How to find images for your science blog – Part 2

How to find images for your science blog

How to find images for your science blogAs I mentioned last week, there are four ways to get images for your science blog.

  1. Look for public domain images or creative commons-licensed images
  2. Make your own
  3. Ask for permission
  4. Buy images


1. Look for public domain or creative commons images

In part 1, I showed how and where to look for public domain images or creative commons-licensed images. This post will go into the other three methods.


2. Make your own images

If you can’t easily find an image you have permission to use, you can always make one yourself. You can take a photo, draw a picture, or use software to design something simple. The possibilities are endless, but I narrowed it down to a few:


Use a photo you took yourself

This is probably the simplest of these suggestions, because you don’t need anything besides a phone with a camera. Still, there are a few things you’ll need to look out for:

  • Permission of human subjects – Do the people in the photo know that their image is being used to illustrate a blog post? You could get in trouble if you don’t let people know what the photo is for, so consider the possibility of someone asking you to take down the image. If it’s a picture of people taken at a conference and your blog post is about that conference, you’re probably okay, as long as the conference itself didn’t have any restrictions in place. Oh, about that…
  • Permission of location/event – Sometimes pictures taken at specific events or locations are for “personal use only”. This will be made clear in the media policy of the event (think: conference, festival) or location (think: museum, zoo). Often that means you can take pictures, and even share them in a photo album, but you’re not always allowed to use those pictures on your blog. It depends on the kind of blog. Sometimes the restrictions will only apply to commercial sites, which is again one of those fuzzy areas I mentioned in the context of creative commons. What exactly is commercial? Sometime there’s an exception for educational outlets, which is equally fuzzy. (Is an educational blog that receives ad income a commercial or an educational outlet?)


Draw something yourself

Okay, maybe taking a photo is not the easiest after all. Maybe drawing something yourself is even easier. Can’t draw? Stick figures are illustrative, too!

Draw on paper and scan it in

See early XKCD comics

Draw with a mouse in the free program that comes with your computer

Hyperbole and a Half got popular with trackpad drawings and Paintbrush (a simple program), so you don’t need fancy graphics programs.

Draw on an iPad

Paper by 53 and a cheap stylus is all you need to get some decent-looking pictures. I’ve used this myself in the Elgar comic.

Draw on a tablet

Turtle2If you don’t have an iPad, a Wacom tablet is actually easier to use, and the cheapest ones are much, much, much cheaper than an iPad. I drew the animals in the “beach bodies” post on a simple Wacom with free graphics software.

Get some graphics software (or even just powerpoint)

For any/all of the above suggestions I recommend having some sort of graphics software to edit images or to draw in directly. Gimp is open source and free and can do everything that photoshop can, but it has a high learning curve. For really basic editing (resizing, cropping, adding basic shapes or combining two images into one) you can even use Powerpoint/Keynote or any other slide presentation program. All the MySciCareer quotes images are done in Keynote, so we just rotate the five colours and quotes and it’s super fast and easy to make an image for each entry.


Online tools to make pretty pictures

This is the section that reveals many bloggers’ secret weapons. There are online tools that you can use to drag and drop images and backgrounds to create some fancy looking things. (Or less fancy things, like the image at the top of this post…). The two I use most are Canva and Piktochart, but there are others like it.



Canva is free to use, but a lot of their preset images cost $1 to use. With a bit of searching you can easily avoid those, though, and just use free elements. More on the paid option below.

Canva has a lot of default sizes and designs for different media platforms, so you can get the right size for a Twitter header image (and it will show you where your profile picture sits) or for an instagram post, but it also has templates for CVs, postcards, and other useful things. I used Canva to make gift cards for friends, menus for Christmas, the header of my quarterly mailing list, and images on some of my posts.



Piktochart specializes in infographics, so it includes a lot of little illustrations (including very diverse ones for people) and nice-looking text banners. There are some free templates for infographic charts. A paid account gets you more templates, and the option to remove the Piktochart logo from your final infographic. I used Piktochart to make the image for this post about genetic testing on the TGMI site.


3. Ask for permission to use images

If you can’t be bothered to create your own image, and you can’t find a suitable image in the public domain or with a creative commons license, you have two options left. One is to ask the creator of an image for permission to use that image.

If you offer to link back to them and to use the image under the terms they provide, this is a very reasonable request for blog posts. People know that you probably don’t have a budget for images. Keep in mind that artist might still say no, or that it can be difficult to track down the right person to ask for permissions.

I have used this route for a few work blog posts in the past. Recently I asked Baylor College of Medicine for permission to use an image. I found out that they were the ones to ask because I’d seen the image I wanted used on a few other sites that mentioned that it came from BCM and was used with permission.

I’ve also asked PhD comics for permission to use images in a post about the film.

“But everyone always uses science comics/illustrations online”, I hear you say.

That’s right, and they either asked the artist for explicit permission, or they’re following their guidelines (which could ask for a link back, or a limit on the size, or a watermark), OR they’re stealing.

Yes, it’s stealing to take someone else’s creation and put it on your own site without any form of permission. If an illustrator’s work is getting you extra traffic and shares, and that doesn’t trickle through to them in anyway, you’re getting your site clicks on the back of their talent. That’s why at the very minimum an artist will ask for a link back or an image tag on Twitter.

To make it easy, some artists have put explicit statements on their site that tell you how you can use their images. You might have to search for it. The aforementioned PHD comics has an email address in their FAQ section. Hyperbole and a Half has information about re-posting images in the FAQ as well. Photographer Alex Wild has an elaborate section on his website about image use.

