Daryl Ilbury

Posts Tagged ‘science writing’

A science journalist comes ‘out’…as it were

In Eish!, Fools, Politics, Science on July 13, 2012 at 1:02 pm

Sometimes science comes without a warning

“Hi, my name is Daryl, and I’m a science journalist.”

There you go, I’ve said it. I’ve come ‘out’ as it were. I admit that for many years my life has been something of a lie. I have been writing about science whilst posing as an op-ed columnist writing on socio-political issues. In fact I doubt very much if I would be able to write for most of the titles that I do if I pitched myself as a ‘science journalist’. But I am not entirely to blame for my subterfuge.

OK, this may all sound a little dramatic, but there’s a remarkable, albeit concerning, sliver of truth for my reluctance to brazenly announce my orientation. You see, for many years I have been operating under the rather bizarre belief, instilled in me by legions of editors, that readers don’t want to read about science.

However, as person who was schooled in the sciences, social sciences and humanities, I am acutely aware that such a belief is false. Readers are interested in science, they just don’t know it.

For the last nine years I have been covering issues around science without my editors and readers actually knowing it, and my columns have earned me both praise from my editors and respect from readers; but more importantly they have encouraged debate. In fact my most appreciated reward has been learning that a number of my articles have been included in school English and History exams to encourage creative writing and political argument.

But this is not a blog entry to fish for compliments, it’s to prove a point: to write about science, you don’t have to ‘write about science’.

There is a popular belief that ‘science is what scientists do‘. Although the statement is correct, it is not solely correct. Science is something we also consume and it is something that we are; so the secret to writing about science is to reconsider how it is presented and how it is framed.

Example: In April 2005 I wrote a piece that sparked a lot of column space on the letters page of The Star about the seeming futility of prayer (millions of people had prayed for pope John Paul II to get better, but he still died). However, I used it as an opportunity to suggest the psychological benefits of the act of praying.

In July 2006 I wrote in my column in the Saturday Star about the influence of the introduction of the iPod on radio. On the face of it, it was an article about the iPod, and how it would affect the radio industry (in which I was employed at the time). In retrospect it now seems quite prescient; but in fact it was simply an understanding of how advances in science and technology can radically alter consumer behaviour.

Around Valentine’s Day in 2009 I played party-pooper and scientifically corrected the public notion that it’s possible to love someone ‘with all their heart’.

I took a chance with this one in April 2011 where I espoused the virtues of science writers. That must have raised a few eyebrows!

And in February this year in my column in the Tribune I took the reader into the realm of conversion disorder – a psychiatric disorder – whilst masquerading it as a piece on the challenges of bringing up teenage daughters. Sneaky!

You don’t have to write under the banner of ‘science journalist’ to be a science journalist. You just have to hide in the closet and every now and then pop your head out and go “boo!”

The withering charms of poetry

In Eish! on October 24, 2011 at 6:37 am

Lord Byron - apparently people are no longer buying his albums

A retort I often fire at any man lunging at me with a broken bottle is that I am a writer, not a fighter. I usually underscore the defence by holding up my hands to show evidence of their softness, and wiggling my fingers to illustrate their dexterity. Admittedly it’s not a particularly manly thing to do, but women love it. Or do they?

I never really knew my father, but he did manage to pass onto me three things that defined me: his love of science, his appreciation for artistic verse, and his gangly, uncoordinated, completely unathletic frame – three things that would ensure I’d be bullied at school.

Yes, I was the skinny kid who always came last in physical education exercises; who hated wearing shorts; and who crumpled at the thought of standing on the edge of a diving board in a Speedo. I was useless at most sports because I was cursed with all the co-ordination of a newly born wildebeest. Contact sports filled me with dread. I tried to get out of playing rugby by claiming I was prone to nose bleeds. In a school where playing rugby was compulsory…read more

Dara O’Briain on science writing

In Science on October 12, 2011 at 8:42 pm

Not just a face for comedy

“There is a hunger for science writing and the audience have been fed nonsense for too long”. Such were the words of advice comedian and TV presenter Dara O’Briain gave young science writers at the 2011 Wellcome Trust Science Prize Awards on Wednesday evening.

Of course O’Briain is no stranger to the wonders of science. He is a graduate of mathematics and theoretical physics from University College, Dublin and is a well known and passionate proponent of science, and often takes the role of debunker of pseudoscience in his stand-up routine. He also co-hosted the TV series Stargazing Live with Professor Brian Cox.

Presenting the awards, which he helped judge, O’Briain pointed to the added challenges that science writers face, “knowing who your audience are – are they scientists, are they non-scientists, are they graduates, or are they non-graduates who have an interest in science? Added to this is the question of how much technical terminology do you use?” But he did have some words of encouragement: “Know this, there is a huge audience for science writing, and they are genuinely underserved. They are people who want the adrenalin rush of learning something new, and feeling it embedded in their heads by the way you write it”.

The inaugural Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize, organised in conjunction with The Guardian and The Observer, was designed to find the next generation of undiscovered science writing talent. It attracted almost 800 entries; and, given the quality of the submissions, it seems there is passionate corps of up and coming science writers willing to feed that hunger.

The two prize winners were Penny Sarchet in Category A (professional scientists of postgraduate level and above); and Tess Shallard in Category B (anyone else with a non-professional interest in science, including undergraduate students).