Beauty is how we come to know the world. So says Nobel-Prize winner Frank Wilczek in his book A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design, and the subjects covered brilliantly underscore his point: Pythagoras and the music of the spheres. Galileo’s elegantly ordered cosmos. Newton’s graceful rules of motions. Einstein and his journey deep into the simplicity underlying the most complex systems, showing us the way to an ever stranger and more breathtaking world that thousands of scientists and science fans are still exploring. “This book is one long meditation on a single question,” Wilczek writes.
His book is also the story of ongoing connection to scientific thought to form a useful narrative, based on research both past and up-to-the-minute.
2017 is quickly becoming a year in which access to U.S. scientific research is harder to publicly find. One of the first events to follow January 20 was a series of murky demands on the communication channels of science agencies like NASA, the EPA, and the Parks Department, in which they were asked to refrain from their regular communication with the public.
The organizations’ reactions were swift. A flurry of rogue Twitter accounts sprang up at the hands of anonymous researchers, staffers, and other federal employees to pick up the official sites’ thwarted mission of delivering scientific information to the world. There were more than eighty rogue accounts within the week, all still going strong.
“Resisting efforts to take the science out of EPA,” reads the bio of @RogueEPAStaff. That of @RogueNASA, “the unofficial Resistance team of NASA” invites readers to “Come for the facts, stay for the snark.”
“What’s different about the number of rogue accounts that have come about as a result of the Trump administration’s apparent gag orders on some federal agencies,” writes Wynn Davis in a story for NPR, “is that this form of expression could be a logical way to oppose a media blackout.” Unfettered public access to just what research branches of the government are up to remains crucial for a functional, sustainable society. The public is given complex views of the world — through peer-reviewed articles, science journalism, and public outreach from research bodies themselves — by which we are expected to be informed, considerate, and responsible citizens. Without that communication, there is a danger we’ll remain uninformed, lacking the ability to discern not only basic facts on issues as hot-button as climate and as far-reaching as gravitational waves but also real-world complexity.
As the new federal administration appears set on quieting and defunding the public organizations that research, monitor, and communicate their findings on climate change, national parks, education, and food and drug research, there are other ways to get your science, technology, and research information. Turn to books and science-oriented magazines like Scientific American, and then go all in with firsthand science research. As Article 27 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights states:
(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.
Below, a list of five free resources for backing up, complementing, and expanding on 2017’s rogue science social media.
Cornell University Library runs arXiv, a 1.2 million-research-paper-strong electronic archive. (It’s growing, too: over the past two years alone, monthly submissions average between eight and ten thousand.) With the input of subject moderators and guidance from two advisory boards, arXiv is organized by subject, six in total: computer science, physics, mathematics, quantitative biology, quantitative finance, statistics. Those subjects are then subdivided further. Physics, for example, runs from astro to nuclear to quantum, and all papers are available free of charge. Look for unambiguously named gems like “Estimating the Reproductive Number, Total Outbreak Size, and Reporting Rates for Zika Epidemics in South and Central America” and “Ice Age Epochs and the Sun’s Path Through the Galaxy.”
The scientific community has long been at odds with one of its most prestigious publishers. Elsevier offers a cadre of academic journals, at prices so high that even top U.S. universities have stopped subscribing to them. The publisher does offer a selection of open-access journals, paid for “by the author, or their institution or funder,” an unsatisfying solution, but they’re free to the public nonetheless and include international research. Selections include The Arabian Journal of Chemistry and the Chinese Sustainable Environment Research.
Faced with the high cost of access to scientific articles, neuroscientist Alexandra Elbakyan went rogue in her own way, declaring publishers’ high-cost models illegal according to that Article 27 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. In 2011, she launched Sci-Hub, a collection of pirated articles and resources for fellow scientists — and the public. Resisting both orders and efforts to dismantle this resource, Elbakyan has continued to provide access for more than half a decade now. “Imagine the world with free access to knowledge for everyone,” entreats the site’s donation request page.
Founded in 2001, PLOS is an open access, nonprofit peer-reviewed medically slanted science publisher whose mission includes advocacy for free access to that knowledge. Among the six PLOS journals — Medicine, Computational Biology, Genetics, Pathogens, Neglected Tropical Diseases — plus a journal that aggregates from these, and Currents, which focuses on disease outbreaks and other time-sensitive research, there are articles like “Rosalind’s Ghost: Biology, Collaboration, and the Female” and “Putting placebos to the test.” PLOS offers a series of blogs as well, from Earth & Environmental Sciences to Research Analysis & Scientific Policy. Their mission remains especially crucial these days: “We must remove constraints and put researchers back at the center of science communication.”
New York City private organization The Simons Foundation, whose mission is to promote collaboration between scientists of various disciplines, underwrites many science communication efforts, not least their own magazine branch. The digital Quanta Magazine is not first-hand research, but its rigorously reported coverage of research provides appropriately complex yet accessible looks at the latest and most far-reaching work in physics, mathematics, biology, and computer science. The site’s Abstractions blog offers pieces such as “How Viruses May Have Led to Complex Life” while articles like “In Mathematics, ‘You Cannot Be Lied To’” and “Dividing Droplets Could Explain Life’s Origin” can be found in the magazine’s sections.