If you can’t find info on their site, just contact them to ask them whether you can use the image.

Glendon Mellow, one of the bloggers at Symbiartic, uses some standard text to approach people whose artwork he wants to feature on the blog. The text includes information about how the image will be displayed, and how the artist will be credited. Here’s part of that text:

I typically make a thumbnail image that appears on our site’s main page, and sometimes follows the work when people share on Facebook and Twitter etc. We’re pretty careful about attribution on Symbiartic: what links would you like me to add to the post? Twitter, blog, Instagram, Snapchat, portfolio, online shop,…I’ll put links to any and all that you like.


4. Buy images

Your final option is to purchase an image. I left this for the end because it’s BY FAR the most annoying. You thought you could just hand over money and use the image? Oh, no, it can be way more complicated than that. I’ll show a few different examples just to give an idea.



6This is the most user friendly. I mentioned Canva above, as a way to create your own designs. Some image elements (photos or illustrations) cost money, and Canva gives you two options to pay: Either get a subscription, or pay $1 for the right to use that image for the next 24 hours. Within 24 hours you can use that image in as many designs as you want, and once you’ve downloaded the design you’re all set. So for something simple that you can finalise in 24 hours, this is easy and only costs $1. I paid for the image of the book in this design (which doubles as a sneak preview for a thing I’m launching soon. Subscribe on YouTube!)


Stock image sites

iStockphoto prices their images using “credits”. You can prepay for a number of credits, or pay per image. Once paid, you can use the image for whatever you want, for as long as you want. It can’t get any easier. It can get more difficult, though…

Shutterstock offers two kinds of licenses: Standard and Enhanced. For a blog post, the standard license is enough, so don’t worry about the other one.  To use the standard license, you can prepay for a few images, or get a subscription, or a subscription for a whole team. You have to estimate in advance how many images you’re going to need to decide what would be best, but again, for a blog the most basic plan is probably best.

You can purchase stock images through a few other sites as well, but these are the best-known ones.


Rights-managed images

I’ve left this until the very last because this is the most difficult. The two stock image sites above sell you unlimited access to “royalty-free” images. They’re royalty-free because the owner of the image gets a one-time payment from you, and doesn’t get royalties based on how often the image was used. You can also pay to use a “rights-managed” image. Here, the owner of the image is paid proportional to the use of the image: If the image is used in high resolution and get lots of views, they get more than if a tiny image is only seen by a few people.

That means that if you want to pay to use one of those images, you need to consider the size of your audience, and how long you’re using the image for. If you’re including the image in a print magazine, the questions are easy to answer: you know how many copies of that issue are printed, and each issue is printed only once. If you’re putting the image on a blog, this becomes more complicated. How many visitors do you think that post will get? How long is the image staying online?

I looked up the price for a science-themed image in Getty Images, and the cheapest option was £39 for a three-month digital license, or £150 for full editorial use of a small image (for fifteen years). Custom options required filling in a complex form, and the costs get even higher.

And remember, rights-managed images are often images that appeared in the news, or on company websites. You can’t afford those on your blog, so just don’t even think about it and search for a different (free) image first.

Getty realises this, and has a special section on their site, Getty Embed, which allows you to search a subset of their images that are made available for use on non-commercial blogs. Not everything in their catalog is in there, and the image stays hosted on their site, but you can display it on yours. I’ve checked the terms of use and I think I’m allowed to use it in this blog in this context, so here’s a raccoon:



That’s it!

That concludes my two-part crazy long guide to using images on your blog. I know I didn’t mention everything (like more examples of embeddable images from third party sites, or image libraries available to bloggers on larger networks) but those all fall under “permissions” somehow.

Another thing that I didn’t touch on is the concept of “fair use”. It’s a sort of loophole in the (American) legal system that seems to say that you can use an image as long as you talk about that image, but it’s not meant to be used to justify image use, only to use in defence against a copyright claim. It’s super complicated, only really defensible when you explicitly talk about the work (definitely not when you just use an image to illustrate a vaguely related blog post), and you’re best off just not using images that you don’t have rights or permissions for.

How to find images for your science blog – Part 1

Science BlogThis is the first part of a two-part blog post on where and how to find images for (science) blogs. A lot of these tips are easily adaptable for other types of blog posts, or for other purposes (like YouTube videos), but some are a bit science-specific.


There are four ways to get images for your science blog.

Four legal ways, anyway.

  1. Look for public domain images or creative commons-licensed images
  2. Make your own
  3. Ask for permission
  4. Buy images


I’ll go into a bit more detail on each of them, but I’ll have to split it over more than one post. This post covers only the first method. Part 2 will include method 2, 3 and 4.

Method 1 – Look for public domain images or creative commons-licensed images

If you go to Google and do an image search, or if you come across an image somewhere else online, you cannot simply take that image and repost it on your own site. You have to first make sure that the image has the right permissions.


Check the permissions

For an image to be fair game for reposting on your blog, one of the following needs to be the case:


1. The image is in the public domain.

Being in the public domain either means it is so old that any copyright has expired, or that someone has deliberately made the image available to the public domain. Sometimes public domain images have a “CC0” (CC zero) Creative commons license, but other times it will just say “this image is in the public domain” or “no known restrictions” or something along those lines.


