May 11, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich

A worm’s eye-view of science (communication)

I know this is a quirky one…. but bear with me…. Some recent tweets set me thinking about worms! This led me back to my childhood, to Charles Darwin, to regenerative medicine, to gardening, to children’s literature and education and, of course, science communication (I also remembered Alison Wollard’s 2013 Royal Institution Christmas lectures which featured her favourite creature, the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans – the so-called workhorse of biology).

The two tweets that set me off on my journey through worms were one by Sai Pathmanathan who tweeted on 8 May: “Gave an assembly at a primary school yesterday and the KS1 kids saw a pic of the brain and shouted, ‘Worms!!!’ Ha!” and one by Speakers of Science who tweeted on 9 May: “Priorities in SciComm – Taking science out of the ‘cultural ghetto’” – when I followed the link to a blog post, I found a reference to worms!

The topic of the blog post was a plea by Imran Khan, Chief Executive of the British Science Association, to take science out of the cultural ghetto. This means engaging with people on their own terms not just on scientists’ terms. This issue of taking science out of the cultural ghetto was also discussed, it seems, at the recent Public Communication of Science and Technology conference in Brazil, from where Eric Jensen tweeted on 8 May: “emphasis on art/science in conference themed on social inclusion odd: Contemporary art=major problems with exclusion – so why?” The argument was that high science and high art when brought together do not by their very fusion automatically generate wider engagement with science. Could worms help I asked myself? You can’t get much lower…

Worms of wonder

One of my first encounters with ‘science’ happened when I was about six or seven playing in a neighbour’s allotment with some other children. The owner of the allotment, a nice old gentleman, showed us how to dig up earthworms and then put them on the moist lid of his water barrel and see how they wiggle – how we giggled. And of course we discussed the issue of whether, if we cut an earthworm in half, we would get two earthworms. About 50 years later I encountered ‘worms’ of a different sort, and again they made me think. Around 2008 I was interacting with Brady Haran and Martyn Poliakoff and we discussed the increasing success of some of the University of Nottingham’s unique science communication videos. At that time one clip in particular attracted attention, namely one about Aziz Aboobaker and his studies of planaria (flatworms). Aziz now has his own lab in Oxford where he uses the planarian model to study regeneration and stem cell biology and the molecular mechanisms related to cancer and aging.

In between these two events, all through my life, I have either enjoyed worms in the garden especially when young children were around, occasionally been frightened by them (slow ‘worms’), or reflected on and off on Charles Darwin’s fascination with worms. Indeed Darwin’s love of worms lasted from his voyage on HMS Beagle up to the publication of his last book dealing in part with earthworms. It was entitled “The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms and went on sale in 1881. Somewhat surprisingly it was a big hit, initially selling more copies than The Origin did.” So worms sort of ‘do it’ for people, from the lowliest children, so to speak, to the most lofty scientists.

Opening a can of worms

Again and again I have come across discussions or diagrams that separate rather artificially dissemination of science, engagement with science and conversation or deliberation about science, with dissemination being generally ‘shamed’ by the label ‘deficit model’. This (theoretical) segregation is, in my view, nonsense, as all three ways of communicating about science are normally, or can easily be, parts of the same overall activity.

This is particularly apparent with relation to worms. You get information about them (disseminated by scientists, educators, writers etc.); you play around with them, i.e. engage with them together with others; you talk about them, even to them. Now the first part, getting information, can happen formally in schools or informally through a plethora of brilliant children’s books (e.g.  A First Book of Nature by Nicola Davies, recommended by Sai Pathmanathan; Yuck Worms by Vivian French recommended by Nicola Davies…and many more). These books (but also videos and websites) can be read together (adults enjoy them too), explored together, engaged with together and spark conversation, deliberation and even practical action (e.g. should we have a wormery, should we have a compost heap… and so on – the ‘wonder‘ word seems to be used a lot in this context). But best of all, these books and associated activities spark interest and wonder (and here). Of course, worms are also part of formal science education. But education and entertainment, formal and informal learning should, in principle not be segregated either.

Wonder about worms can also find expression in pictures and photos that can, nowadays, be shared and discussed on pinterest for example. This may be more akin to ‘dissemination’, but what is wrong with that? In the form of images, worms can also be used in more classical science communication activities, involving art and science, and here, I have to admit the deficit model peaks its head over the science communication parapet.

Beyond worms being embedded in various entangled ways in engaging people with biology, zoology, evolution, anatomy, health (and discussions about ‘good’ worms or ‘bad’ worms), environment and so on, they can also be used to engage people with math it seems (through the inchworm! – and here is a famous inchworm song), and probably a whole lot more – genetics for example.

As I said at the beginning, one tweet led me to a blog post about science communication that mentioned worms. In particular the wormwatchlab, which is a citizen science/genetics platform where citizens can observe and classify the behaviour of tiny nematode worms. This is part of Zooniverse which has, as of this year, a million registered users. There are also other worm-watch programmes around the world which are less computer-based and get people out into the wild blue yonder – more in the spirit of old-fashioned naturalists.

However, isn’t that all just child’s play? What about the grown ups? Do worms work in this context in terms of science dissemination/engagement/conversation? That brings us back to Darwin who was a grown-up and studied earthworms. He used the social media of his age to converse and deliberate with like-minded enthusiasts about the matter and he engaged his whole family in his study of worms – his wife played Chopin to them. I believe, perhaps naively, that earthworms will always fascinate people of all ages. However, it seems that parasitic worms may be a better way to grab adults’ attention. This has been explored in a project featured by the British Science Association called the Worm Waggon which is absolutely fascinating! Beyond that, what about a bit of worm linguistics…..?

There is a lot out there to explore, disseminate, engage with and converse about when it comes to worms. They are what one may call integrated science communication’s best friend or workhorse. Just see what a bit of digging about in the science communication undergrowth has revealed already!

Added 31 May, 2014: More worms for grown-ups here – about “OpenWorm, an informal collaboration of biologists and computer scientists” – a kickstarter project focused on “the creation of the world’s most detailed virtual life form—an accurate, open-source, digital clone of a critter called Caenorhabditis elegans, a 1mm-long nematode that lives in the soils of the world’s temperate regions”.

Added 20 November, 2014: Worms, the mind and Lego:

Image: Fossil of Eophasma jurasicum, an extinct nematode – Wikimedia Commons


Posted in GardeningPublic educationpublic engagement with sciencepublic participationpublicsScienceScience CommunicationUncategorizedwonder