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The history of science communication methods and their evolution over time


Open book vector graphic with title SciComm History with various aspects of science communication drawn around it

Before the existence of academic publishing and the availability of the internet, how was science communicated between scientists and to the masses?


Well millennia ago, the world had cave paintings.


And centuries ago, the world had just invented print!


With modern broadcast technologies and endless opportunities for learning at our disposal, we might forget that technological and communicative channels weren’t always so advanced.


And today, we’re living a golden age of “SciComm” — a catchy portmanteau of ‘science’ and ‘communication’.


But even in more recent years, SciComm wasn’t always so, well, catchy 🤷🏻. In fact, did you know it wasn’t always called SciComm? What was the SciComm scene before all this?


We’re bringing you a little snippet of what went down in the history of science communication methods and how they evolved with time. We’ll also touch on the relevant bits of the history of scientific practice.


Pile of items involved in the history of science communication

Let’s dive into the history record. 📖



1. The origins of language


For as long as the very concept of language, art, and expression has ever existed, we’ve been communicating science in primordial forms.


Here’s some prehistoric timeframes to give you some perspective.


  • 150,000 - 200,000 years ago: This is debated to have been the start of primitive human language, during a time where humans and Neanderthals lived concurrently. The criteria for the origin of language debate is the first evidence of past, present, and future tense.

  • ~ 40,000 years ago: A sudden boom of art, simple instruments, and specialised tools (no pipettes yet 😉). Symbols and icons portrayed specific concepts (like rivers, mountains, and fire).

  • ~ 11,000 years ago: Hunter-Gatherers kept more detailed wall paintings of their daily activities to record their everyday activities. Which animals were good for eating? What fruits were ripe for picking? What were their relationships with the land? Imagine a graphical abstract or methods paper on a stone wall!


Hunter gatherer cave paintings depicting a cow and agricultural practice
Rock art expressed practices in hunter-gatherer societies. Source: South African History Online.

But take these records with a grain of salt. As expected, the dates are widely debated by historians, archaeologists, and social scientists alike. 🗓



2. The age of ancient philosophers


Philosophy literally translates to the ‘love of knowledge’. And who loves knowledge more than a curious scientist? For the MPhil and PhD owners out there: now you can tell all your friends and families that you’re a Master or Doctor of Knowledge-Loving. 👨🏻‍🎓👩🏽‍🎓


But while philosophy may seem far-flung from science as we know it, some would argue that philosophical thinking influenced humankind’s love of learning, judgement of ethical practices, advocacy for education and for upholding scientific integrity. These are all major aspects of good science communication practice.


So before the time of fancy titles and degrees, here’s when some of the OG knowledge-lovers lived long ago.


  • ~ 2,600 years ago: Classical Greek philosophy began in the ancient city of Miletus.

  • ~ 2,500 years ago: Confucius greatly influenced the cultural landscape of East Asia in the social sciences, including morality and altruism. What should be done versus what shouldn’t be done? He also advocated to make education more broadly available.

  • ~ 2,400 years ago: The era of Socrates & Plato. Socratic teachings were centered around the idea that knowledge is important in order to live a good life. And with this came the wise ideas that we need to conduct meaningful debates and that we need to share knowledge with others. Who would’ve thought?


School of Athens by Raphael painting
‘School of Athens’, painted by Raphael (est. 1509-1511) depicting at the center: Socrates (in red) and Plato (in blue). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

And just 100 years later, one of the biggest historical events to influence scientific practices happened:



So, how did science and philosophy evolve together in the many years to come? 🤔



3. The rise of the Renaissance


The Renaissance, which is French for “rebirth”, was a huge period in time that saw major advances across the sciences and the arts in Europe; building on teachings from classical Greek philosophy. With this came even more sophisticated methods and philosophies for communicating ideas. 💡


Here’s a quick overview of some significant points in the timeline.


  • 1300s: The beginning of the Renaissance. Historians debate that it may have started even earlier.

  • 1436: The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg, allowing the first automation of book printing, which increased the accessibility of sharing manuscripts with other scientists.


Johannes Gutenberg in his workshop.
Johannes Gutenberg in his workshop, checking over printing proofs. This was the true OG of manuscript proofing. Source: Live Science.