2. The image is licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons license.

Which license you are allowed to use depends on your blog and how you use the image:

  • CC-BY – You can use this image as long as you credit the original creator
  • CC-BY-NA – You can use this image as long as you credit the original creator AND you do not alter the image in any way.
  • CC-BY-NC – You can use this image as long as you credit the original creator AND your site is not a commercial site. What “non-commercial” means exactly is not entirely clear, because the person who licensed the image may have meant various things. Basically, if you make money from your blog with ads, or if the blog is a company blog, or if you got paid to write the blog post – proceed with a LOT of caution, even if you believe you’re not directly making money from the image itself. (I personally try to avoid this license because it’s so unclear.)
  • CC-BY-SA – You can use this image as long as you credit the original creator AND you share any adaptations of the image under the same CC-BY-SA license. (Again, I try to avoid this license because it makes things extra complicated: is a blog post with an image an adaptation of that image?)

Combinations of these licenses are also possible.


Finding images

All right, now you know which images you can freely use without asking for additional permission, but where do you find images with the proper license?

There are a number of places you could start looking – it depends a bit on what you’re after. I have a few favourite sources of images. I’m going to do the same search (“raccoon”)  in all four so that you can see the differences and similarities in the types of results and enjoy a plethora of raccoon pictures at the same time.


Filtered Google Image search

When you do a Google image search, you can restrict your search results to only show you pictures that you are allowed to use without permission.


Click “search tools” and then the drop-down menu “usage rights”. I selected “labeled for reuse” here, and found this raccoon. The big downside of Google’s image search is that it doesn’t always explain why the image is “labeled for resuse”. Is it in the public domain? Is it on a blog that someone put a CC-BY license on? I try to find out from the source, and often stick to search results that are very clear about permissions, like Flickr, Pixabay,  or Wikimedia Commons (all discussed below). Most of the raccoon images in my search result came from those sites, but this one is from another page, a free stock photo site which also lists the origin. It’s an image from a US government agency, which had made it available in the public domain, so no credit needed here.




Filtered Flickr search

Like on Google, you can search Flickr images for specific licenses. I’m searching for “all creative commons” here




Flickr shows me my own photos first, but that’s a topic for a future post, so I’m not looking at those. Here’s someone else’s cute raccoon. I can embed images directly from Flickr, but I don’t want to rely on Flickr to show my pictures, so I reuploaded it. I usually credit Flickr photos by name of the author, and a link to the photo on their Flickr page (linked both in text and through the image itself).


Credit: Andy Langager on Flickr.


Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons images are uploaded by volunteers, and they should include information about how to cite the source of each image. Here’s what it looks like for the raccoon below:


It’s public domain, so no credit needed.



There were a LOT of other great raccoon images on Wikimedia Commons, but many had an SA license, and as I described above, I try to avoid those because my blog itself doesn’t have an SA license.

In general,Wikimedia Commons is the best source for animal pictures, because they tend to bring up the correct animal, link to more information, and sort the images by habitat.



Pixabay has images from various other sources, both images that are free, as well as images you can buy from sponsor sites. This raccoon was a CC0 image so doesn’t need any credit:




Wellcome Images

Wellcome is a great source of images related to the biomedical sciences. Not all of their images are free to use. You can use all of the historic ones and the ones that are labeled a CC-BY. For their collection of rights-managed images, you have to pay a license fee on hi-res images (more on that in part 2 of this series of posts) or you can use the low-resolution version under a CC-BY-NC-ND license. Since I have ads on this blog, I’m not sure if I qualify for the CC-BY-NC-ND images, so I’ll look through the search results for the public domain or CC-BY images only. There were only three “raccoon” images, all for “raccoon dogs” and only one that was CC-BY. It’s a weird little netsuke figurine from Japan.  Because it was CC-BY, I used the credit as described on their page.


L0064881 Ivory netsuke, Japan, 1701-1900

Credit: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images

When I saved this image, a lot of meta information was carried along with it, and (free) Wellcome Images always come with that little bar at the bottom.

Wellcome Images is not very user friendly compared to the other sites, and a very specialised source. It’s not great for raccoon images, obviously, but it has lots of medical and biomedical images, including many historical ones.



Figshare has two sources of images: those uploaded directly by researchers, or those that appeared in journals that are affiliated with Flickr. Despite their name, there are lots of different file types here, not just “figures”, so you have to restrict your search result to “images”, like this:




Most of the image results will be graphs, because they’re figures from papers, but here’s an interesting raccoon picture. The image information suggests that it’s associated with an article in PLOS Biology, and that it’s CC-BY, so I’m going to need to credit the source (in this case, the article.) I can click “cite” on the Figshare page to get a citation, but because I couldn’t figure out who the authors were, I clicked through to the article. The whole article appears to be an editorial or a highlight, without any author names, so I just took the credit they provided. It looks like the image was perhaps made in-house by PLOS, so there are no authors to cite. (This shows how confusing it can get when you need to credit an image!)


Image source: (2005) Forecasting the Path of a Raccoon Rabies Epidemic. PLoS Biol 3(3): e115. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0030115



NASA images should also pop up in Google image searches or Flickr searches, but I wanted to highlight them separately because they’re a huge source of space images that are mostly free to use on science blogs. The full multimedia guidelines for NASA are on their website, with links to their various galleries. Not a great place for raccoon images, but such a vast source of information that I still found one!

