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20/10/2014

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Shorts: December 2012

Can you see what it is yet?

Google Earth has inspired scientists to develop a new way for the public to interact with the Tree of Life, so that they can better understand the evidence for evolution.

In an article published in PLoS Biology, the researchers from the UK and the USA describe OneZoom, their new fractal-based way of interacting with the phylogenetic tree that summarizes all the evolutionary relationships between living and dead species.

Google Earth has inspired scientists to develop a new way for the public to interact with the Tree of Life, so that they can better understand the evidence for evolution.

In an article published in PLoS Biology, the researchers from the UK and the USA describe OneZoom, their new fractal-based way of interacting with the phylogenetic tree that summarizes all the evolutionary relationships between living and dead species.

James Rosindell (Imperial College London) and Luke Harmon (University of Idaho) use digital media to overcome the limitations of paper for visualizing large datasets. In their tree of life, the user can search and zoom in on branches and leaves of the tree to understand more about individual species, or zoom out to see the whole tree of evolutionary relationships.

Intuitive display

`This can be used to visualize as big a tree of life as you want, and in a very intuitive way.  It's very natural to us because it's similar to the way we explore the world around us: when we see something interesting, we move closer so that it becomes bigger and more detailed,’ Rosindell said.

He hopes to use the fractal-based way of presenting data to present all sorts of large and complex data sets. `I’m thinking financial datasets, political datasets, all kinds of things.  We have all this big data but we still only have a human brain.  That's why we need to have nice interactive visualisations to explore that data showing us the whole of it and parts of it at different scales,’ he continued.  

Alternative views

Chris Sloan is an owner of Science Visualization, a US-based content development  company that creates visual representations of science information for television, print, museums and workshops. 

`I am not sure if OneZoom is as revolutionary as the article describes,’ Sloan told P&S, `…but it definitely invites intuitive interaction and provides information in an orderly, well-managed fashion, which is at the heart of good science communication, and invites the curious to explore.’

The firm is co-organising the 1st Science Visualization Conference 2013 with George Washington University, which they plan to make free to attend and to broadcast it live on the web and social media.

`I was concerned at first [that] taxonomic relationships were being forced into the fractal framework, particularly given the uncertainties of many of these relationships, but then saw that the designers had dealt with this neatly by allowing one to view the tree minus the many sections of branches that are uncertain,’ he went on.

Guide for harassed scientists

A new guide has been published to advise scientists on how to handle personal criticism and harassment as a result of their research.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a US membership organization set up to ‘promote science in the public interest’, has published Science in an Age of Scrutiny with advice on how to respond to different forms of communication: harassing correspondence, a hostile blogger, demands for private information, or attacks through a mainstream source such as a newspaper editorial.

A new guide has been published to advise scientists on how to handle personal criticism and harassment as a result of their research.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a US membership organization set up to ‘promote science in the public interest’, has published Science in an Age of Scrutiny with advice on how to respond to different forms of communication: harassing correspondence, a hostile blogger, demands for private information, or attacks through a mainstream source such as a newspaper editorial.

Wild West

Michael Halpern, Scientific Integrity program manager at UCS, told People & Science, `Scientists have been attacked for decades.  Tobacco researchers have had people try to discredit them.  However, the internet has brought new methods and a relative speed that makes it more difficult for scientists to rebut attacks against them in real time.  It’s a Wild West out there,’ Halpern said.

Phil Jones, Director of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, is no stranger to scientific controversy. Towards the end of 2009 and a few weeks before a major climate change summit, his email account was hacked and selected emails released to the media by climate change sceptics, who suggested they showed climate data had been manipulated.

`The guide looks useful’, said Jones, ‘although it might be more applicable to America and would need to be modified to fit British regulations.’

Good advice

‘As odd as it may seem, you deserve congratulations’, says the guide. ‘The attention you are receiving shows that your research is now at the centre of public policy debate.’ Jones agrees. `It means you’re doing good research; it’s affecting them in some way,’ he said, adding, `I agree with the advice not to go onto [the critics’] blogs and start commenting there. It’s counterproductive.’

Dr Anabella Williams is Head of Engagement at Understanding Animal Research, which is funded by its members to promote understanding and acceptance of the humane use of animals in biomedical research in the UK.  

Harassment and personal criticism of animal researchers does happen occasionally, she said, but much less than before 2005-06, since when police have been able to jail people harassing and physically intimidating animal researchers.

She thought that the guide contained really good advice.  `Generally, when researchers get attacked, it’s something they’re completely unprepared for. I would be very happy to pass this to people who are under attack. I particularly like that [the advice] is broken down by form of communication. Although it’s written for scientists working in the US, it’s still got some very useful information.’

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Joanna Carpenter
Dr Joanna Carpenter is the Shorts Editor
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