  • 1452-1519: The time of Leonardo da Vinci, whom throughout his life was credited as an inventor with a talented hand at applying art to communicate complicated concepts. Examples of inventions included the parachute, and early prototypes of flying machines (to-be planes) and self-propelled carts (to-be vehicles).

  • Throughout the period: Many esteemed scientists, artists and polymaths preferred to communicate their ideas and observations in diagrammatic form with detailed labels. Examples include Michelangelo’s works in human anatomy, and Galileo’s works in observational astronomy. And while we’d love to mention them all, that’ll likely be another thesis’ length of history. 😅


Leonardo da Vinci designs for a flying machine based on bone structure of bird wings
“Lab book” designs for a flying machine, sketched by Leonardo da Vinci. His observation of the bone structure of birds wings assisted in the concept. Source: leonardodavinci.net

  • 1530s: Empiricism, or empirical knowledge, took hold of the minds of most scientists. Empiricism is a philosophy that all knowledge can only be derived from what we sense (see, touch, taste, hear, and smell). But if all that is true must be sensed, what did this imply for religious beliefs which are often based on the intangible? As you would imagine, this caused some major disagreements between scientists and religious authorities — and with this came the rise of skepticism in science.


Galileo meme about flat earthers

Though, we now know that not all science needs to be seen in order to be believed. Yes we’re looking out for all of you theoretical physicists and mathematicians out there — we’ve got your back.


Instead, scientists would eventually come up with systems to moderate science by experts.👇



4. The start of scientific societies


In the years to come, scientists banded together in what we now know as scientific societies. Perhaps you might be a member of one, or two, in your field of study or where you live.

So what significant advancements in scientific practice and communication came about as a result of these exclusive science clubs?


  • 1660s: The Royal Society (now the Royal Society of London) was founded as the first scientific society in the world and was originally aimed at natural philosophers and medical physicians. Their motto to this day is ‘Nullius in verba’, which is Latin for “take nobody’s word for it”, quoted direct from their website to mean:


"An expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment.”


Or in other words: prove your findings and then have them checked by the club’s head honchos. 📝


Royal Society of London Nullius in Verba coat of arms
The coat of arms of the Royal Society, emblazoned with their motto. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

  • 1665: The Royal Society launched the first issue of Philosophical Transactions — the world’s oldest journal. This journal was the first to present the ideas of scientific priority (what gets funded) and peer review (which was not yet implemented until 66 years later👇)

  • 1731: The launch of the world’s first fully peer-reviewed journal: Medical Essays and Observations from the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

  • 1800s: Public lectures became highly popular as a means for experts to educate the public in both the sciences and the arts.


But while societies, journals, peer-reviewed articles and public lectures were great for increasing the accessibility of science, it was still a challenge to communicate complex scientific concepts effectively.


So how could science be comprehended more clearly to everyone in the time to come?



5. Seeing science


Pictures speak a 1000 words. But drawing a Charles Darwin-style sketch of a finch might just take a 1000 hours if you weren’t the best at drawing accurately.


So why not just invent a machine that could do this for us? 👀


  • 1826: Joseph Nicéphore Niépce invented the first permanently-fixed photograph. This was by building on technology previously pioneered by the ‘father of optics’ Ibn al-Haytham 1058 years ago (965) called a ‘camera obscura’.

  • 1888: Louis Le Prince created the first camera that could capture motion video. This technology was still very much in its infancy, but would one day be advanced enough to capture nature in all of its beauty. Where would the Discovery Channel be without these inventors?

  • 1933: Photography and cameras would then evolve so much over the next century, making their way into advanced microscopes like the electron microscope. The first micrograph of a virus was taken in 1935.


