Show and tell

Show and tell

July 1, 2004

They are dream research assistants. They work long hours. They don't say much. And they never call in sick. The only thing they want? To be paid in herring.

Who are these candidates for employee of the year? Boni and Sitka—captive Steller Sea Lions. They're part of an innovative program developed by Andrew Trites of the University of British Columbia designed to help save that species from extinction.We first told Boni and Sitka's story on Daily Planet, Discovery Channel Canada's flagship show.

Click here to view the Discovery Channel clip "Sea Lion Savior".

It was a natural story choice for us. Steller Sea lions live along the west coast of Canada and Alaska. Their population is crashing in the Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands and nobody really knows why. Now UBC scientists are using Boni and Sitka to help solve the mystery. The scientists are training the sea lions to swim, dive, and eat on command in the open ocean—wearing specialized monitors to track their every move. After their session, the sea lions return to their home at the Vancouver Aquarium where they surrender their monitors to researchers for closer scrutiny. The researchers hope the information they get from these trips to the coastal waters will help them figure out why the sea lions are dying out.

This is just one of the hundreds of stories that Daily Planet covered this year. From a new type of ice skate developed in Calgary, to reports on the exploits of the golf-cart sized robots on Mars, Daily Planet celebrates innovation, discovery, and exploration in all areas of science, engineering, and technology. Every day we try to find the top science stories, or the science behind the top stories. The television show reaches over three million viewers in Canada each week—and the numbers are growing. The program has been sold to the United States and is also broadcast in Latin America. This growing popularity is just more evidence of the public's continuing fascination with science.

In the world of science and discovery, some stories are easy to tell while others are much more difficult. The story of Boni and Sitka, with its cute telegenic sea lions and panoramic shots of the ocean, is a natural for television. The story we recently covered about string theory and particle physics is not.

Click here to view the Discovery Channel clip "Fabric of the Cosmos"

With its abstract ideas and complicated physical theories, this story presents the type of challenges and constraints so typical of science television. How do you get the right visuals to illustrate the story? How do you explain the science in a language that the average person will understand? And how do you find guests who can take a few steps down from their intellectual loftiness to explain ideas and concepts to the average person who just finished dinner and is lounging on the sofa?

Television doesn't lend itself to the complex. Unlike the daily newspaper where the reader can flip back and forth at will, the television viewer can't go back to review anything that doesn't quite make sense. Television has to be clear the first time around. That means clear language is a must—especially at a time when science continues to become more difficult for non-specialists to understand.

Over the years we have discovered that there are a few essential ingredients to telling a great story. First of all, passion. It's that one personal element that we take pride in bringing to each story we cover. Second, wonderful pictures. Even the most mundane story can come alive with brilliant visuals. And finally, the one element that ties it all together and brings it home for the viewer—clear language that everyone can understand. Without it, Boni and Sitka are just two sea lions out for a romp in the sea, and string theory and particle physics are just a bunch of pretty computer-generated visuals. Clear language is the key element that enables those interested viewers to learn more about their world and what science can bring to it.

Penny Park is a Senior Producer, Daily Planet, Discovery Channel Canada.

The views and ideas expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Canada Foundation for Innovation or its Board Directors and Members.