Comic Sans and the aesthetics of science

You know what is always very pretty? Autumn in Ontario. Last Saturday, it was gorgeous out, and I went for a hike with a few of my friends in the Forks of the Credit Provincial Park, which is located in Caledon. The Bruce Trail runs through there, and though it wasn’t yet peak colour in that region, it was still beautiful:

VLUU L210 / Samsung L210

That story was a lead-in to my next question: you know what isn’t always pretty? The visual presentation of science. And to that, I say, is that really so bad…?

I’m not saying science shouldn’t be presented in a visually appealing way, or that emphasis on visual appeal is wrong. I’m not saying that. Visuals are important, of course. But can we all admit that it has gotten a bit crazy when the fuss is more about the non-science than it is about the science? Case in point: the hatred of Comic Sans. When the scientists working at CERN gave their presentation about the Higgs boson, it seemed that the media (and especially the social media) were more focused on the font in their PowerPoint presentation than on their science. It made me feel deflated. Yes, okay, fine: Comic Sans probably shouldn’t have been used. But it was. Not every person has an artistic eye, nor do all people have the same taste. Nor should they. Leave it be. Do we have to be jerks about it? We can choose not to be.

It also makes me feel a bit deflated when I hear talk of how science should be presented; that we should think of our presentation of scientific data as if it were marketing or advertising. Doesn’t that seem strange? Advertising is about convincing, persuading, manipulating an audience. While that might arguably be a good strategy, I don’t think it’s something one should do necessarily. I say this as a person who does spend hours and hours and days and days fixing slides and posters. I’ve gotten much better over the years, and when I see presentations now, I can’t help but notice when things aren’t aligned, when there are extra spaces between words, when weird colours and fonts are used, and when images are pixelated. But I also think that that these things are secondary to the science. I try not to be distracted by them, and I envy those whose attention is not mercilessly seized by these aesthetic details — details which, I think, we should actively try not to pay too much attention to. “Too much attention” I would define as the level at which attention must be taken away from the science — in one’s own thoughts, in conversation with others, whatever.

To me, a science presentation is like a painting. Should we stand here and criticize the painter’s technique, the choice of colour, and the quality of the paint? We could easily do that, sure. But shouldn’t we try to see what artist has tried to convey, through his or her painting? The message in the painting is the important thing. We need to forget about the Comic Sans. It’s not easy, but, for the message, I think it’s worth trying our best. Plus, we wouldn’t be jerks, and that’s a good thing, too, because the world has enough of those.

Conferences, seminars, and journal clubs, oh my!

I’ve heard a lot of people say that travelling is one perk of being in science, referring to the travelling done for multi-day conferences. I think I disagree more than I agree. Conferences usually have tight schedules, and there’s not much time for exploring a new place, unless one sacrifices some scheduled talks or takes additional days off after the conference is over. When I think of travelling for ‘fun’, I imagine spending a few weeks sampling bits and pieces of a foreign place at a peaceful pace… but, usually, conferences involve sitting in overly air-conditioned rooms, listening to research talk after research talk, scarfing down not-too-healthy food, scrambling from room to room, and tracking down a few (potentially) interesting posters in giant venues, a la ASM 2011, in New Orleans:


I coudn’t resist taking that picture from the balcony that overlooked the poster “room”. In short, conferences are kind of crazy and hectic — and ASM is especially crazy because it involves so many people.

All that being said, I really, really like conferences. I guess I like science discourse — even when I can’t contribute in a meaningful way. I am puzzled by (and sort of suspicious of) people who don’t invest time in meetings, seminars, and journal clubs. Obviously, these can get dry… but still. I guess I’m constantly learning new things that I think I should know, or things that I’m doing or have done wrong, that I find these things useful. Also, I guess it just seems like doing science without doing all of this other stuff is like… painting in a room without immersing oneself in the  world one is trying to paint. You could still be a great painter, but that behaviour somehow seems incongruous with the love of the art.

Anyway, speaking of conferences, my lab is going to CSM this year. My supervisor sent us all some advice on how to make posters, and I wanted to share it because it was good advice as well as entertaining. I was pretty proud of my poster for ASM (design-wise, not results-wise), but I think now that it had too much text:


I’ll have to work on that. Live and learn. (And do science, and make time to enjoy the other science that is in the world. And paint?)