A search for “raccoon” in the NASA media galleries turned up an image of Amelia Earhart wearing a raccoon fur coat. It’s also in their Flickr albums, and there it’s easy to find the restrictions: “no known restrictions” means you can use it anywhere with no explicit credit (because it’s a historic image).



That’s it for part 1! Part 2 will include a few ways to make your own images, and some tips on asking for permission or buying images.

Back to school

Back to school


[Scroll to bottom for book giveaway! – NOW CLOSED]


Even though it’s been a long time since I was in any form of full-time school, September still feels like “back to school” season to me. Everyone is back from holiday and ready for a few months of hard work until the end of the year.


Online courses

September is  also the time of year where a lot of free online courses or MOOCs are starting up again, so I had a look to see what’s available.

I’m already signed up for this Whole Genome Sequencing course, because I’m currently doing communication for the TGMI. I hope the course will help me get a bit more insight into some of the things people are doing in related areas, as well as observe how the course is managed and how  the complexities of WGS are presented. It starts September 19. Join me if you want!

Here are some other MOOCs I found that I thought looked interesting, but won’t have time for (or have already done).

Introduction to Communication Science – starts September 5. I’ve taken this, and I enjoyed it!

Get started with online learning – starts October 3rd.

Medicine and the arts: Humanizing healthcare – Just started, you can catch up

Digital storytelling: filmmaking for the web – just started, you can catch up

Design and make infographics – just started, you can catch up


myscicareer_greyscale_232x130px_transp_bgIf you’re currently in a science undergraduate or graduate program and are starting to think about the scary future beyond school, have a look at all the stories shared on the MySciCareer site by people with a science background. Lots of different jobs there already, and we will soon be adding even more! Lou and I have been busy sourcing new content, which should be added over the next few weeks.

(Lecturers and career advsiors: If you’re involved in talking to science students and grad students about careers and have used the MySciCareer site as a resource, please let me know!)


CareerOpBioSci_fBook giveaway! [NOW CLOSED!]

Finally, nothing says “new school year” like books.

A while ago I reviewed the book “Career Options for Biomedical Scientists”. It’s a useful book for current PhD students in the life sciences, but I already have a career. The book is still in very good condition, so I’m happy to pass it on to a current PhD student!

To get a chance of receiving the book, leave a comment on this post before September 9. Any comment will do, but if you want something to write about you can use your comment to share some of your plans for the next “school year”. I’ll draw a name from the comments after that to determine the winner of the book. Make sure to enter your email address with your comment so that I can reach you if you win. (Email addresses are not shown on the site, but I can see them and contact you if needed).

Serious squishy cow chat

Sometimes I forget that not everyone who sees my tweets has had access to my entire back catalog of online ramblings. I did a poll a while ago and discovered that many of my Twitter followers don’t know Squishy Cow, or haven’t seen my Lego videos. Both are some of my favourite science things I’ve done online, and (not coincidentally) both contain a heavy dose of silliness.

So, even though my current pinned tweet is a link to an equally silly piece of scicomm, I shouldn’t be surprised when people who see my tweets in their timeline, don’t immediately place them in the context of “me”.

When I reacted to the Guardian piece that’s doing the rounds, I considered it a given that everyone would know that I obviously love non-serious pursuits and scicomm and I think that everyone else who loves it should also do it. It didn’t always get understood that way. People thought I was saying that scientists shouldn’t do scicomm.


2016-08-07 10.35.54Squishy Cow: “Hahahaha!”

Eva: “What?”

Squishy Cow: “Why would they think YOU of all people don’t think scientists should do comms?”

Eva: “Because they don’t know who I am. Worse, Squishy, they don’t even know YOU.”


Eva: “Your hat came free with a smoothie bottle. I never even took the label off.”

Squishy Cow: “I am offended and wish to retreat from the rest of this post.”

Eva: “Fine, I’ll continue without you.”


So, yeah, please do comms! All I’m saying is that this anonymous academic is not alone, and that there are other people like them who just want to focus on research. They should be able to do that if they want to, just like how I was able to decide not to do research anymore and instead focus only on scicomm.

It’s a pretty measured opinion, I think, and it’s very much in line with how I usually talk about science and science communication. The entire MySciCareer site is based on the philosophy that everyone is different.

I have worked with enough scientists in the past years to know that some love putting all their spare time into side projects or education and others just want to do one job and that job is research. Haven’t we all had at least one professor in undergrad who clearly didn’t want to teach but “had to”? That’s those people. They do great research – but nothing else. It’s fine. Part of science communication is to recognise that and to work with them. Show interest in their work. Think about their work. Communicate it for them where needed, but leave them work if they don’t want to get involved themselves. Don’t force them. These are never going to be the people who do cool demos at science fairs and they’re not the people who chat on Twitter.

Instead, people who do chat on Twitter are obviously biased about that article. Just because you (and I) don’t want to be… let’s just say it for what we think it is, boring, doesn’t mean that others don’t want to live a very uniform work life (or keep work and fun completely separate). No amount of #seriousacademic tweets is going to convince them otherwise. If anything, it’s alienating.

People do occasionally change their minds. I met a Cambridge professor a few years ago who was very skeptical about the idea of using blogs to talk about science. He believed that being online during work hours would distract his students from research. A few years later he now has his own blog and is active on Twitter. Nobody pressured him. He was just shown the possibilities and realized the potential on his own.

Many others don’t change their minds. Or they try Twitter because they see people use it, and then realize it’s not for them after all. If you don’t like it, don’t use it. The only important thing is to make sure people are aware of all the tools that are available to them, and that they know what their colleagues are using. Then it’s their choice to join or not.

