Dec. 15, 2023
UCalgary scientists turn their experience into books
You know the feeling: Something science-related is being explained but you just can’t wrap your head around what it means. Maybe the words are too technical, the concepts are too vague or there are acronyms that you don’t recognize.
Whatever the reason, when science isn’t accessible to its intended public audience, feelings of frustration arise from all sides.
Now, three scientists from UCalgary’s Faculty of Science are trying to change that, and they’re doing it through mainstream books. Both Rocky Voices: The Memories of Minerals That Form the Rocky Mountains and Making with Data: Physical Design and Craft in a Data-Driven World take complicated science topics and make them not only accessible, but enjoyable, for the public to read.
From the perspective of the mineral
Dr. Eva Enkelmann, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Earth, Energy and the Environment, never meant to write a book.
Rocky Voices: The Memories of Minerals That Form the Rocky Mountains was born out of frustration around the conventional way of teaching at a post-secondary level. She was tired of using technical terms and how everything had to be so “serious.”
“I came home, and I told my partner that I just want to tell the story of being the rock. Like how would it feel if you were 10 kilometers below the earth’s surface, and suddenly someone is pushing from the side and squeezing you altogether? And my partner was like, well, why don’t you write it down?"
And so, Rocky Voices was born. The book is told in 12 chapters from the perspective of minerals that form the Rocky Mountains. Lucy Calcite, for example, “remembers where it all started: the cheerful days of swimming in the warm tropical ocean that used to be here.” At the bottom of Many Springs Lake, “Karen Waterdrop pushes, presses and squeezes herself through the sandy grains.”
“I wrote the first story in one night, and I really enjoyed thinking of science in the way of stories, taken from the perspective of one specific mineral,” says Enkelmann. “What would the story of their journey be from the day they were formed to today?”
Enkelmann was careful in her language and sentence structure to make sure the stories were accessible. As opposed to the many technical papers she’s written in her academic career, with Rocky Voices, she never went above a Grade 5 reading level. She knows that people who aren’t immersed in the world of science have a huge appetite for learning about the natural world, and they’re the ones asking the most interesting questions.
“If I go out climbing with friends, they’re always asking me questions like why does that rock look like this? People are interested in geology, especially if it’s facts and technical information packaged into a story,” says Enkelmann. “Not many people want to read a history book, but we all love to see a movie that is set in the past, and we learn through that about a place and a time.”
Although the roadside geology book is great for kids, Enkelmann hopes adults get just as much meaning from it, too. She didn’t write the book in a playful manner solely because she wanted to capture the attention of a younger audience, but because it brought her joy during the process of writing.
“Being a woman in science, one thing I have experienced over the course of my career is that there’s this pressure not to be dorky or funny,” says Enkelmann. “I just wanted to prove that you can learn about geology in a different way, a fun way.”
Inspiring others to make data physical
Making with Data: Physical Design and Craft in a Data-Driven World is the kind of book you want to proudly display in your home. Everything from the text to the visuals is thoughtfully and artistically displayed in this 400-page coffee table book, which provides a snapshot of the diverse practices contemporary creators are using to produce objects, spaces, and experiences imbued with data.
The idea for the book originated during a one-week seminar at the Schloss Dagstuhl – Leibniz Center for Informatics in Germany in 2018. UCalgary computer science faculty Dr. Lora Oehlberg, PhD, and Dr. Wesley Willett, PhD, had been thinking a lot about what it means to show data in the real world, using either physical artifacts or augmented or mixed reality. But it wasn’t until the seminar, which had the very purpose of bringing people together to produce significant projects like books, that they joined co-authors Dr. Samuel Huron and Dr. Till Nagel and the seed of an idea grew into a 25-chapter book featuring a collection of first-hand accounts from the world of computer science, data science, graphic design, art, craft, and architecture.
“At the seminar, we all came together around a shared interest not in the resulting artifact of data physicalization, but the way people got there. How are these artifacts being created, where does the idea come from, how do they make all the design decisions that go into the final product?” says Oehlberg.
The wide range of practices explored in Making with Data is what makes this book so unique. There is a chapter on the process of folding paper as a medium for communicating data to a chapter using robotics versions of familiar pie and bar charts. In each chapter, creators tell their own story of how they produced a specific physical representation of data and illustrate that process through sketches, photos and other design artifacts.
Oehlberg and Willett stress the idea behind Making with Data is not to act as a cookbook where readers simply follow the directions; the book is meant to inspire people to bring physical representations of data into their own lives, in their own way.
“What I want people to walk away with is the realization they can do this, too,” says Willett. “There are so many different ways of bringing data into the physical world. Even if you’re just walking around the house doing mundane tasks and go, hey, I wish I had a way of tracking this, you probably could. Just grab some LEGO bricks and start building a little representation of data that gives you a sense of, say, which days you brushed your teeth or not. There are a lot of different ways of representing data in the physical world that are extremely accessible.”
Oehlberg says that the book shows both introductory examples and complicated, nuanced examples so readers can see that connection between something they might make themselves and something they might see in an art gallery.
Although over half of the Making with Data’s contributors are academics, both Oehlberg and Willett worked hard to make sure that the language and structure of the book was accessible to people outside that world. For example, they used the words “data objects,” instead of the traditional academic “data physicalization.”
“There was a lot of work that went into finding ways to explain these concepts without resorting to jargon,” says Willett.
Everything from the book’s elegant design to the way the stories are told — with expertise and accessibility — means Making with Data a book is a book anyone can find inspiration from. It’s the first book ever to showcase physical representations of data and discuss the creative process, made right here at UCalgary.