Tobacco mosaic virus electron micrograph 1935
A micrograph of the first discovered virus: the Tobacco mosaic virus. Taken using an electron microscope in 1935. Source: Nobel Prize Museum

  • 1960s-1970s: Scientific poster sessions became a norm in the academic community.One history blog reports that the original 1960s scientific posters only used images and diagrams with no text. But by the 1970s, some academics couldn’t help it but write entire essays on them. Big. Sigh. 😮‍💨


So despite the existence of these visual tools, the academic community heavily favoured traditional text and print media (thanks a lot Johannes Gutenberg). Copious amounts of text, however, wasn’t the easiest thing to digest, leading to a BIG problem…



6. Giving people more than they could chew


In 1987, co-authors Geoffrey Thomas and John Durant published an opinion piece that suggested new ways to benefit science, the economy, government bodies and society as a whole by promoting the “public understanding of science” or “scientific literacy”. These were the early names for SciComm. The world needed to increase their efforts in teaching and informing scientific matters to the masses.


But in order to teach, people needed more access to the literature. So what kind of efforts were made to increase this?


  • 1983: On January 1st 1983, the internet was born.

  • 1987: The launch of Flora Online, debated to be the world’s first open-access journal. 🙌🏻

  • 1994: Brittanica launched the first digital encyclopedia.


But just because more information was available didn’t mean more people understood it. And neither would this effectively engage people. This public information overload was then called the deficit model or science literacy deficit model.


“The Art of Communication”. Source: greenscienceforum

Scientists would need to refocus their efforts on how science was presented as we entered into the present day.



6. The tech boom of the modern world


Since the tech boom of the 90’s through to the new millennia, our communication channels have been evolving drastically. We’re talking about long-distance broadcast media, advanced computers, the internet, Wi-Fi connection, mobile phones, smart devices, social media, artificial intelligence!


These tools offer an unprecedented opportunity for scientists and the public to really engage and communicate in both directions.


And they’re used by just about everyone!


Scientists… decision-makers… perhaps even your grandpa whom you gifted an iPhone to but is still learning how to use it. 📱


Grandpa trying to use a smartphone but failing to swipe
“Swipe to unlock”, they said. “It’ll be easy”, they said.

Knowledge of all sorts could now be accessed at the flick of anyone’s finger.


And with access now at its peak, how have we made the most of it?

  • 1991 | Digital pre-print culture: Since the launch of arXiv as the first digital preprint platform for physics, mathematics and computer sciences, many other scientific disciplines would soon follow in suit share to their manuscripts before peer review.

  • 2004 | Science and SciComm podcasts: In 2004, iPods and similar devices were equipped with the ability to host podcasts. And now with smartphones, it’s never been easier to go for a run while listening to a slice of science.

  • Debated ~2004 | Science and SciComm blogs: The internet is sprawling with journal articles by experts for experts, but now we’ve also got neat, clear, simplified blog posts for the public written in layman’s terms.

  • 2006 | #SciComm: Since Twitter’s inception on March 21st 2006, it’s been a major platform for scientists to share their work on social media. A paper in the journal Scientometrics in 2022 found that 2.6 million Twitter accounts were owned by academics. Altmetrics was created as an incentive to share your work as it’s measured by how widely your papers are mentioned on the web.

  • No trackable date | Video abstracts: If a paper is like a movie, then it’s got to have a trailer! Audiovisual media has helped explain the key messages of complex studies, which often include analogies to visualise ideas. In fact, we’ve recently summarised a study about the impact of video abstracts.


And this is just the beginning. Look at how incredibly far we’ve come!


Technology is evolving so fast that it’s near impossible to put a date on most of these incredible advancements in SciComm. But we need to continue to maximise the potential of the tools available to us to make a difference for the future.


You’ve got this. 🤜 🤛


Uncle Sam meme saying We Need to Communicate Science


Now, SciComm is at your fingertips…


… quite literally.


Not only because of the point in history we’re living in, but also because Animate Your Science is proud to add its own milestone in the grand SciComm timeline!





If you’ve got an appetite for the latest news in the SciComm space, subscribe to the magazine to receive a FREE issue quarterly!



Stamp your name on the SciComm timeline!


Look at how far we’ve come 👇


Timeline of events of the history of scicomm methods

And the field’s only going to become even bigger.


If you’re keen to join the timeline, SWIPE SciComm is searching for partners, advertisers and writers with a burning passion for science communication in all of its forms as we’ve talked about in this post.


So if SciComm’s your passion, we’d like to see what you bring to the table. Get in touch using the button below to start the conversation!


Authors

Dr Juan Miguel Balbin

Dr Khatora Opperman

Dr Tullio Rossi



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