Field of Science

Word Wraps: From the ACS meeting

I am at the ACS meeting in Washington DC, here as "press" rather than chemist. It's a very different way to see the meeting. I went to a press briefing this morning - on the first phases of development of aresol vaccines for measles (Robert Sievers). The press center is tucked away next to the registration, and has everything a writer might want: food, wireless access and a steady stream of caffeine and conversation.

The briefings are being streamed live on the web and journalists watching can send their questions in to be asked. Miss something the first time round? Watch the replay here.

Listening as a scientist to a talk, and as a writer to the briefing turn out to be slightly different experiences. Both require critical listening, but listening as a writer prompts me to think far more about the words the science is coming wrapped in. The shorthand scientists use sounds almost staccato in this context. "Measles naive" instead of "never exposed to the measles virus" or "no evidence of viremia" instead of "no measurable virus in the bloodstream".

We try to be both precise and concise, but I wonder how often the combination in giving a talk, or even reading a paper in the literature leads to attentional processing deficits? An interesting experiment in attentional processing is to present subjects with a rapidly changing sequences of letter, interspersed with numbers. If two numbers are placed too close together, subjects can "miss" the second letter while their brain is busy processing the first. Pack too much into a sentence, and your "subjects" might miss bits.

My Thesis column in Nature Chemistry this month, Stretching Toplogy, takes a slightly different tack in thinking about the ways words wrap around science.


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