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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 49 - May 2006    
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 TABLE OF CONTENTS
 EDITORIAL
 Security: research under starter’s orders
 ITER settles in Cadarache
 Mapping the contours of humanity
 On the trail of the human phenomenon
 Ene Ergma: the political physicist
 The enigma of the blue algae
 The virtual encyclopaedia of fish
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Science in School – new virtual magazine

Published in electronic format on the internet four times a year (with a printed version promised if demand proves sufficient), Science in School is aimed at the world of education. To lend added vitality to science lessons, this online magazine presents educational dossiers, interviews with teachers who explain their good practices, debates on research policy, etc. More practically, it also contains advertisements for training courses and details of books, films and other material adapted to living science. Teachers, scientists and museum managers are all invited to participate in discussion forums, contribute to the magazine and launch online debates. 

Science in School – new virtual magazine


Science in School is published by EIROForum, a grouping of the seven principal European research organisations, and edited by a team at the EMBL (European Molecular Biology Laboratory). The magazine is one of the results of the Nucleus project, which is supported by the European Union. 

A big PLUS for public understanding of science

The American Ilan Chabay will be conveying his enthusiasm for the communication of science at the Universities of Chalmers and Gothenburg (SE). This PLUS (Public Learning and Understanding of Science) programme, supported by the Hasselblad Foundation,(1) is certainly not in the hands of an unknown. Chabay was recently charged with explaining the importance of NASA missions to scientists, journalists, teachers and the general public. He is also the inventor of a series of science kits and other material for children. Produced by his own company, The New Curiosity Shop, these are regularly on show at museums and exhibitions. He believes the development of teaching materials of this kind to be an activity worthy of any researcher. “Researchers must be persuaded that there are tangible benefits to be had from such activities. Dialogue with the public forces the researcher to respect a certain authenticity. He finds himself communicating his passionate interest to others. It also helps to organise one’s own ideas and give cohesion to their content.”

Chabay’s Swedish mission will cause him to draw on his fundamental research activities, as well as practical experiences in trying to promote ‘an understanding of how to understand science’. In so doing, the professor and his students will focus on three key questions: how children and adults from different communities develop their understanding of science through non-school activities; how they learn and use scientific processes; and what mental models constitute the basis of this understanding. His work will provide the basis for a joint PLUS research centre for the two universities. 

(1) This year the Victor and Erna Hasselblad Foundation will be celebrating the centenary of this industrial photographer’s birth. The distinctive silhouette of his camera is familiar to all professionals as it was the one Armstrong took to the Moon in 1969.

The cell of celluloid

The cell of celluloid


Exploring the living cell. This very special DVD, the work of Christian Sardet and Véronique Kleiner, presents the ‘building block’ of life. In three languages (French, English, German), it is intended for experts and the passionate enthusiast, as well as a wider public who are interested in discovering more about the phenomenon of life. The various films provide fascinating insights into cell theory, diversity, evolution, the structure and functioning of cells, and current research in European laboratories and the debates this can engender. A number of eminent figures appear in this documentary, including Michel Bornens, Michael Duchen, Werner W Franke, Göran Hermerén, Eric Karsenti, Paul M Nurse (Nobel Prize for medicine, 2001) and Kai Simons. The DVD consists of some 15 films (including an animation film presenting a voyage to the centre of the cell), teaching aids and links to specialised websites.

The production is the work of the teams from CNRS Images. With a running time of 180 minutes, the DVD is available to private customers for €35 and to institutions for €45. 

Media: a useful (European) link

Audio documents, photographs and videos are available free of charge, in standard professional formats, on the Commission’s audiovisual service site. The service assists journalists in covering the vast range of EU-related topics. One can find, for example, thematic videos on all fields in which the Commission is active – from agriculture to health and including human rights and the environment. There are a number of documents relating to research, in particular on nanotechnologies, the quality of diet and avian flu. Its archives dating back to the 1950s can also be accessed.  

