Why do the wires of my earphones always get twisted when I put them in my pocket? Why do we experience déjà-vu? Why do we choke when we snort water, but not when we’re sniffing?
Everyday questions like these are helping to open a door into the realms of science for thousands of ordinary Chinese.
Posted on the “Dr. You” column on songshuhui.net, they are opened up to answers from other readers.
Only the most interesting and provocative questions are chosen, says Wang Yan, the website’s content editor.
Every day more than 50,000 people visit the songshuhui (Science Squirrels), which opened in April last year, and the number is growing.
So named because the club’s organizers promise “to peel off the hard shells of yummy science kernel... like little fluffy squirrels opening nuts”. The website is at the forefront of popular science in China.
It translates foreign popular science essays, organizes screenings of science documentaries, invites scientists, researchers and science fiction writers to public talks, and arranges tours of scientific research facilities that are normally closed to the public.
Its off-line activities are always over-subscribed.
When the Science Squirrels organized a group study of the July 22 total solar eclipse in Shanghai, the number of places was filled within three hours of the announcement.
And the heavy rain failed to dim the enthusiasm of the lucky few who joined the group.
Xiao Wu, 20, and her mother travelled 16 hours from southeast China’s Fujian Pronvince to Shanghai.
She met some of her favorite writers, whose easy-to-read and humorous popular science essays had helped the sophomore in her own studies.
“I never read such stories on science in Chinese. They’re so informative,” says Ms. Wu, who takes an interest in astronomy, geography and environment, as well as her own major, biology.
In its short existence, the blog has collected a raft of accolades. It was voted the “Best Chinese Blog” in awards organized by German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle in 2008, and the official China Association of Science and Technology ranked it alongside China’s first spacewalk in the “2008 Top 10 Events of Science Popularization in China.” It was founded under the motto “To make science popular” by Ji Xiaohua, better known by his pen name, Ji Shisan, 32.
With a doctorate in neurobiology, Mr. Ji started writing popular science essays on campus, before abandoning research to devote himself to science popularisation in 2007.
“I wanted to jump out of the small circle of a certain subject and have a wider view of the scientific world,” Mr. Ji says.
“During my part-time work on campus, I found popular science can reach more people. When it brings me a little success, I feel a responsibility to do the work.” He opened the blog to a wide range of popular science topics and it now has 80 to 90 part-time writers, mostly science reporters, researchers, and university and institution students.
In late 2008, they published the book “When Colourful Sound Tastes Sweet,” a collection of their most popular work.
Mr. Ji wants to see people talking science in the restaurants, cafes and bars, and at home.
Although Chinese traditionally have a high regard for science, they fail to see its influences in daily life, he says.
“The public have shut science out of their lives. Many people believe in astrology and blood type analysis,” Mr. Ji says. He cites the story of human resources staff at a major Chinese website who consulted the editors of its astrology section when recruiting people.
A far cry from the Giant Leap Forward
It’s a far cry from the days after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, when scientists had prestige. Many scientists were sent to rural areas to teach farmers about pest control and increase crop yields during the “Great Leap Forward” from 1958 to 1961.
During the “Cultural Revolution” from 1966 to 1976, scientists were persecuted and more than 100 science magazines were closed.
But science saw another heyday from 1979 to 1988, when more than 20,000 books on popular science were published, along with about 250 magazines and 1,000 films.
The science fiction novel “Little Smart Travelling to the Future” by Ye Yonglie was published in 1978, and has since sold 3 million copies. But the last two decades, driven by the market economy, have seen many magazines closed, few films on popular science and few people, especially individuals or groups outside the government, engaging in the field.
To the chagrin of Mr. Ji and other science writers like Fang Zhouzi, “pseudoscience” and “superstition” are making a comeback.
Mr. Fang has been waging war against fraud in scientific research and fake science on his website, New Threads. He argues that the “extra-sensory perception fervour” in the 1980s and the “Fengshui craze” have wasted social resources and hindered the country’s development.
“The essential reason is the lack of public scientific spirit,” says Mr. Fang.
He says one of the goals of science popularisation in China is to help advance the process of the country’s modernisation.
“A scientific sense should become the mainstream of the society if China wants to be modernised,” he says.
But Mr. Fang disdains the approach to popular science taken by the Science Squirrels, who are aiming to create five “star writers” with the good looks and presentation skills needed for public promotions. He says the Squirrels are making a mockery of science by being “too tolerant of fake science” and “not serious and not precise enough.”
“In China, pseudoscience and superstition have a great influence, therefore, science popularisation work should not only includes spreading the new (scientific knowledge), but also fighting against the fake,” he says.
He argues that the public look down on popular science writers. “When scientists or researchers write popular science articles, people think they are incapable of real science work.” That attitude must be eradicated, he says, and he wants the government to encourage popular science with more facilities and free access.
Mr. Ji insists that the five “idol writers” will attract more readers and encourage other scientists to engage with the public-and be more adept at using modern media. “The younger generation knows more about the Internet and can use it to influence, so we can expect a better and broader future for popular science than the traditionalists.”
He admits that the blog has deliberately avoided “sensitive” topics. “Practical topics that common people care about, rather than specialist fields, like theoretical physics, will attract more readers at this stage. When we are strong enough, we will also spend more time fighting fake science.” His biggest challenge, with his limited resources, is trying to reach out to those people beyond the Internet.
“There are other groups in more urgent need of popular science, such as the children and the elderly, but we can only target educated young urban people at the moment as we generally rely on the Internet,” Mr. Ji says.
In April, The Squirrels set up Squirrels Group as a company to use the resources they have to make money to support the non-profit work. “We’re doing everything we can to make science popular,” he says.