Video explaining PopSciColl

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What is PopSciColl?

PopSciColl is a set of slideshows about science and technology.

The basic idea is to break all of science and technology down into short, digestible chunks, each of which can then be told as a brief story. Each story starts with a puzzle in our understanding of the world, follows how scientists poked and probed the puzzle with observations and experiments, and then shows how they worked out the solution.

This gives a feeling for how science is actually done. It always starts with a question: why is the world as it is? Readers can enjoy the thrill of the puzzle and then relive that moment of clarity when all the pieces finally fit together.

The website is currently in a prototype state, with just a few finished slideshows, so please chip in with ideas and improvements.

Aims of PopSciColl

The aim of PopSciColl is to make it as easy as possible for curious people to pick up the basics of science. PopSciColl collates the best explanations of popular science out there and brings them together in a unified, consistent way.

More generally our hope is to kindle in readers a sense of awe and wonder at the natural world, along with an understanding of our place in it.

Structure of the website

The four main areas, The Universe, The Earth, Life and Technology, are divided up into smaller topics, each of which is covered in a short slideshow of four to five pages.

The topics are structured in a hierarchy. Top-level slideshows give a general overview of an area, while lower-level ones flesh out the detail. From the hierarchy you can see how a particular topic fits into the general scheme of things.

Each slideshow can be read in around ten to fifteen minutes. This gives enough time to cover something substantial, without being overwhelming.

Structure of the slideshows

The text is split into two levels. The main presentation gives an overview of the topic, at the level of a good science museum or documentary. Each slide then has a "Further details" button which reveals more nuanced information, along with links to further resources, including original research papers. This leaves the main text free to focus on the big picture without getting overloaded with detail and qualifications, while if readers are thirsting for more, there's plenty to satisfy them.

Reasoning behind PopSciColl

We believe the best way to explain science is to tell the story of how the science was actually done: the puzzles that faced us in the past and the ingenuity that solved them. Science should be presented as a living, breathing, collective enterprise, not just a bunch of facts.

We also want to lower the barriers for picking up science. There are often just a few good standard ways of approaching a topic that are common across the best books, documentaries and lectures. We want to bring these together in a common, freely-available format.

By breaking everything down into discrete chunks, PopSciColl allows the reader to focus on a particular area. The overall hierarchy then gives the reader a feeling for the context of the topic. This modularity also makes it easier to distribute the workload of writing the slideshows.

The main text is intended to convey a general idea and feeling for a topic, just as if someone was explaining it to you in person. Details are important and can be found by clicking the "Further details" button, but they shouldn't obscure the main point.

What is the intended audience?

The intended audience is anyone who is curious about science. We have a particular soft spot for those who found science boring at school. It isn't boring, it just needs to be presented right.

PopSciColl is not meant to be a substitute for a formal education, although we'd be very happy if it inspires you to study science.


PopSciColl mostly covers established science, but also tries to give a fair representation of current debates in research. It is not intended to report the very latest breaking news.

Openness as a principle

PopSciColl is open both in the sense that it is freely available, but also in the sense that it aims to be understandable and accessible to all.

It is often hard to find the first step if you want to learn something. You don't know with which book, documentary or website to start. It is easy to become overwhelmed by all the jargon, the complexity and the lack of context. Even news articles seem to assume a high level of prior knowledge.

PopSciColl aims to start from the basics and build up, so you always know where you are and how you got there. In this way we want to lower some of the small but troublesome barriers to scientific knowledge.

Public ownership of science

Many problems in public policy come from a misunderstanding of science and how it is conducted. People do not see it as a collective enterprise, which they can follow and participate in; it is perceived as something alien and elite.

Part of the purpose of PopSciColl is to make science more accessible, and reveal something about the way it is conducted.

Funding and transparency

The funding model is not settled, but we will always be transparent about funding.

Currently there is no funding.

If you have any ideas for funding, please get in touch.

Collaborative model

Only a few slideshows on PopSciColl have been completed, but we plan to have many, many more. By clicking on the "Show Unfinished Slideshows" link on each of the main four area pages, you can see the intended scope and range of the website. It will take many people contributing text and graphics before it is fully functional. Please help by contributing.

To ensure quality and accuracy, we want all text to be reviewed by a scientific authority before being published on the site. If you're a scientist, please help out by contributing text, validating existing text or simply improving/correcting it.

There is no official collaborative model worked out yet, so please just get in touch if you can help. If we can raise money, we would like to remunerate people for their work.

How can I contribute?

See the page on contributing.

How can I get in touch/make a comment or improvement?

To leave general comments go to the improvements page. For individual pages there is an "Improve" link on each page where you can leave comments.

Why should scientists contribute?