High-flying experiences

The astronaut Frank De Winne during a parabolic flight © ESA-STAR CITY
The astronaut Frank De Winne during a parabolic flight
© ESA-STAR CITY
The Airbus A300 is also known as Zero-G. Its speciality is parabolic flights and these require special piloting techniques. During phase one, the aircraft climbs sharply at an angle of approximately 45°. During phase two, power is suddenly reduced for about 20 seconds to send the aircraft into ‘free fall’: after continuing to climb a little due to the initial build-up of speed, the nose dips. It is now in the microgravity phase (virtual weightlessness) during which the aircraft follows a ballistic trajectory, in the form of a parabola. This lasts about 20 seconds before the aircraft enters a dramatic descent at an angle of 45°-50°, at which point the pilot has to pull it back up sharply at full throttle.

Acrobatics of this kind allow the occupants to experience, for about 20 seconds, conditions of weightlessness comparable to when orbiting the Earth. This time is devoted to various activities, such as testing instruments, training astronauts, validating procedures and monitoring behaviour. But 20 seconds is not long and a ‘flight campaign’ usually lasts from two to three hours to give a series of about 30 parabolas interspaced with ‘normal’ intervals of about two minutes each. 

Parabolic flights were launched by the ESA in 1984, first using NASA aircraft out of Houston (USA) before coming home to the Bordeaux-Mérignac (FR) airport in 1997. In recent years, these flights have not been reserved for astronauts alone. Students, journalists and scientists are now regularly invited to participate, provided they can propose an experiment to be conducted under conditions of weightlessness. School pupils work in groups with their teacher and sometimes with a ‘sponsor’ in the form of an engineer or scientist. Each participant must, of course, first undergo a medical check-up.    

Democracy is…

On the Stephansplatz in Vienna, in a ‘democratic café’.
On the Stephansplatz in Vienna, in a ‘democratic café’ and on board the Intercity 5 train. These are just some of the Node actions to stimulate certain forms of public debate.
A table is placed in a public space, with three words written across it, ending in three suspension points: demokra-Tisch ist… Democracy is… Passers-by are invited to give their definition and to discuss the subject. Postcards are handed out on which they can complete sentences, some of which are then selected and published on the project’s website. This is just one of the initiatives of the Austrian Node (New Orientations for Democracy in Europe) programme which is running 23 projects. They are all aimed at encouraging the emergence of new practices to stimulate public debate and participation in society’s choices, many of which are marked by technological decisions. Some projects also seek to encourage new ways of communicating science by asking researchers to speak about their work. One of the strategies proposed by Node, for example, involves inviting scientists and journalists to board a train, rented for the occasion and baptised ‘Wissenschaft demokratie’ or ‘Knowledge creates democracy’. For one year, a carriage travelled on the Vienna-Villach line, providing an opportunity for discussions and debates in which the public were invited to participate. One of the subjects discussed was the question of Europe’s borders.

Node was also present at the 2005 Communicating European Research (CER) conference in Brussels, taking the opportunity to bring its activities to a wider public outside Austria. The definitions of democracy collected on this occasion stress the importance of equal access to information, transparency and opportunities for citizens to influence the course of events. These are also useful ideas in stimulating further debate and ongoing dialogue… one which you can follow – in German – by accessing the Node website. 

A meeting of minds

Brain imaging only under control
On 23 January, the European Citizens’ Convention ‘Meeting of Minds’ (1) presented the 37 recommendations contained in its final report on the brain and in particular ethical issues raised by brain research and treatment. These recommendations were formally addressed to the Commission and European Parliament. Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potočnik believes that the results of this unique report, to which Europeans from nine countries contributed, proves that “the participation of citizens is not only possible, but also highly desirable”. He is convinced that research of this kind “will help strengthen European policies”.

(1) See article in the special issue of RTD info on Science dialogues (November 2005), which explains the work and goals of the Citizens’ Conventions. 

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