the play Should’ve by Roald Hoffmann, which involves the topic of synthesizing saxitoxin, one of the most toxic natural compounds known. In the play, saxitoxin is used for terrorist purposes, and this opens up interesting complex ethical discussions about how science can be used both for good and bad.11
Joy Moore talked about her company’s transition from print to digital media. She explained that Seed Media Group (Seed) is a media and technology company based in New York City. It does a number of different things, from publishing a magazine to developing software. The company was funded by Adam Bligh, a young scientist who eventually founded Seed magazine and its parent company. She explained that Adam and the company believe very strongly in the potential of science to change the world. Therefore, the company focuses on creating media and software to support science, public understanding of science, and scientists themselves. She said that Seed uses science as a lens: “it is not the science content that is the focus, but rather science as a process and a way of thinking and a way of understanding the world around us.”
Moore explained that Seed magazine, which has been around for a few years, recently (like many other magazines and print media) has focused more on material online. “Seedmagazine.com is really where it is at these days,” she said. “We are publishing online daily, and we also publish ScienceBlogs, which is the largest conversation about science on the [Internet].” Moore also discussed researchblogging.com, which is
11For more discussion on Hoffmann’s play and “Experiments of Concern,” see I. Amato. 2007. Experiments of concern: Well-intentioned research, in the wrong hands, can become dangerous. Chemical and Engineering News 85(31):51-55.
FIGURE 3-4 Chemistry-related cover art for the journal Science depicts a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) image of carbon and phenolic inverse opals (image width ~17 mm).
SOURCE: A. A. Zakhidov and I. Khayrullin. 1998. Science 282(5390): 897.
an aggregating service for bloggers who write about peer-reviewed research. Another feature is the Seed Visualization Lab,12 which helps customers communicate complex data in new ways. Seed also hosts many live events, including one at the Museum of Modern Art. The event featured various scents and explained the science behind them.
In preparing for her talk, Moore looked at what Seed had published about chemistry. She was surprised to find there was little chemistry content, despite all of the tag words that are given to posted content. She said she asked the editorial staff about what she found, and confirmed that overall the amount of Seed content that has been explicitly designated as chemistry is very small. When she talked to one of her editors about why, what he told her was similar to what others had mentioned previously in the workshop. He said, “part of the reason behind the apparent dearth of chemistry content is that chemistry is easily subsumed by other fields and bigger questions, so it is about the ‘why’ rather than the ‘how.’” For example, using chemistry to create a new clinical drug is often not reported or treated as a story about chemistry. Instead, it will be a story about health and medicine. Elucidating the processes by which carbon compounds form in interstellar space is typically not treated as a chemistry story either; it will be an astronomy-space story.
FIGURE 3-5 A close-up of the installation, Divining Nature: An Elemental Garden, by sculptor Rebecca Kamen. The artist created a garden of “flowers” out of Mylar and fiberglass, inspired by the electron orbital patterns of the 83 naturally occurring elements in the Periodic Table.
SOURCE: Rebecca Kamen, Artist, Professor of Art, Northern Virginia Community College.
The Seed editor said that in his experience most pure research in chemistry is not very easy to cover or talk about in a compelling and interesting way for general audiences, for several reasons: the very long and easily confused names of many organic molecules and compounds, the frequent necessity for use of arcane and very specific nomenclature, and the tendency for most potential applications to boil down to an incremental increase in quality of a particular consumer product. Thus, from a science journalistic point of view, chemistry is a real challenge to cover, but he said, “That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of opportunities.”
A few recent articles from Seed specifically about chemistry were highlighted by Moore. She said there is a lot of interest in green chemistry in particular. For example, one article she showed was about green chemist Amy Cannon (Figure 3-6). Moore said that green chemistry is one area where Seed can intersect with human interest and the science behind it.
Moore also talked about science blogs. She said, “I think there are a lot of really interesting things going on in the blogosphere and also a lot of potential that could help
FIGURE 3-6 Seed article on green chemist Amy Cannon.
