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The Planetarian's Tale

13 August 2018 02:36PM fictionscicomm

"Have you ever seen a star, kid?"

The kid nods. Who hasn't?

"No, a real one. Outside."

Confused, the kid shakes their head. Stars live inside, everyone knows that.

"When I was a lad," the traveller begins, "you used to be able to see the stars at night."

The kid's eyes roll. They'd asked for a proper story. This was a fairy tale.

"Before the City crept its way out here, before the smoke and light came, you could see entire galaxies stretching out over our heads."

"But they built, and they built, and they built. Blocks became houses, which became offices, which became skyscrapers. And eventually, they scraped the stars right off the roof of the world."

"People complained, of course. We knew what we were losing, even then. 'The Dark Sky movement', they called themselves, and they told us we were losing the dark. But progress is progress, and progress marches forwards. People cared. Just not enough."

"Instead, we built a fake sky to sate them. We sold them tickets and told them stories of what used to be theirs by birthright. The sky became a luxury, a novelty, and we convinced them it was the same thing."

"It's not the same. Not even close."

"Stars aren't fuzzy blobs you can reach out and touch, that you can catch and hold in your hand. They're cold and bright, and sharp - so sharp it hurts.

"They do their best with software and lenses and xenon, but all they'll ever have is fuzzy wishy-washy things stuck inside a basement.

"A real star is a true point source. It's a pinprick tickling your retina, an impossibly razor-thin edge honed by billions of kilometres of dispersal and backed by the energy of an entire sun. The starlight that hits your eye is a single, uninterrupted beam that stretches from you out into the universe, splayed out thread by thread to the very limit of human perception."

"The night sky is the crispest, highest definition thing in the universe.

The traveller falls silent and stares into the distance. The kid lingers, awkwardly, realising they're intruding on what's fast becoming a private moment.

"At night, we used to see stars."

"And they say, kid," he says as he picks up his pack, "That if you get far enough away, you still can."

Life is a subway

05 August 2018 04:32PM lifegames

There's this recurring concept in video games called a 'cooldown'.

The idea is that you can only push something so far, repeat an action so many times, before you have to wait for it (sometimes literally) to cool down.

As a gameplay mechanic, it forces you to think strategically about time. You have to plan your current actions, taking into account how much you've already used, and how much you're likely to need in the immediate future. Depending on how the system is set up, that calculus can get pretty deep pretty quickly.

One of my favourite implementations of a cooldown mechanic is in Mini Metro.

mini metro

In Mini Metro you're building a subway map, trying to link stations together to get passengers to where they want to go. If you have too many passengers waiting at any given station, that station is "overcrowded". If it stays overcrowded for too long, your subway closes down and the game is over.

The first thing I love about this is that it's cumulative. Once you clear the crowds at a station it doesn't reset immediately. It takes a while to cool down. Meanwhile, people are still stopping there - and if it overcrowds again, the timer picks up from where it left off. So if you've got a station that overcrowds once, it's not really a big deal - but if there's one that overcrowds regularly, your fuse gets shorter and shorter and shorter until you deal with whatever's causing it. Incidental overcrowding is fine, sometimes even a useful buffer. But chronic overcrowding will drive your subway into the ground.


The other thing I love about this is the way it lets you know that a station is overcrowded. Every stop has a little meter wrapped around the outside, which gives you a really good way to know how healthy your network is at a glance. But if ypu're zoomed right in, adjusting one particular part of the map, you're going to miss those telltales. So overcrowded stations also pulse, ever so gently, in a way that's visible and audible no matter how far you're zoomed in. It's subtle - so subtle you might not even notice you're noticing it - but it's enough to let you know something's wrong.

cooldown timer

One of my other favourite implementations of a cooldown mechanic is in the way I've come to think about work.

I could happily sit here and draw parallels for days, but the point I want to make is actually pretty simple.

