Later this year I’ll be going out to see the new exhibits at Griffith Observatory. It should be an interesting experience, seeing all our work up on the walls of the newly expanded exhibit space. Lately I’ve been thinking about astronomy and public interest in it, and how museums and planetariums and observatories do the job. We went to a planetarium meeting in Florida a few weeks back, and one of the evening festivities was a contest where planetarians volunteered to stand up and give a star talk. The idea was that we’d vote on the best star-talker. It was an interesting experience. As you might imagine, the range of public speaking and storytelling ability spanned from pretty good to adequate (and allowing for nervousness because most of us don’t give talks in front of our peers too often).
I find the same span of quality in science writing, ranging from articles in the paper to exhibits at museums. Certainly having spent more than a year now writing exhibits for the Griffith project, I have way more insight into the challenges caption writers face in museums than I used to. And, frankly, I used to NOT read too many of the exhibit captions. That’s changed now, mostly because I want to see how what I did stacks up against other museum exhibits.
Interestingly, just as no two planetarium lecturers do their thing quite the same way, no two museum exhibit captioning approaches are alike. That stands to reason, since each museum has its curatorial outlook and “voice” (just as every lecturer has a preferred “MO” when giving public talks). I’ve seen captions written so densely and confusingly that it’s amazing anybody can figure out what they mean. The curator in charge of those captions felt that the audience needed to be “lectured to” and told what to think about the exhibit. In other places, the language has been very conversational, or in at least one exhibit I visited, the language was terse to the point of being little more than labels without interpretation.
All fodder for those of us who palpitate over how best to inform people about astronomy. I’m in the “tell them the story, but explain the language you’re using” school of thought. This leads to such things as a planetarium show about Mars where I used as many Mars place names as I could so that people could get used to “thinking on Mars” during the show. So, I got away with Vallis Marineris and Ares Valles, along with Olympus Mons and Utopia Planitia. But, I didn’t get to use Margaritifer Sinus. Now that I’m writing a new show about Mars, however, I get to use MORE place names, like Gusev Crater and Meridiani Planum. Even though those names are in the news, however, I still need to explain them.
There’s a lot of really cool stuff to talk about in astronomy and planetary science. It does require defining a lot of terms, especially the ones the scientists toss around in their press conferences. Some of the hottest news in astronomy these days is in the area of cosmology, where research is focused on the era of “epoch of reionization”&emdash;a time in cosmic history beginning around 150 million years after the Big Bang when the first stars began to shine. “Epoch of reionization” is very precise but it doesn’t tell the lay person what it means, unless you can decode the language (epoch=”time” or “era” and reionization=”a complex process whereby the first stars and quasars emitted radiation that reionized (basically heated and therefore caused more radiation (and light) to shine) the universe”). It’s actually easier to explain (if not quite as precise) by calling that the time of “first light.” But it does get the idea across.
And sometimes, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Here’s a graphic representation of the early universe (courtesy of Haystack Observatory).
That complexity of the language of astronomy is what I face as a science writer every day. But hey, it’s a complex universe out there, and all the processes and events and objects are described in the language of physics and astrophysics. And, somebody has to translate all that into plain English so the folks who are doctors and lawyers and teachers and bus drivers and airline pilots and nurses and school kids and preachers and politicians and computer programmers and moviemakers and actors and&emdash;you name it&emdash;can understand what the astronomers and astrophysicists and cosmologists are discovering out there in the universe.
So, when I visit Griffith, I will look at our exhibits and my words and see how well they get the ideas across. We’ve packed a LOT of astronomy and planetary science into 158+ exhibit panels, and I hope our approach is one that works for the public.