Russian Youth in Search for Science

“I read your article and I didn’t quite understand what ‘star density’ means”, a good friend of mine, Sasha, told me last week. She’s a very intelligent girl, we studied together at the Moscow State Linguistic University. But linguistic education in no way provides you with scientific insight, and, unfortunately, in most cases neither does secondary school in Russia.

That’s what I was thinking about when I decided to create a science section in my newspaper, Akzia. We are a biweekly general interest newspaper for people aged 18–30, distributed for free in 11 major Russian cities. “How come we still don’t have a science section?”, was my instant thought in late 2006, when I was conducting a series of interviews with young Russian scientists for a cover story.

Science is not popular enough among young people in Russia — it’s much “trendier” to be a manager. There are too few popular scientific media outlets, and you can hardly find any science programs on TV. In most cases, science in schools is so boring and incomprehensible that those who are not naturally good at it graduate without knowing the difference between viruses and bacteria. As a result, pseudoscience thrives, newspapers print horoscopes, and TV runs Uri Geller shows.

These were the arguments I used to persuade my fellow editors to create a science section. In less than a year, my editor-in-chief told me: “You have one page for it, in every issue”.

That’s when the most difficult part began. What was our task — to educate? To inform? To teach? To entertain? What did our readers expect from us? How to do science journalism for young people at all?

It was pretty difficult to create a new section out of nowhere. One thing I knew: I wanted science to look sexy. I wanted to publish interviews with young Russian scientists to show how cool it is to be smart as they are. I was going to write about all the possible opportunities for our readers to get closer to science and to take part in it — like going to a science festival, or to a new science exhibition, or to a popular scientific lecture. And I wanted to present science news in a way that any schoolboy would understand. At least to give it a try.

One of the biggest challenges was finding authors. My idea that only young people should write for a youth newspaper quickly melted away: There were simply not enough young science journalists out there (at least not that I would know about). At Russian universities, there is no such discipline as “science communication”. This means that science journalism is done either by scientists or by regular journalists, or, quite often, by ex-scientists who have become journalists. Fortunately, it turned out they can write for a youth newspaper. And I was lucky enough to have some of them write for us.

Another challenge was, and still is, informational graphics. My colleagues insist that it be in every issue, except for the cases where it wouldn’t fit in at all. Our designer Nikita Kachaev, who, unlike me, has a scientific background, helps me a lot with setting it up. Still, I think we’re not good enough at it yet. Science informational graphics should be more complex and comprehensible at the same time, and it should definitely be more fun.

Since 2007, we’ve written about recent developments in science (nanotechnologies, testing AIDS vaccine, preparing a flight to Mars); popular scientific projects on the web (www.eol.org,www.periodicvideos.orgwww.sixtysymbols.com); interviewed one of the youngest people to receive a Nobel prize (Brian Josephson) and one of the first young scientists to be a winner of a newly-instituted Russian president’s award for young scientists (Alexandr Kuznetsov). We promoted the International Year of Astronomy and its events that each person can participate in.

At our editorial meetings, I’m still being criticised for some articles being too complicated. But I’m trying hard to make it understandible — at least for my ex-fellow-students like Sasha. My own lack of scientific knowledge even helps me with this: I never write on things I don’t quite understand myself, but when somebody who understands it well writes about it for me, I can easily tell what’s too “nerdy” in the text.

After the WCSJ 2009, I came up with the idea to write about the new Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum in London. It struck me by a new level of openness to the public and a completely innovative way of communicating with visitors — all the things we were told by an inspired employee on a short tour, during the gala-reception we had there. It seemed like the Darwin Centre was going to be a real museum of a new age, a must for visiting. The only problem — it’s a bit far from Moscow… But well, we write for modern smart open-minded globally-thinking young people, and London is, after all, just three hours away by plane.