There will be parts of life where you have to run yourself down a bit - deadlines, due dates, disasters. It's okay, even useful, to let things get a bit overcrowded, but you have to let them cool down afterwards

An important part of that is learning to feel when your stations are overloading before it happens. There's no dial winding upwards or increasingly urgent pulses in your peripheral vision to remind you. It's complicated by the fact that when you're busy, the last thing you have time to do is stop and think about how you're feeling.

It's not something you can do quantitatively either - say, setting yourself a three-project-limit - because the resources at your disposal and how they're structured and how good you are at using them are changing and growing constantly.

growing and changing

It's something that you have to do purely by feel. By learning to read those telltales. It's something I'm still working on, and it's hard, because by the time you start to feel tired or burnt out, it's already game over.

game over

Tea & sound & tools & shades

25 July 2018 12:00AM introspectionscicommtea

Every one of the strategies described in these chapters has worked for some writer somewhere; at least some of them are bound to work for you.

I recently finished reading Air & Light & Time & Space by Helen Sword*. It's a book about academic writing, where the author asks a bunch of successful academic writers about their writing habits. It's part research project, part show and tell and part self-help book, which might sound like an odd combination but it's a surprisingly successful one.

It doesn't insist on beating you over the head with mantras about waking up at dawn and sculling black coffee and pounding out a thousand words before breakfast. Instead it's descriptive, and makes suggestions, and encourages you to think about what might work for you.

So that's exactly what I'm going to do.

I don't think it's a coincidence that my writing habits sound a lot like my thesis year. Partly that's selection bias - it's by far the most work I've ever done in my life. As examples go, that's definitely my big one.

But it's not just that. I had a lot of work which had to get done. The things I did while I did that work, even if they weren't directly a part of it, wore a groove in my brain. It didn't just reflect the way I work, it changed the way I work.

I'm going to try and break that experience down into its component parts. Partly for my own reference, and partly because maybe it'll work for someone else out there too.


While I'm certainly a fan of drinking the stuff, the real value for me is in the process of brewing it. It's something to do with my hands and my mind that's not typing. It gets me out of my chair, even if it is just to the kitchen. It forces me to stop and stand and wait for things to boil and brew.

One of the nice things about switching to loose leaf tea (aside from the fact that it tastes better) is that it draws that process out. It makes everything a little less mechanical and a little more thoughtful.

But I'm sure the caffeine doesn't hurt either.


There's a lot of research that shows sharing an office with other people - especially if they're not working on the same projects as you - really puts a dent in your ability to focus.

Headphones aren't a perfect solution, but they do at least let me choose my background noise. Perhaps more importantly, they've grown to serve as a social cue to the people around us that you're trying to focus and that they shouldn't interrupt you.

But really, I think this one is purely Pavlovian. I just spent a lot of time blocking out a noisy office last year. As a result I've conditioned myself to work best in the sonic and mental environment of the imaginary medieval library that lives in my headphones.


I have a handful of red Pilot G2s. They cost about four dollars each. I carefully open each one up, and replace the .7mm red ink with a .5mm black one. The red barrel makes them easy to identify, and fills exam invigilators with horror. The thinner refill makes them so much of a joy to write with that I will gleefully cover my notebooks in doodles.

I have replaced laptops because the keyboard was too spongy or flexed in the middle. Doesn't have to be mechanical, but it does need to feel solid. There needs to be little bursts of satisfying tactile feedback to make you want to keep hitting the keys.

Every keypress, every scratch, should be satisfying. The bare minimum is that your tools don't make your experience worse, but the ideal should be tools that make you itch to use them.


(Excuse me while I pivot wildly from poetic to practical...)

I wanted the last heading to rhyme with 'space', hence 'shades', but what I'm actually talking about here is regular old glasses. And the reason is pretty simple:

Splitting headaches really put a dent in your productivity.

This feels like it's been a little self-indulgent. I think asking you to post your own version is probably doubly so. I absolutely wrote this for myself and I'm sharing it just because I can, but that's not really the point.

