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Author Topic: What's the best way to convey small sizes for a general-public audience?  (Read 3818 times)

techmind

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What's the best way to convey small sizes for a general-public audience?
« on: 23/12/2010 11:16:11 »
I was just reading this story: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-12063975  about a very small "Christmas card" produced by a nanotechnology group in Glasgow.

The story says: "The image, which measures 200x290 micro-metres, features a Christmas tree and is etched on a tiny piece of glass."

They then trot out, by way of explanation "To put that into some sort of perspective, a micro-metre is a millionth of a metre; the width of a human hair is about 100 micro-metres."

This seems terribly abstract.

Why couldn't they have just said that the card "measured 0.2 x 0.3 millimetres"? (Or, if they're afraid of decimals, "one-fifth of a millimetre by one-third of a millimetre"?)

Is it that expressing the size in millimetres sounds less impressive, that they're deliberately trying to educate the public about units of "micrometres", or do you think it's just a case of not thinking?

Human hair varies between fine and thick (perhaps 50µm to 130µm), but 0.1mm is about right. Also a typical piece of 90gsm office paper is pretty much 0.1mm thick.
You can visualise millimetres, you can imagine basic fractions of millimetres.

I'd argue that paper is a better reference (than hair) as we commonly experience a wad of paper and have some feel for what several sheets stack up to. Although most of us have hair on our head, it's not really very easy to appreciate how thick or thin it is - or how wide a "ribbon" of say twenty hairs laid side by side would be.

What does everyone else think?

chris

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What's the best way to convey small sizes for a general-public audience?
« Reply #1 on: 23/12/2010 11:27:05 »
Sadly, it's more likely that the scientists quoted their work in microns, and the journalists - who often (in the case of general reporters) haven't the fogiest what one of those micron things is - then copied it verbatim.

Obviously I'm generalising terribly and the majority of science reporters are very good, but some are not, and those that aren't fall short because they lack knowledge because they are not scientists - by background - themselves.

This is why specialist science reporters are so important, especially ones who have had a high level scientific training, because they understand when to add or remove detail to improve accessibility but without damaging the integrity of the story. Unfortunately most media are cutting back on such specialist talent, presuming that people are either too uninterested in science, or too unintellectual to notice.

Chris
« Last Edit: 23/12/2010 11:30:37 by chris »

imatfaal

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What's the best way to convey small sizes for a general-public audience?
« Reply #2 on: 23/12/2010 12:08:57 »
Techmind - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/more_or_less/8462007.stm  this BBC radio show had a special on the media's use of real world examples to give an idea of scale.  It stemmed from the presenters conviction that the standard media unit for large areas was now "the size of wales".  Funny but quite informative.

I believe engineers used to use cigarette papers as a basic scale for clearances - the thickness was fairly uniform and most people had access to them
« Last Edit: 23/12/2010 12:10:40 by imatfaal »

Don_1

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What's the best way to convey small sizes for a general-public audience?
« Reply #3 on: 23/12/2010 13:56:19 »
I sometimes wonder if its a case of purposefully trying to blind people with science.

More to the point, I don't think nano Christmas cards will catch on.

"What's that dear? Read the card to you? Read it! Read it? I can't bloody see it, let alone read it. It must be from your mother, tight fisted old bat bought the smallest card she could find".

Bored chemist

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What's the best way to convey small sizes for a general-public audience?
« Reply #4 on: 23/12/2010 14:45:14 »
How many Xmas cards can dance on the head of a pin?

SteveFish

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What's the best way to convey small sizes for a general-public audience?
« Reply #5 on: 23/12/2010 18:26:38 »
Point to a period on a page and say the whole card will fit in that.

CliffordK

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What's the best way to convey small sizes for a general-public audience?
« Reply #6 on: 24/12/2010 00:40:57 »
So...
What is the difference between this "card"...
And Microfilm which has been around for decades...  so long that it is now obsolete.
Or Microprinting which is commonly used on money and checks (cheques).

The "period" is a good point...  I suppose Microdots are more than materials of scifi & spy movies.

Geezer

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What's the best way to convey small sizes for a general-public audience?
« Reply #7 on: 24/12/2010 06:35:02 »
As a Renfrew man myself, it's pretty obvious. Glaswegians have very limited depth percetion. That's why they are usually brown neckers rather than mere brown nosers. ( I can't believe I just said that!)

Ahem, er well, I think one good way is with the well tried comparitive ratio technique.

e.g., If one meter was from London to Glasgow, one micrometer would be from London to Chipping Norton (I'm not actually saying that is the correct ratio, you understand).

Don_1

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What's the best way to convey small sizes for a general-public audience?
« Reply #8 on: 24/12/2010 07:31:55 »
Thanks Geezer. If I wasn't confused before, I sure as hell am now!!!

I suppose we should be grateful you used Chipping Norton in your comparison rather than Chipping Sodbury.

Brown necks, brown noses; aything else?

« Last Edit: 24/12/2010 07:35:00 by Don_1 »

Geezer

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What's the best way to convey small sizes for a general-public audience?
« Reply #9 on: 24/12/2010 08:12:22 »
rather than Chipping Sodbury.

It did cross my mind, but I thought it might be in rather bad taste.

chris

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What's the best way to convey small sizes for a general-public audience?
« Reply #10 on: 24/12/2010 13:29:29 »
Techmind - http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/more_or_less/8462007.stm  this BBC radio show had a special on the media's use of real world examples to give an idea of scale.  It stemmed from the presenters conviction that the standard media unit for large areas was now "the size of wales".  Funny but quite informative.

In a similar way, we previously looked at the use of a "curtain" as a measure of risk:

http://www.thenakedscientists.com/HTML/content/interviews/interview/737/

Chris

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What's the best way to convey small sizes for a general-public audience?
« Reply #10 on: 24/12/2010 13:29:29 »