Sure, don’t make fun of people who do want to use Twitter and other social media tools, but likewise, don’t make fun of people who DON’T.


Squishy Cow: “Are you done?”

Eva: “Yes.”

Squishy Cow: “Can you post some of my pictures on Twitter now? It would be very on brand.”

Eva: “You know what? I think I might…”

Beach bodies, as rated by marine biologists


Sea nettle (2/5)
Ouch! Their transparent look makes them hard to spot, but a surprise encounter with one of these beach bodies can really hurt your seaside enjoyment.

Penguin (3/5)
The coolest penguins are chilling on beaches in Australia, South Africa and Argentina this season. They certainly dress to impress, but does your beach body really need a dinner jacket?

Sperm Whale (0/5)
Oh no, the whale is not beach body ready at all! We told it repeatedly to stay off the beach, but here it is, a blubbering mess. Get back in the sea!

Turtle2Leatherback turtle (5/5)
These babies were BORN with beach bodies, and immediately ready for a late night dip in the ocean.

Sea star (4/5)
With its striking five-fold symmetry, the sea star is a gorgeous sight on the hot sandy beach this summer. It’s sure to take your breath away – and its own, as it realizes it relies on water flow over its dermal gills for oxygen uptake.

Hermit crab (4/5)
Wow! You’ve got to love the asymmetrical curves on this beach body. Combining it with a second-hand bathing suit is a daring choice.

Human (5/5)
This land mammal’s mostly hairless body is perfectly adaptable to the beach ecosystem. Just remember: wear sunscreen!

Outreach advice for Pied Piper

I don’t always get what’s happening in Silicon Valley. I mean the TV show. I certainly don’t understand what’s happening in the actual global tech hub of the same name.

Silicon Valley is a comedy about a start-up company, Pied Piper, that does all the things start-up companies do. They have engineers, a CEO and funders. There are competitors, conventions, and lots of cameos by famous tech faces from the real Silicon Valley.

During most of the episodes, I tend to get confused by some of the details. They’re building a what? Why are they talking to these people? What is happening now? The show is fast-paced, and full of tech jargon and entrepreneurial chat that I don’t always immediately catch. It’s usually not relevant – I get the jokes even without understanding precisely how everything works.

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 22.32.04

I have sat at similar tables. I know what this feels like.

But last week’s episode, the penultimate episode of Season 3, I understood exactly what was going on. It was an episode about outreach!  I may not know much about server stacks or peer-to-peer technology, but I do know how to do outreach for new and complicated projects.

The episode: Daily Active Users

In this episode, the Pied Piper company is celebrating that they reached over half a million downloads of their product. Yay!

Unfortunately, most of the people who download their app don’t actually use it. They had only tested their technically impressive thing on engineers, who understood it, but not on regular users, who were supposed to become their clients.

To figure out how non-engineers perceived the Pied Piper app, they did some market research, and – after the CEO crashed the market research session – discovered that the problem was that people didn’t understand what the app could actually do. Once it was explained to them in excruciating detail, they liked it. One woman, Bernice, immediately turned into their biggest fan once she understood the app.

Realising that the problem was a lack of understanding of what their product could do, the team set out to do some outreach to try to educate people. They set up demo booths at conferences, manned by two of the engineers, and gave talks at what looked like a local community college. It didn’t help. People still didn’t use the app.

Here’s the episode preview:

In the next episode, a coincidental event and a bit of good luck manages to get the company out of their predicament just before the season ends, because it is, after all, a fictional TV show. In the real world, they wouldn’t have had a random stroke of luck. They would have needed to do their outreach right.


My outreach advice for Pied Piper:

1. Hire a tech outreach or communications expert

Nobody is interested in the demonstrations that the engineers give, because they’re still stuck with the same problem: As engineers, they’re way too deep into the tech specs to know how to pitch the app properly to someone who doesn’t know the details. They need to find someone who understands what they are doing, but who also knows how to distill that into short take-home messages, work it into an elevator pitch, and create a more relevant demo.

To their credit, they do involve marketing experts, but only to build a terrible “Clippy”-inspired digital assistant for their platform – not to look at the company’s core communication issues.

2. Collaborate with a business or organisation that has a large customer base that needs the product

This might not have been on the table for these guys because they had to grow customers quickly, but a good way to get a new and confusing tool in the hands of people who never used it before is to combine it with something they do know. In the case of Pied Piper file sharing, they might want to find, as possible collaborator, a website where people upload large amounts of data (music? images?) but that has limited storage space or issues with slow downloads.

The collaborator, let’s call it ThingAMaShare, could then offer their users a Pied Piper account that ties into their ThingAMaShare account and handles the storage and downloads. That way a whole existing audience is encouraged to use Pied Piper for something they’re already doing, ThingAMaShare’s problems are solved, and Pied Piper would get name recognition as “that thing that ThingAMaShare uses”.

bernice-silicon-valley-hbo3. Involve their biggest fan, Bernice

This was to me the most obvious thing that the guys should have done in this episode. Bernice is such a big fan of Pied Piper after finally understanding the concept, she even shows up to the demo talks! Bernice is already using Pied Piper regularly, and has probably gotten into a particular routine with it. What does she use it for? How does she describe the app, in her own words? Who is she talking to about it? What do those people tell her? Get in touch with Bernice, and find out! Then use that information to target potential users more specifically.

