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Masters Thesis: ORIGINS

Thursday, 03 August 2017 03:35PM IRLCoursework

About halfway through last year I was giving a presentation at work.

It was a run-through of our draft, to get approval from some folks higher up the food chain. We were talking about plants on board the international space station, and all the weird and wonderful stuff they might be used for in the future. In particular, we were looking at some plants that had been genetically modified. Whenever the plant was having to cope with something unusual, to change its chemistry to adapt to less than ideal circumstances, certain genes would be activated - and the plants had been modified so that the genes for a green fluorescent protein stolen from jellyfish would activate with them.

Basically, whenever they were stressed, the plants would glow.

Right now, this is being used as part of a research project, to help figure out how plants adapt to life in space, but we used it as a bit of a launching point to talk about the idea of biosensors. Perhaps one day, we said, like a canary in a coal mine, plants that glow when they're unhappy could be astronauts' first warning that something in their environment is wrong.

At this point, a particular member of our test audience raised their hand.

"Could we not talk about plants feeling happy or sad, please?"

This struck me as an odd nit to pick, but I changed my language for the rest of the presentation, talking rather dryly about stress responses and gene activations instead.

And for some reason this stuck with me. It was obvious to me that this talk was much more lively, much more accessible, when we talked about plants as if they had feelings. As if they were characters in the story we were telling. If I was being asked to stop, surely there must be some good reason behind it?

Fast forward about six months. I'm sitting in my supervisor's office, and we're talking thesis topics. We're tossing up between 'something about fake news and science' and 'something something career pathways in science communication', when a thought that'd been turning over in my head somewhere deep below the surface floated to the top unbidden.

"...or, there is this one thing I've kind of been wondering about."

So that's my thesis topic: Anthropomorphism. Treating things that aren't human as if they are; as if they have hopes and dreams and feelings and agency. What does that do to us, as an audience, when it's used to talk and write about science? Does it lead us towards misconceptions, towards sticky misunderstanding about the way the world works? Does it help people engage with a science story, when its topic seems a little more human? Or does it, perhaps, do both - and if so, when, and for who, does it do each?

It's a big question, and I'm only addressing a tiny sliver of it - but hopefully, that tiny sliver is enough not just to get me a masters degree, but to actually make me a better communicator as well.

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