The difficult art of short scientific explanations in exhibitions

As readers of this blog have probably noticed by now, I don’t support the simplistic but widespread idea that museums of science, technology and medicine are primarily informal learning institutions.

But even if explanations aren’t the primary goal of our kind of museums, we cannot entirely escape the problem of how to explain scientific ideas, methods and findings to our visitors. Many displayed artefacts, images or installations often simply don’t make sense if they aren’t accompanied by some explanatory text.

And since texts in exhibition have to be kept ultrashort (the attention span in a gallery is a few seconds only), explanations have to be extremely succinct. Writing explanatory scientific text for museums exhibits is actually an art on a par with haiku poetry.

It’s easy to relapse into vague and populistic metaphors. The difficult trick is to make a short explanation without loss of precision. Take for example this short explanation of how magnetic resonance imaging works, suggested by drug discovery blogger Derek Lowe (In the Pipeline):

We’re all full of water molecules, in all sorts of environments in the body. And they behave differently when you put them in a strong magnetic field, which lets us pick up different signals from them and turn them into images.

That’s 41 words (187 characters without spaces, 227 characters with spaces).

In my humble view, Lowe’s short one is much better as an exhibition explanation than the much longer Wikipedia explanation:

An MRI machine uses a powerful magnetic field to align the magnetization of some atoms in the body, and radio frequency fields to systematically alter the alignment of this magnetization. This causes the nuclei to produce a rotating magnetic field detectable by the scanner—and this information is recorded to construct an image of the scanned area of the body. Strong magnetic field gradients cause nuclei at different locations to rotate at different speeds. 3-D spatial information can be obtained by providing gradients in each direction.

Can you do it better than Derek Lowe? Can you do it in Twitter post length?

Which gives me an idea. It would be fun to run an online competition for short scientific explanations:

First select 20 biomedical scientific theories, concepts and methods that could be used in an exhibition context.

Then ask the ‘crowd’ to come up with good explanations in a maximum of 280 characters (i.e., two tweets) + a special category for one-tweet long (140 characters) explanations.

Finally, a jury of reliable scientists and science communicators will select the best explanations.

The winner will get a prize.

And most importantly, no images will be allowed. Pure text — that’s the haiku-ish challenge.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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