I want to start with a story. In May 2017 I was sitting in a medium sized room with 60 quite bright people that all had a vested interest in teaching university students how to be good writers. We were all there to attend a workshop entitled "Writing Across the Curriculum" which was designed to get university faculty to think about how to be more effective writing teachers. I had decided to attend this workshop because I teach the "Writing Intensive" course in the Physics Department; our undergraduate capstone course in which senior physics students spend a semester working on a long term, generally open-ended project. Someone several years ago felt that this course was the appropriate place for our students to spend a lot of time perfecting, or at least improving, their writing, a reasonable enough idea since presumably, students weren't necessarily supposed to spend all of their time in this course solving typical physics problems. Instead, they were supposed to learn about life as a real life physicist or engineer, and a real life physicist or engineer spends much more time in their normal life writing articles, reports, or proposals than they do solving problems from their University Physics book.
I took this course on some years ago as I was quite interested in working with students on these semester long projects. The fact that the course was meant to involve a great deal of writing was fine, but not particularly compelling to me. It was a requirement and I would fulfill it. End of story. For the first few years of teaching the course, I was quite happy with the success the students were having with their projects. My approach towards teaching writing in Capstone was to use the course, and the project that the students were working on, to expose the students to the breadth of writing that they might encounter once they were finished with their undergraduate career. Depending on the year, students were asked to write literature research reports, white papers, technical reports and memos, proposals, and scientific articles. As far as I was concerned, the students had learned how to write via the myriad writing classes that they had taken throughout their careers as students and we didn't need to spend time in class to further talk about writing. All they needed was practice. And with practice, by the time they were finished with Capstone, they would be strong writers capable of articulating their complex ideas, analysis and results like a seasoned pro.
Until recently, I had never spent much time considering the things that make good writing. Instead, so I thought, there were two levels of writers: those that wrote, and those that were learning to write. Yes, I realize that this is quite insane. Why should it be that there are many levels of competency for every other thing that one might do with their time, but when it came to writing it was simply black or white? You can probably guess that it didn't take many years of teaching a writing intensive course for physics students for me to realize that good writing wasn't something that students could just turn on by spending more time in front of a computer. To be sure, practice is part of the recipe, but it wasn't enough. They needed me to actually teach them about good writing, and in particular, good science writing.
Luckily, it just so happened that around the time that I started to realize this I was devouring material from people that I considered to be good science writers (largely from blogs such as Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy and The Planetary Society). Unluckily, I was fairly certain that I was not one of these people, and I had, therefore better do something about that right away. Thus, I found myself signing up to take part in a four-day Writing Across the Curriculum workshop (or WAC for short) put on by Eastern's University Writing Center during the break between the Winter and Spring semesters. On day one I learned something very important: I wasn't only there for my students, I was also there to learn how to be a better writer myself.
That brings me to this particular project. There are many steps that one can take to improve their writing, but an important one is to find avenues for practice. During WAC, I had an idea on how to do this right away: why not take the idea that Aaron and I had for a podcast, which is in sort of a cryogenic state, and apply it to text. I had become incredibly interested in written Science Communication (for reasons I will save for a different entry) and I knew that you had an interest in this sort of thing as well, mainly because you were doing this sort of thing anyway. Still, it seemed like there was room for somewhat of a back and forth between two scientists in which they discuss sciency type things, right?
So, here we are. The general idea that I had was we could use this platform to pose questions to each other. The format ensures that we take the time to consider our response and, at least attempt, to articulate it well. I'm going to start this by posing a question with a couple parts. Aaron, you are a space physicist, but more generally a scientist. So I want to start big and ask you some questions that I hope you will address as both of those things. First, in order to survive in our field, we are supposed to spend a lot of time thinking about how to solve the biggest issues and answering the biggest questions in space physics. I'm curious to know if you think that we, as a community are doing a great job of doing that. How much momentum does the community have with regards to continuing to uncover the next level of detail? How easy is it for the community to pivot when observations or model results turn up something new? How does funding affect the problems that scientists pursue? What do you personally think are the most important questions in the field?
Finally, forget about space physics for a second. As a scientist that is living on Earth, right now, what are the most important problems that we should be trying to figure out?