December 13, 2017

Using Data to Inspire: Share Science and Find Truth in the Stories

Posted by Timia Crisp

Today’s post is part of a series written by student bloggers from the AGU Fall Meeting.
By: Kimberley Rain Miner, University of Maine

When Maria Merian began to study butterflies in the 1670’s, it was understood that they were ‘born of mud’ and spontaneously produced from the earth. However, the transformation she discovered proved to be much more beautiful. 

The metamorphosis of caterpillar to butterfly has since inspired thousands of artists and dreamers. It is this passion, one of discovery and truth-seeking, that we must use to communicate scientific data in the modern era.

‘Data’ is really a series of small stories; how something came to be and how it works. Why the world is as it is. How we tell these stories and the joy with which we infuse them are what welcomes the attention of the public who scientists so often hope to reach.

In days past, our campfire-lit stories told of survival in a wilderness full of life. Today, in our technology-driven world, our new stories can grow and become even richer in meaning through the truths of our data and inspire a love of the earth around us.

Scientists today are expected to communicate with the public, to expand the reach of their field and improve society as a whole. Darren Walker suggests, however, that the “poverty of imagination” holds back scientific storytelling, creating barriers between meaningful truth and the public.

As science grows to encompass the many tools available for communication, the stories we tell about our data, and about our science, must also grow in substance. For example, the recent use of 360 degree cameras to present both data and the environment, offer a total immersive experience. An experience that can increase the number of people experiencing field science first hand.

The New York Times ‘Antarctica Series’ used these tools to bring the Antarctic work of Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory Researchers, Nick Frearson and Robin Bell, to a wide audience. A venture they are continuing to expand with new immersive data visualization tools. Technology allows scientists to share their data and their adoration of the truth, with audiences through many new mediums which convey the awe we, as researchers, may feel looking at our numerical observations.

Collaborations between media, technologists and researchers allow for the enthusiasm and drive of each field to shine through and allows individuals to understand data in a first hand, experiential way.

Indeed, like Maria Merian’s discovery of metamorphosis, what authors, painters and poets could we inspire with our groundbreaking new data?