She might even want to wear one of those hideous Pied Piper jackets…


Like their potential customers, I may not always get the tech details of the Pied Piper premise, but at least I understand their outreach issues!

Being John Malkovich, and six other Twitter users

2016-05-25 13.19.43What if you could be someone else for a day? Well, you can’t. You’re stuck with being you. But you can experience Twitter as someone else, and that’s almost as good, if not better.


What? How? Tell me more!

The app Antipersona, created by Anastasios Germanidis, let’s you pick a Twitter user, and will show you their timeline (based on the public accounts they follow) and their notifications (follows, retweets and mentions).

I decided to play with this a bit, and take a look at how other people experience Twitter.

“Will seeing Twitter through others’ eyes change my views on the world? … There is only one way to find out, and that is to become seven different Twitter users.”

Hopes, dreams, goals, wishes and expectations

Will seeing Twitter through others’ eyes change my views on the world? Will it expose me to new ideas? Or will I just find some new accounts to follow? There is only one way to find out, and that is to become seven different Twitter users.


Bugs and caveats

The app is designed to only let you hold an identity for 24 hours, but even that is much longer than I would ever want to look at anyone else’s Twitter account. I couldn’t find a functional way to switch people, though, other than deleting and reinstalling the app, so that’s what I did, several times, to become all these different Twitter users.

In the process of playing with the app, I also discovered that the timelines it shows are not complete, so it not only shows a snapshot in time, but also just a subset of people that this person follows.


Disclaimer about how I am normal and totally non-creepy

Is this creepy? It’s a bit weird, isn’t it? I feel weird. I would just like to reassure the people whose Twitter identity I passively wore that I am not a creepy person. Of course this is exactly what a creepy person would say. But do feel free to use the app to take on my identity in return.


Super scientific experimental results

2016-05-23 17.05.43Who? Nathan Fielder (@nathanfielder)
Why? I picked comedian Nathan Fielder first, because in his most recent season of Nathan for You he took on someone else’s identify himself, for a ridiculously elaborate stunt, so I figured he wouldn’t mind if someone looked at Twitter through his eyes.
Expectations: I thought his timeline and mentions might be interesting, but, in stark contrast with Nathan’s own work ethic, I didn’t really do much research before embarking on this mission, so I didn’t have very specific expectations.
Results: Nathan mainly follows comedians and news outlets. He also, and I should have anticipated this, follows pretty boring business news pages in particular. His mentions were cute, though, with people talking about how much they love his work, or sending him random tweets.

2016-05-24 11.17.42Who? Maria Popova (@brainpicker)
Why? Brain Pickings is an amazing website full of interesting bits of information about interesting people. Maria is a brilliant curator both on her blog and on Twitter, and who wouldn’t want to be her?
Expectations: I thought I might find her timeline interesting, because she must filter what she publishes out of what she reads.
Results: Okay, I guess you can have too much of a good thing. Her timeline is a never-ending stream of intellectual curiosities, but it’s just too much for me. This is why we need Maria to filter out the best things, and why, in retrospect, I don’t want to be like her. Her mentions are all retweets and new followers, because she uses Twitter mainly to broadcast and not so much to interact.

2016-05-25 06.56.49Who? Michael Nielsen (@michael_nielsen)
Why? It was through a (re)tweet of his that I found out about this Antipersona app in the first place, so he had it coming, really. Michael and I worked together on projects in the past (we’re responsible for the first SciBarCamp in Toronto) and I know he generally likes things that are cool, so I was curious what his Twitter timeline looks like.
Expectations: I thought his timeline might look a bit like my own, but perhaps point me to new accounts that I wasn’t following yet. I also expected a lot of mentions, as Michael actively uses Twitter to communicate with people.
Results: Expectations met! I found some new accounts to follow, and saw some interesting Twitter discussions resulting from a question Michael asked.

2016-05-25 13.20.16Who? John Malkovich (@johnmalkovich)
Why? So the title for this blog post would make sense.
Expectations: None at all. This was purely a gimmick Twitter-identity-view.
Results: Oh. Right. I quickly learned that John Malkovich is probably bored to death with “Being John Malkovich” jokes. Sorry, Mr Malkovich. Pretty much every other mention he gets on Twitter is a reference to the film. Well, too bad, I’m keeping this title. The timeline didn’t work for him at all – it didn’t pick up any of the 13 people he followed. This is where I started suspecting the timeline part of the app wasn’t working very well.

2016-05-26 18.42.27Who? Danielle Lee (@DNLee5)
Why? Danielle is very outspoken online about diversity within science and science communication. I thought she’d be supportive of the idea of people trying to see the world through someone else’s eyes, so I chose to see Twitter through her eyes for a bit.
Expectations: I expected her to have a very different timeline than I do, but, like with Michael’s timeline, I thought there would be familiar accounts as well, since we do roam some overlapping online circles. I hoped to find new accounts to follow and perhaps learn some new things about identities in science/scicomm.
Results: It was at this point in the experiment that I was certain the timeline on the app was not working properly, because it only showed me a handful of the more than six thousand (!) accounts that Danielle follows. Still, even from the partial timeline I could see that she’s getting a very different Twitter experience than I am. She’s seeing many more tweets about issues that affect minorities. I get to see some of that in my timeline, but certainly much less of it, and usually only when things get bad enough that everyone is talking about it – not the day-to-day issues. Danielle’s notifications included lots of retweets, but also lots of replies, because she’s very active on Twitter, and engages with a lot of people.

