sideways science

Sideways Science was a fun science communication project I created in 2019. It was born during a class I took on science communication. During the course, I had stumbled upon the term “lateral reading” from a new (at the time) paper from Wineburg and McGrew. They were studying how people consume information online and found that fact-checkers read laterally. They fact-checked as they read, opening new tabs to find new or additional information. Reading laterally increased student engagement and knowledge growth.

I immediately thought encouraging lateral reading would be great for science communication online. Communicating science is hard. Science is full of concepts, traditions, and jargon that isn’t really known outside (or even inside) the field. In lateral reading, the reader can look-up terms or concepts they aren’t familiar with as they go. Or, if they are familiar, they can keep reading the main concept. But I also immediately thought of two issues:

  • I am lazy and don’t often go out of my way to learn something about a topic. It is easier to plow on the main plot than to deviate, especially on mobile.
  • If I do make it to Wikipedia, I’ll wind up down some Wikipedia rabbit hole, only to forget where I came from. I’ll learn something! But also the author’s intention isn’t really kept.

Neither of these points kill the idea, but they do force the reader to do their own work and digging. It would be better if the reader was given everything they need on the same screen. In other words, encourage lateral reading by making it as easy as possible. My thought was:
Let’s put all the science explanations Sideways on the screen.

And this is what it looked like!

On the left: a piece of science communication text—in this case a fun story about whether or not a glass soda bottle (full of soda) would survive being plunged into liquid nitrogen. The pieces of teal text capture scientific words or concepts that I thought a reader may not be familiar with. There are two in the screenshot above: liquid nitrogen and ceramic materials. These are also pseudo-hyperlinks! Clicking on one pops up text on the right half of the screen with a bit of explanation; anything as simple as a definition to a whole mini article.

The point is: the reader doesn’t have to leave the page. And, as a bonus, the author is the one writing the content themselves! This allows the learning to be specific, tailored, and in the same voice as the main article.

Sideways science is still online as of writing this post. If you’re interested, go check it out!

How this came together

Sideways Science was a big learning experience for me! It was my first website, which probably isn’t surprising given how it looks. But I was still happy with the technical implementation of it!

All pieces of content (text) were written in Markdown converted to HTML through Pandoc. The website itself was built off Bootstrap resources and was hosted on a rented server (Digital Ocean Droplet). The backbone to the site was super basic, but also saved me a lot of hosting fees. It was also fun to put together! I used Linux as my main operating system in my teens, and it felt nice to boot up an Ubuntu installation again.

The toughest part was getting the two column display to work out. This wound up being done through simple JavaScript load functions to a display separate html files into the right <div></div> column. I hope to implement something similar on this website. So much to learn!