I love hearing about how other people work, but even if you don't share, I'd encourage you to at least think about what your habits might be. Speaking from personal experience, once you understand what it is that helps you to work well, you can start to do it a little more deliberately.

* Can we just take a second to appreciate what an amazing last name this is?

People aren't dumb.

14 July 2018 12:00AM scicommrantshighlight

A science writing manifesto.

People aren't dumb
People aren't dumb.

a clock
They're efficient, but they aren't dumb.
(They care about their time, just like you.)

a monocle
They're discerning and/or picky, but they aren't dumb.
(They have specific interests, just like you.)

a venn diagram
They're differently specialised, but they aren't dumb.
(They've chosen a career, with its own knowledge and skills, just like you.)

And if they're motivated, they are 100% capable of learning all about a thing if they need to, or even if they just want to.

Your job as a communicator is to support that, because academic communication isn't designed to.

It's not that it's bad, it's just not fit for purpose.

an expert
It's not designed for use by non-experts.

a shiny
It's not designed for a competitive reading environment.

a smiley
It's not designed to tap into people's intrinsic motivation.

And that's where you come in.

Cavitation Bubble

30 June 2018 12:34PM scicommrants

I went into this degree surprised that scicomm was a field. Leaving it, I think maybe it shouldn't be.

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

The Mantis shrimp is a deep sea creature with a remarkable special ability. It can pull its claws apart so quickly that it leaves a void in the water around it. As the water rushes in, it creates a brilliant flash and a bang, and which the mantis shrimp uses to stun its prey.

That bubble? That flash and bang? That's science communication.

Just about the most profound comment I got on my thesis was right near the top. I'd used the phrase "science communication" somewhat flippantly, and without really defining it. My supervisor jumped on this, and left a comment saying she wasn't really sure there was such a "thing" as science communication. There was only science, and different audiences for it.

the comment in question

I, to use the vernacular, was shook. I certainly wasn't prepared to have the existence of the entire field I was studying questioned so flippantly - in a Microsoft Word comment, of all places. But I thought long and hard about this, and I decided that I'd sidestep the entire definition debacle by saying just that. I wasn't researching science communication. I was researching science writing, for a non-expert audience. It's simple. It's direct. And it gets the point across to a non-(scicomm)-expert much more clearly. Always practice what you preach, folks.

That comment stuck with me though, and the more I think about it, the more I think it's true. Science communication isn't a field of study. It's an interface, between the knowledge and processes of science, and the broader community of non-experts. It's got no substance, no content of its own. It's just about different audiences for something which already exists.

But wait - if science communication isn't a thing, how can you study it?

Well, in a perfect world, you wouldn't. The interface where the experts meet the non-experts would be seamless, pressed together so tightly that you'd have a hard time sliding a sheet of paper in there, let alone a field of study. And once upon a time, probably back around the Renaissance, they were.

But today, for a whole bundle of reasons, they're not. Science moved faster and faster and faster, pulling away into the future, branching, specifying, specialising, faster than anyone but those who were part of the movement could keep up with. And instead of looking back, or - god forbid - slowing down, the scientific community just sort of... forgot that their work had any audience beyond themselves. Instead of pulling up, they cut and run.

So the experts are heading off one way. And lately, the rest of us aren't just staying behind. We're recoiling in horror as our data is used by computer scientists to do things we never signed up for, or sticking our fingers in our ears and running the other way because we don't want to believe the planet is warming. For better or for worse, we're actively pulling in the other direction too.

When two surfaces pull apart that quickly, a vacuum forms - and with a flash and a bang, science communication was born.

In a perfect world, this field wouldn't exist. It didn't to start off with, and it might not again. Whether our little bubble collapses in on itself and leaves everyone stunned and further away than ever, or whether it pulls together two things which should never have been separated and winks out, only time will tell.

For now, I'm just happy to be along for the ride.

Hi. My name's Rockwell, and I am a science communicator do science for the rest of us.

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