2016-05-26 23.51.45Who? Donald Trump (@realDonaldTrump)
WHY!? I thought I needed to really broaden my horizons and experience Twitter through someone completely unlike me, with vastly different ideas of the world.
Expectations: Trump doesn’t follow very many people, so I had little expectations there, but I was bracing myself for his mentions. Would they be mainly negative? Would I find lots of Trump-support? Would I be able to sleep at night after having seen Trump’s Twitter mentions?
Results: Trump’s timeline includes Fox News and Piers Morgan. His mentions are full of people either yelling at him or people yelling with him, and he gets followed by a lot of Twitter eggs.

2016-05-27 00.04.47Who? Cath Ennis (@enniscath)
Why? I needed a safe space after having been Trump, so I picked a friend. What’s more, I already have experience taking on Cath’s identity! For an April Fool’s joke in 2011 we swapped blogs with near-identical blog posts, because at the time we were regularly mistaken for each other online. People were confused but not amused, and we were the only ones who thought it was funny.
Expectations: Cath’s cats went crazy viral on Twitter a while ago, and I expected to still get some retweets of that, because the internet never lets go of a good cat meme. Otherwise, I expected this take-over to be very similar to my own Twitter experience.
Results: Lots of familiar faces in the timeline, mixed in with Canadian news and craft beer. Someone did indeed retweet the cat picture again!


“[Trump’s] mentions are full of people either yelling at him or people yelling with him, and he gets followed by a lot of Twitter eggs.”

I stopped here because I got bored. I was planning to become a few more people, but I could already see where it was going (I would realise our similarities and differences were reflected by our Twitter experiences) and I wanted to wrap this up. I didn’t want to be other people anymore!


Some serious thoughts: What did I learn?

Seeing what Twitter is like for someone else reminded me that the world in general is different for everyone else. Like on Twitter, our real life experiences are also very much determined by who we listen to and who we talk to. You befriend people – both online and offline – because you share a worldview, and by befriending them you make that overlap even stronger.

“Seeing what Twitter is like for someone else reminded me that the world in general is different for everyone else.”

You normally don’t get to see what the world looks like to someone who is different from you, but being able to briefly look at someone else’s Twitter timelines and mentions at least gives you some idea.

That being said, I didn’t pick people who were that different from me. Trump was the most different, but everyone else had at least some shared interests or ideas. Why didn’t I pick, oh, let’s say, a teenager, an athlete, a beauty blogger, a farmer, someone in Nigeria, a parent of a sick child, or any of the many other types of people who have far less in common with me? Because I just didn’t even think of that. That’s how hard it really is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes (or timeline).

If you want to see what Twitter is like for me, or for someone more interesting, you can get the Antipersona app in the iTunes app store.



Science songs – why so silly?

Why are songs about science often so silly?

You know what I mean. They try to fit long words in the lyrics for the sake of scientific accuracy, they’re reductionist and literal, and they’re often parodies of existing songs with the words changed to be about science.

Some of them are really popular. These days, Tom Lehrer’s Elements song is probably better known than the original words to Gilbert and Sullivan’s tune. Science comedy is gaining in popularity, and silly songs about science seem to have an audience on YouTube as well.

But why are they always silly? Or: Why are there so few serious songs about science?

One reason is that to many people, “science” is abstract and impersonal. It’s not considered a topic for an emotional song. There are far more songs about technology (like email or phones) because technology is integrated in people’s day-to-day lives. Arcade Fire’s We Used To Wait is a good example. Science, on the other hand, is seen as impersonal: it’s taught in school as discovery of facts that are completely independent of the person observing them.

When the topic of songs is “scientists” rather than “science”, the tone shifts to something less silly and less literal. Scientists in music are often symbolic for determination and stubbornness. In The Flaming Lips’ Race for the Prize, two scientists are “locked in heated battle”, “so determined” to find a cure “if it kills them”. In Coldplay’s The Scientist, probably the most well-known (but not the best) scientist song, the metaphorical scientist character understands science better than love. Here, science is the opposite of emotion.

Songs about science itself, rather than songs about fictional scientists, are often cheery folksy tunes or parodies of pop songs in which words like “photosynthesis” and “deoxyribose” have to be worked into the meter, and where scientific accuracy is more important than creating something that’s pleasant to listen to. Metaphors are rare. Everything is literal. In a science song you can’t just say things like “science is the opposite of emotion”, which I wrote in the paragraph above, and expect people to know that this is not really true, and that it was shorthand for “people sometimes use science as a metaphor to describe a lack of emotion”. People might misunderstand. Everything in a science song has to be accurate, and that’s what often makes it silly. It’s contrived.

Science songs have such a reputation for silliness that people joke about it. Country singer Brad Paisley quipped at A Prairie Home Companion that he wrote an album about geology. The audience immediately laughed. He then proceeded to sing about the geological features of Tennessee, still to a lot of laughter. When the song ends, host Garrison Keillor says “That’s about as good as a song about geology gets”. Music about science is inherently silly because who wants to listen to a bunch of facts set to music?

Some science songs are deliberate educational tools, where being factual is important, but many others are not. YouTube is full of science parodies. They’re not all trying to teach you something – they’re having fun. People watch the videos, because they know the original song and the scientific references, and they want to laugh along with the creators.

It’s basically fan art, and in that sense, it’s very similar to filk.

