Whimsical ways to communicate science

A clever use of fable brings surprising clarity to the story of climate change, thinks Euan Nisbet of Royal Holloway College, London, in his review for Nature Reports Climate Change (doi:10.1038/climate.2008.123) of Tyler Volk’s book CO2 Rising: The World’s Greatest Environmental Challenge. The author uses parables and puns to describe scientific concepts, creating a protagonist who is “a little carbon atom called Dave.” From the review:

“Like Prometheus, Dave habitually spends millions of years bound in a limestone cliff. But occasionally he escapes, most recently to travel variously into a glass of beer, through the rear end of an Irish earthworm, inside the brain of a giant Galapagos tortoise and as part of an air parcel to Mauna Loa where he is measured by climatologist Charles David Keeling, to be recorded on the infamous ‘Keeling curve’, which documents the twenty-first century rise in atmospheric CO2.

Dave has relatives: Coaleen, Oilivier and Methaniel in the fossil fuel family, and Icille. Coaleen heads for a strangler fig tree in Australia, Methaniel is taken up by a plant in the Arctic tundra, and Oilivier, who becomes a bicarbonate ion in the ocean, is followed by cheerful Dave, who finds himself diving to a sea bed carbon burial site. Really cool Icille gets trapped in an ice bubble.”

Members of the Nature Network science writers’ forum discuss whether this approach to communicating scientific research is “nauseous anthropomorphic twaddle” in the words of one contributor, or a way to “make concepts more accessible and fun” in the opinion of another. The reviewer believes it works in this case:

“Fables, like political cartoons, are powerful. Orwell’s Animal Farm was the stake through the heart of Stalin’s Marxism. Tyler Volk’s simple tales in CO2 Rising are not at that level, but they are clearer and more easily read than the prose of most scientific writing, even in good scientific journalism. That clarity brings understanding. Despite — or perhaps because of — its dreadful puns and apparent simplicity, this is a book that can persuade, can educate, and can change policy.”


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