The Sounds of Science

sciencemedia_transparentRose Eveleth, Ben Lillie and Bora Zivkovic love science.  Rose has produced audio and multimedia pieces for the New York Times Science Section, NPR and Scientific American.  Ben has a PhD in high-energy theoretical physics, and is a Contributing Editor to TED.com and co-founder and host of The Story Collider.  And Bora is the Blogs Editor at Scientific American and co-founder of ScienceOnline.  They’ve come together in an exciting new venture called Science Studio aimed at spotlighting the best radio, podcasts and one-off recordings that talk about science.  They launched a Kickstarter campaign on January 17 to help fund Science Studio and we interviewed them to learn more.

The Recollective:  On your Kickstarter page you mention The Best Science Writing Online book series and how you aspire to make Science Studio a source for the best science audio.  Can you describe what makes certain audio pieces about science better than others?

Ben:  Oh my, I wish I knew a general answer to that. The simple answer is good writing, a clear story, high-quality audio, and some fascinating science that we didn’t know, or is presented in a new way. But really, what we’re hoping to find is pieces that jump out at us — that trigger that “oooh” response that’s why we’re all interested in science in the first place.

Rose:  I agree with Ben, but I’m a blabbermouth so my answer is pretty much the same thing but longer. This is a really great question. In a lot of ways, the best science audio will have a lot in common with the best science writing out there. Science is really complicated, it’s dense, it’s muddy, it’s full of false starts and mixed results and confusing half answers. The best science audio – like the best science writing – gives people a glimpse into the phenomena that rule the world around them. The summary of one of the Best American Science Writing books includes the line “the world of science is vast and diverse, offering endless challenges and possibilities that provide new understanding of ourselves, our world, and our universe.” So that’s true for all kinds of science journalism and story telling.

But the thing that sets radio apart from writing is the sound. That seems obvious, but what it means for us is that the audio pieces we’re looking for use the form – the voices of their subjects, the narration, the background noise – to really enhance not just our knowledge of a topic, but our understanding of it on a really internal level. There’s something about hearing someone tell their story, or hearing a researcher’s voice, or hearing someone come to a realization or conclusion.

So really this is a long winded way of saying that the best science radio combines what makes great science writing great, and what makes great radio great.

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Ben Lillie, Bora Zivkovic and Rose Eveleth

The Recollective:  What inspired the three of you to start curating audio (and eventually multimedia) projects about science?

Ben:  Audio is in a weird place. There’s tons of good stuff being produced, but not a lot of great tools or resources for finding and sharing the great ones. In part, of course, that’s because it’s hard to search. But we think that if there’s a high-quality place, a site where people know they’ll find something good from a variety of sources, that might help jump-start people’s interest and excitement about the podcasts and other sources of great science audio.

Rose:  I spend an embarrassing amount of time on the internet just sort of, wandering. In that wandering, I come across all sorts of stuff – some of it really impressive, and some of it not. Finding the really great stuff, the stuff I want to share with people and base my own work off of, takes a lot of time and energy. Which is fine for me, since that’s sort of part of my job, as a journalist. But for a lot of people there simply isn’t time to wade through the thousands of websites and podcasts and graphics out there to figure out what’s good. And the people making that really good stuff deserve credit too.

The Recollective:  Can you describe what the curatorial process will look like once Science Studio actually begins?

Rose: We’re basing our project off a successful model founded by Open Lab. Every year, they ask the online science community (scientists, bloggers, journalists, enthusiasts etc) to nominate their favorite science blog posts from that year. They then review all the nominations, and have a panel of judges decide on the very best. We’ll do the same – our nomination form is open to anyone to nominate any of their favorite science audio pieces, and we’ll go through them and rely on some judges to help us pick the ones to highlight.

The Recollective:  How will you choose projects or programs and where and how will those selected projects and programs be spotlit?

Rose: Once we get all our nominations, we’ll start the judging process. This will involve some people we trust – people who make really great sciencey things on the internet already. We’ll ask them to help us pick the very best audio (and, in the future, multimedia). Once our winners are chosen, they’ll be featured on our website. That part is still under construction, but it will be really clean and simple. No frills, just the best stuff to watch, listen to, play with and think about.

You can learn more about Science Studio and support it with your donation at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/roseveleth/science-studio.

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