Over the summer I had an article published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society – commonly known as JACS. It is a fairly big name journal in the chemistry community and this was the first article published that officially had my name attached to it, so I was pretty excited! I quickly emailed the paper out to my friends and family.  I got a few congratulations and other replies, but what stuck with me was an email I got from my Dad which had an addendum on it:

I see plenty of technical papers about things I have no grounding in whatsoever, and most of them I can at least get an idea… as to what’s going on, why it’s important, etc. But I read your abstract and I’m not sure there was a single sentence I could even guess at the meaning of.

It made me think, that if my Dad – who is an electrical engineer and has some pretty strong background in science and engineering – can’t understand my paper, how is anyone else going to know why it is important and why it is relevant? I know that it is interesting and useful, but if nobody else does than what is the point?

Dr Neal Lane

Dr Lane


Soon afterwards I attended an interesting seminar given by Dr. Neal Lane – former head of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and former Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under Bill Clinton. He put forth the idea that good policy relating to science and technology was like a tripod, with three legs representing: the science community, the law makers, and the public. Communication between all three legs is critical in order for good decisions and good policy to be achieved. However, he told of numerous situations where the data presented by the scientific community supported one certain policy choice, but that often politicians would vote the opposite way because they perceived that their constituents did not view it as a priority. He blamed this on a weak science to public link, and that while scientists and researchers were talking to policy makers, they were not doing enough to engage the public and to make them understand why their research was important and necessary.

Supporting Dr. Lane’s assertions is this recent blog post in The Guardian which puts forth the argument that publishing scientific research in peer-reviewed journals is only half of the job. Here’s a nice summary quote:

Stopping with [publishing] the paper does only half the job. For starters, only a few people (0.6 on average, according to a statistic quoted by Rees) will read the paper. Fewer will understand it, and probably no one will tell the nonscientific world what it means or why it matters. And if you’re a scientist, shouldn’t you want everyone to know your work matters, and why? It’s important, valuable work, right? Presumably that’s why you do it – and why you think (as I do) that the public should help fund it.

The whole article is a great and I highly recommend reading it through. I found myself agreeing heartily with what he was saying. I do want people to understand my work, I want to explain why it is important, and certainly I want them to realize that their tax-dollars are well spent on scientific research!


A hastily made logo


All of these things led me to the decision that I needed to start my own blog: Electron Café. The name comes a combination of something science-y (electrons – the charged particles that drive chemical reactions and provide you with electricity) and Café – a location with a history of holding informal and often exciting philosophical discussions intended for the general public. In a similar vein, I hope to use this space to:

  • Talk about and explain my own research and other research going on in the broad field of basic energy science, in an understandable, non-jargony language, that will be accessible to anyone who is curious!
  • Present a few brief primers on topics relating to basic energy research that will aid those not in the field in understanding how scientists talk about their research.
  • Point out other interesting and important happenings in the scientific world.
  • I will probably post some links to explosions, because honestly if Mythbusters taught us anything it’s that you can’t talk about science without exploding something.
  • Open it up to answer questions people may have about science, research, energy, renewables or any other topic that may arise!

I hope  you will find something to pique your interest!

– PV


11 responses »

  1. K. says:

    Paul, this is excellent. As someone whose career is veering toward becoming that “science to public link,” I will definitely keep reading!

  2. K Rooks says:

    Explosions!? Where? I have high hopes for future posts.

  3. I think that one of the big reason that scientists don’t often explain their work to the public is because it’s difficult. You’ve got to have a good understanding of something to be able to put it into terms that someone with no background in the topic can understand. But it is a very important thing to do. Good luck!

  4. The Dad says:

    There happens to be FORUM FOR SCIENCE, CULTURE AND SOCIETY museum here in Dresden (too bad I won’t get a chance to get over there. A kid with his face buried in a portable device engaged in I’m sure some nonsensical function almost walked into me, and I thought we as a society have a big problem (ppl ignorant of science, etc.) and right there is both a cause and a symptom. Great blog – will look forward to future posts. (Oh by the way – a large part of my aforementioned science and engineering background was spent making the brains of said portable device …)

  5. Dan Bodoh says:

    I look forward to reading. Here’s one science-for-the-common-person blog I’ve read in the past; it links to others: http://twistedphysics.typepad.com/

  6. Patrick Konold says:

    Good stuff Paul!

    I agree, although, I suspect this disconnect goes far beyond our paltry scientific discourse. In my estimation, most of the “7 out of 10” at large lack the attention span to rigorously analyze even the most trivial of matters (e.g. why not wear white after labor day?). Decades of electronic media sensationalization have led the herd to think with their hearts, rather than their heads. Neil Postman broaches this issue in his fantastic book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death”.

    Head for the hills!

  7. DrugMonkey says:

    Our goal should be greater than just explaining scientific findings and theory. We should also strive to teach folks how to think about evidence, how to test their hypotheses and above all else that competing hypotheses are not automatically equally valid. By showing how you think through a question you will give some readers better tools to think through their own.

  8. alison says:

    We should also strive to teach folks how to think about evidence, how to test their hypotheses and above all else that competing hypotheses are not automatically equally valid.
    Hear hear! I couldn’t agree more. And lovely to ‘meet’ another science blogger who’s doing their bit to achieve this. Welcome to the blogosphere, Paul 🙂

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