We can't put it better than Stephen Jay Gould in his book Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle:

"It is important that we, as working scientists, combat these myths of our profession as something superior and apart. The myths may serve us well in the short and narrow as rationale for a lobbying strategy - give us the funding and leave us alone, for we know what we're doing and you don't understand anyway. But science can only be harmed in the long run by its self-proclaimed separation as a priesthood guarding a sacred rite called the scientific method. Science is accessible to all thinking people because it applies universal tools of intellect to its distinctive material. The understanding of science - one need hardly repeat the litany - becomes ever more crucial in a world of biotechnology, computers and bombs."

What does PopSciColl mean?

PopSciColl stands loosely for "The Popular Science Collection".

Why develop PopSciColl now?

The open content available on the web, particularly in Wikipedia and its sister projects, has reached a mature enough level that we can start to think beyond collecting reference material and work out how best to present it to newcomers, for example by giving it a narrative structure and making it a pleasure to navigate. This is a more subjective task and PopSciColl is only one of many different approaches.

Current status

As of April 2012, PopSciColl is still in a proof-of-concept stage. If you want to help or have comments, please get in touch.

Guidelines for slideshows

Didactic rather than flat presentation

Each slideshow should tell a story that progresses from a puzzle in science through to the observations and experiments that lead to the resolution of the puzzle. This gives a feeling for how real science is done.

No quackery

PopSciColl only covers science that has been peer-reviewed in a respectable journal.

Accredited scientists will be invited to validate the accuracy of the material so that readers can trust the information here.

To avoid distraction.

Details and arcane taxonomy relegated to "Further details"

We want to get the main ideas and motivations for science across to readers. It's thus as important to decide what to leave out as what to put in. Complicated scientific names and obscure exceptions to general rules should be footnoted to the "Further details" section. Concepts not names.

Less emphasis on historical figures

It is often difficult to pin down credit for a scientific discovery precisely, so it is better to leave this to the "Further details" section to avoid bogging the main text down with historical asides and qualifications. The priority is to explain the science.

Split levels

Each slide comes with a "further details" button to reveal more nuanced scientific information, as well as links to further resources. This is also intended to take the onus away from the main text for a complete, exhausting description of the science, allowing it to focus on the big picture.

Style: not too bombastic

The prefered style is to let the facts speak for themselves, rather than overloading the text with superlatives.

All material has some sort of copyleft licence. Public domain is our preference, to ensure the widest dissemination.

No Adobe Flash

We prefer to avoid Adobe Flash because it isn't a standard part of most browsers and it is buggy and slow on some platforms. For video the HTML5 standard is preferred.

Factual errors and other mistakes

Unfortunately there are bound to be errors, both in PopSciColl's reporting of science and sometimes in the original science itself.

For errors that originate on PopSciColl's side, there is an "Improve" button at the bottom of each page where you can report errors. We would appreciate it if errors are reported along with a reference to somewhere reputable with the correct version of the science. We aim to fix errors as quickly and transparently as possible.

If you think there is an error in the science, please write a research paper and publish it in a reputable journal before reporting it to us.

Isn't PopSciColl like...

Isn't PopSciColl like Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is an open encyclopedia. It is good for a specific query, but not when you're looking to be told a story and guided through something. Wikipedia is not a textbook.

Isn't PopSciColl like Wikibooks?

Wikibooks hosts open textbooks. PopSciColl is more like Wikibooks than Wikipedia, in that it aims to introduce the reader gently to a topic. The difference is that PopSciColl breaks everything up into discrete, manageable chunks, imitating the slideshow rather than the book.

Isn't PopSciColl like a textbook?

Not exactly, it aims more for a popular presentation of science, rather than a rigorous covering of all topics.

Isn't PopSciColl like HowStuffWorks.com?

PopSciColl is somewhat similar to HowStuffWorks.com in its presentation format, but PopSciColl is more focused on science and provides more detailed explanations and references. PopSciColl is collaborative and the content is all free to remix. PopSciColl has peer-review. PopSciColl also has no commercial ambitions.

Isn't PopSciColl like About.com?

PopSciColl has a narrower focus than About.com and aims to provide a more consistent feel, style and level of presentation.

Isn't PopSciColl like Khan Academy or other e-learning resources?

PopSciColl isn't meant to replace a good school or university education in science. It is meant to make it easy for people with a casual interest to pick up some of the fascinating developments in science.

With regard to the wonderful Khan Academy, PopSciColl has a different approach to presentation which is more text-based and less personal. We hope this makes it more amenable to collaborative editing and improvement.

Isn't PopSciColl like a science magazine?

The intention of PopSciColl isn't necessarily to cover the latest breakthroughs, but to provide a solid background in what is already reasonably well understood.

Technical information

Details of the very primitive code used to generate the site and the improvements that are needed are on the Technical page.