Probably the only music genre to have gotten its name through a typo, filk is music created by science fiction fans, about the science fiction universes and characters they love. It originated at sci-fi conventions where people brought instruments and sang songs based on known melodies.

Change the topic from science fiction to science, and you end up with songs like Lab Slave, Bad Project, Defining Gravity or The Element Song.  Some are recorded in a lab, others are professional productions, but all of these examples are songs by people who like science and sing about it.

Like filk, such science songs are meant to be shared among people who get it. It creates a sense of community to be able to share a song about a thing you know and like with other people who know what you’re singing about. We laugh in recognition because we know what it’s like to work in a lab, or how many long and difficult names are in the periodic table of elements.  There’s more about the social aspect of “filking” on Wikipedia, and you can easily see how a lot of the same community ideas apply to these sorts of science songs.

So, if you consider “science songs” to be these literal and factual songs that fit the filk phenotype, then they are indeed often humourous, parodying existing songs, and full of inside jokes and jargon. But there are other songs that allude to science. They aren’t always literal, they might be about people instead of facts, they only vaguely hint at scientific concepts, and they are original compositions rather than parodies.Nevertheless, they are inspired by science, but they aren’t meant to be funny.

A few months ago, The Guardian published a list of some great songs inspired by science. The list includes Joanna Newsom, Kate Bush, David Bowie, Ella Fitzgerald, The Cure, Josh Ritter, the aforementioned Flaming Lips, and many others. You might have heard some of these songs before, and just never considered that you were listening to a song about science.

So yes, lots of science songs are silly, but maybe that’s because we only consider the silly ones to be “science songs”, and we think of the others as just regular music.

Pantographs and the magic of words

“Drivers! Don’t forget to drop the pantograph!”

I don’t know what it means, but this sign at London’s Farringdon Station sounds important and magical. It’s a large white sign at the end of the platform, just before the train enters the tunnel towards City Thameslink station.

I don’t want to look up what a pantograph is or why it needs dropping. I love this sign because I don’t know what it means. It adds another layer of mystery to the already esoteric London train system, and it makes train drivers seem like wizards who need to cast one final spell before heading further south.

The sign also reminds me of a flyer I found when I was an undergraduate chemistry student. I’d somehow come across a single page brochure that excitedly advertised “vectors” that could “optimize your transfection”. It had a mysterious circular diagram and lots of abbreviations. Whatever it was selling, the company was clearly convinced that someone would be equally excited about the vectors. I held on to this flyer for several months. The language amused me in the same way the pantograph sign does today.

The year after I found the flyer, the spell was broken. I started a molecular pharmacology course, which included a stint working in a cell biology laboratory. I learned all the important basics of modern cell biology techniques, including what “vectors” meant in the context of “transfection”.

After I graduated, I found the transfection flyer among my papers. It was no longer magical. I had learned too much, and what was once greatly amusing to me was now just a boring advertisement.

So don’t tell me what a pantograph is. I don’t need to know, and I like it that way.

Image origins: That walking molecule


Suddenly it’s everywhere: a gif of a molecule stepping along, carrying a big load.

It’s currently going viral online, with text suggesting that it’s a myosin molecule carrying endorphins in the brain.

It’s none of that.

First of all, it’s not a myosin molecule, but kinesin. They’re both motor proteins and some of the myosin proteins have a very similar function as kinesin, but this one is definitely kinesin. There are some myosin molecule that can carry cargo like that (like myosin Va), but they look a little bit different. Myosin Va has longer “legs”; kinesin has its “feet” very close together.

It’s also not “in the brain”. This is an artistic representation of how it would look like in a cell, but it’s not in any particular type of cell. It’s comparable to someone drawing a general picture of a house: without further detail, it would just be “a house”, not “a house in England” or “a house in my street”. Likewise, saying that this is a brain is just a bit too specific. There’s nothing to suggest it is. Just like the drawing of a house, we can’t see much of the surroundings because they were deliberately not included in the picture. If you’re asked to draw a house, you draw only the house, not the whole street. A real cell is very crowded inside, not an empty cavernous space like this, but this scene is representative of one thing that happens inside any busy cell.

And finally, that’s not necessarily a “bag of endorphins”, but just a general vesicle. A lot of different kinds of molecules are transported within cells, and many of them are carried in vesicles, especially if they are meant to end up either in the cell membrane or outside of the cell’s environment. So it could be carrying endorphins (which act on receptors on the outside of cells) but it could also be lots of other things. There’s just no way to tell, since the artist only represented the outside of the vesicle, and the chemicals it carries inside would be too small to see at this magnification anyway.

It’s great that a cell biology animation is going viral online (because motor proteins are amazing!) but unfortunate that the information that comes with it is not entirely correct, and that the artist doesn’t get the credit for this brilliant piece of work.

This is not a video made with a microscope – it’s an animation that someone made. Specifically, it was created by John Liebler of Art of the Cell, who initially animated the kinesin molecule for the 2006 video The Inner Life of the Cell.

This GIF is also by him. It’s not identical to the shot in the video, but made in a similar style. On his blog he describes a bit of the history of the animation.

“The kinesin motor protein was a real scene stealer in Inner Life, although it wasn’t even in the original treatment for the short. The original plan was to omit the motor protein in the vesicle shots, but when I saw Graham Johnson’s animation of the way a kinesin takes a step from April 2000(…), I secretly went ahead and modeled one of my own”

So that’s where that image came from! It’s much more than just endorphins in the brain, and it was a brilliant piece of work by a professional science animator.