Clif Hotvedt's picture

Conveying the Excitement of Scientific Discovery

A challenge we often face in medical [[wysiwyg_imageupload:156:]]
communications is making research come alive for reporters and hence their audiences.  Researchers often seem to think that if they simplify science they’re diluting its intrinsic profundity.

A fine example of how this need not be the case is coming up for auction in April  – a letter the English molecular biologist Francis Crick  wrote to his 12-year old son in 1953 shortly after discovering the structure of DNA with James Watson.  Opening with “Jim Watson and I have probably made a most important discovery,” Crick then proceeds to describe their discovery as a father, not just the co-father of DNA. 

As reported by Nicholas Wade in The New York Times,  while Crick conveyed the excitement and importance of the revelation to his son, saying that “our structure is very beautiful” and that the real model was “nicer” than his enclosed sketch, he didn’t talk down to him.  If you read Watson and Crick’s seminal letter to Nature in which they reported their revelation and compare it with Crick’s letter to his son, the latter conveys the essence, but in a more straightforward manner.   (In saying that “You may remember that the genes of the chromosomes – which carry the hereditary factors – are made up of protein and DNA,” you get the feeling that this is a topic Crick and his son have discussed before.  Crick continues by describing the unique binding of the buildingblocks adenine,  cytosine, guanine and thymine.)  Remarkably, the personal letter predated the Nature publication by several weeks, so his son actually knew more about DNA structure at that moment than most of the world’s scientists.

While we don’t expect scientists we work with to finish their presentation with “lots of love, daddy), as Crick did in his letter, if as they hone their messages for reporters they keep in mind how they might talk about their research at home with their families, they may find that the “so what?” about their findings comes through more clearly and enables the public to better know why they are excited.  How often does a researcher state something as simply as “In other words, we think we have found the basic copying mechanism by which life comes from life?”