SOURCE: Web screen shot, Joy Moore, Seed Media Group.
inform the way we think about communicating in informal learning about science and chemistry.” She said that Seed Media launched ScienceBlogs in 2006 as an experiment. The goal was to raise public engagement in science by creating a platform for conversation about science between scientists and nonscientists, she said. “Whereas Seed magazine’s journalistic content is one way, it is didactic, ScienceBlogs was designed to be a forum for people to discuss science.”
Seed started with 15 bloggers in 2006 and has since expanded to 130 bloggers. Moore explained that Seed picks the best bloggers, those who are going to write about interesting topics in interesting ways, and who are going to keep people coming back. They have attempted to have as much editorial diversity as possible, “We want to cover as many areas of science as we can to give the richest overall perspective.” In addition, since 2006, Moore showed that ScienceBlogs’s audience and page views have grown on a par with some of the most prestigious and oldest names in science journalism and science publishing, such as Nature.com, Discover, New Scientist, and Scientific American (based on data she compiled from compete.com performed April 28, 2010).
Seed Media had published more than 135,000 individual blog posts across the platform of bloggers, according to Moore. It has attracted more than 2 million comments, which, she said, means it is achieving its original goal of engaging the conversation, as shown by a really good ratio of comments to posts. “A lot of the excitement in reading ScienceBlogs is going through the comments and looking at the discussions that the commenters are having with the bloggers and then even with each other,” Moore added. In addition, Seed Media has generated 300 million page views and has used ScienceBlogs to raise money for math and science teachers across the United States.
Moore noted that ScienceBlogs is giving scientists, who are also interested in writing, a platform; it gets them exposed. On ScienceBlogs’s website there are dozens of scientists commenting in real time on many aspects of science. She added, “Most bloggers are eloquent, funny, sarcastic, and really smart. No sooner does a paper appear in a major
or even a minor journal, than they jump in with knowledgeable reactions.”
Seed Media has also partnered with the mainstream media in some instances. For example, the “Science” section of the New York Times website shows feeds from ScienceBlogs. Seed Media also entered into a partnership last year with National Geographic digital media, where Seed provides ScienceBlogs content to its platforms across the world. Similar to Seedmagazine.com, Moore said there is no specific channel in ScienceBlogs dedicated to chemistry, but there are a number of bloggers who use chemistry in their work.
Two chemistry-related blogs were highlighted by Moore. The first one, called Speakeasy Science, is by a new blogger Deborah Bloom. Bloom is not a scientist, but chemistry informs her writing, especially her new book on the birth of forensic toxicology. Moore also showed a new public health blog from Seed, called the Pump Handle. Seed has also focused more on chemistry, in particular environmental toxins. Moore added, “So again, as we go through we can find the chemistry as the supporting characters, but maybe not the star of the show.”
Moore also talked about work Seed Media has done in the area of research blogging. She explained that it is not directly related to communicating science to the public, but it might provide some tools to start evaluating how chemistry information in particular is being discussed in the blogosphere. It provides some data and metrics that might help look for new ways to relate chemistry to other subject areas to get at a high profile.
Moore said that Research Blogging is a tagging and aggregating tool for bloggers who write about journal articles. Bloggers who occasionally discuss journal articles on their blog sites can join the Seed Research Blogging community. Seed provides the blogger with some code to put into blog posts that allows Seed to pick up those blog posts and aggregate them. Seed then offers the blogger on its website, Researchvolume.org. This allows people to search across the blog posts within these blogs. Moore said bloggers can also syndicate comments through the various Seed feeds, widgets, and other websites. It basically brings together blog posts about peer-reviewed research. At the same time, Seed gives a direct link back to the journal article, so that people can read the original source.
“Who are these bloggers?” Moore asked. She said the blog posts take many different forms. Sometimes someone is simply pointing out an interesting article or picking a topic and citing two or three articles to preface it. Other bloggers almost do a mini review. These are much more in-depth analyses or criticisms of papers.
Moore mentioned two researchers in the Netherlands who are studying bloggers in depth.13 She said they focused on scientometrics and webometrics, and gathered data by going through the Research Blogging website. In particular, they focused on the chemistry blogs on Research Blogging. She said they did a completely independent analysis of how the blog’s coverage of chemistry articles compared with traditional citation metrics. They concluded that the blog coverage of the chemistry literature was more efficient than the traditional citation process. The science blogs were found to be faster in terms of reporting on important articles, and they also did a better job of putting the material in context within different areas of chemistry. In general, the science blogs were also a more useful tool for navigating to new information, in contrast to waiting sometimes years for other citations to journal articles to come out.
Moored ended her talk by saying that Seed Media will continue to build on the use of new social media and the Internet to create new models for publishing as well as new techniques for reaching new audiences.
Pat Thiel from Iowa State University commented that many of the remarks made in this session, particularly those by Emsley, would benefit not only communications efforts geared at the scientific and general public, but also communication among scientists themselves. She said that there is too often a barrier for communication even between scientists in the same specialty, because they tend to use different languages.
Blogging and Civility
Bill Carroll asked Joy Moore about the blogs and scientific discourse. He commented, “One of the things that I find discouraging about reading many blogs or various comments is that it very quickly goes from one point of view to an opposing point of view to “you are a jerk.” My question is, How do you keep [the blog] generating light and not heat?”
Moore responded that they have taken a “very, very light” editorial approach at Seed. “We leave it up to the bloggers to control their own blogs,” she said. “Some of the bloggers frankly thrive on controversy. You go to their blogs because you know you are going to see a couple of fistfights, whereas others set the tone for much more civil and controlled discussions.” She said that “it has been fascinating. It has been 3,
13P. Groth, and T. Gurney. 2010. Studying scientific discourse on the web using bibliometrics: A chemistry blogging case study. In: Proceedings of the WebSci10: Extending the Frontiers of Society On-Line, April 26-27, 2010, Raleigh, NC. Available online at http://journal.webscience.org/308/ (accessed November 19, 2010).
almost 4 years, to see how this new medium has evolved. You could either try and put some rules down in order to control it, or give it some breadth to see how it evolved, and we have chosen the latter path.”
John Miller with the Department of Energy asked Moore if she thinks the activity on Research Blogging might eventually replace the peer review system for journal articles. Moore responded that in her personal experience as a journal publisher, she definitely thinks this is a possibility on the horizon. She said, “What I find fascinating about Research Blogging is that a lot of these blog posts are filling the gap between the article being published today and then some months or maybe a year later when you see the letter to the editor appear in the published journal. So as thousands and thousands of people are reading these journal articles, only a few actually take the time to write up a formal letter to the editor. Then it goes to peer review, and then it may or may not be published. Because blogging is the medium that it is, we are able to see what people are spontaneously thinking and writing about right away, and that accelerates the discussions about the papers.” Moore added that Research Blogging also improves communication from scientist to scientist, not only to the public. She said that somebody who has read the paper knows what it is about and they can digest it and explain what they think is important or what might be questionable. She said Research Blogging is serving the purpose of “meta-analysis of the literature, as opposed to a formal peer review.”
Chemistry as the Supporting Actor, Not the Star
Steve Lyons commented that he was struck by the fact that both Ivan and Joy mentioned that one reason chemistry is not more visible is that it is often in a supporting role. Lyons asked if there was a way to get the public to recognize the critical role that chemistry plays in stories that are perceived to be about something else.
Amato said, “There is a chemistry back story, if you can have what you might call an explainer story in journalism.” That is where chemistry is not the main story but it is a big part of the story. For example, in the big oil spill there is a lot of chemistry to discuss, such as the dispersants and the chemicals used in the drilling industry. He said that there are some stories like that coming out, but not many.
Another example Amato mentioned was when the “Cash for Clunkers” story came out. The killing agent for the engines was a sodium silicate solution, which is essentially “liquid glass.” He ended up learning all about the sodium silicate market, how the compound is made, and what it is used for. Amato said they ran an explainer story online in Chemical Engineering News that was eventually picked up by the Wall Street Journal.
Amato also gave an example of a story he wrote about the Russian Alexander Litvinenko, who was killed by polonium poisoning. He wrote a detailed article about how polonium actually kills. Wired magazine later ran the story. Amato said it was a lesson on the power of social media and how stories can end up getting much, much wider exposure, “If you have the interest and it is a good topic, you can end up getting these chemistry stories out to where you wouldn’t expect them.”