by Xinhua writers Wu Chen, Yang Lina and Wang Ke
BEIJING, Aug. 13 (Xinhua) -- Why do the wires of my
earphones always get twisted when I put them in my pocket?
Why do we experience deja vu?
Why do we choke when we snort water, but not when
Everyday questions like these are helping to open a
door into the realms of science for thousands of ordinary Chinese.
Posted on the "Dr. You" column on songshuhui.net,
they are opened up to answers from other readers.
Only the most interesting and provocative questions
are chosen, says Wang Yan, the website's content editor.
Every day more than 50,000 people visit the
songshuhui (Science Squirrels), which opened in April last year, and the number
So named because the club's organizers promise "to
peel off the hard shells of yummy science kernel... like little fluffy squirrels
opening nuts". The website is at the forefront of popular science in China.
It translates foreign popular science essays,
organizes screenings of science documentaries, invites scientists, researchers
and science fiction writers to public talks, and arranges tours of scientific
research facilities that are normally closed to the public.
Its off-line activities are always over-subscribed.
When the Science Squirrels organized a group study of
the July 22 total solar eclipse in Shanghai, the number of places was filled
within three hours of the announcement.
And the heavy rain failed to dim the enthusiasm of
the lucky few who joined the group.
Xiao Wu, 20, and her mother traveled for 16 hours
from southeast China's Fujian Pronvince to Shanghai.
She met some of her favorite writers, whose
easy-to-read and humorous popular science essays had helped the sophomore in her
"I never read such stories on science in Chinese.
They're so informative," says Wu, who takes an interest in astronomy, geography
and environment, as well as her own major, biology.
In its short existence, the blog has collected a raft
of accolades. It was voted the "Best Chinese Blog" in awards organized by German
state broadcaster Deutsche Welle in 2008, and the official China Association of
Science and Technology ranked it alongside China's first spacewalk in the "2008
Top 10 Events of Science Popularization in China."
It was founded under the motto "To make science
popular" by Ji Xiaohua, better known by his pen name, Ji Shisan, 32. With a
doctorate in neurobiology, Ji started writing popular science essays on campus,
before abandoning research to devote himself to science popularization in 2007.
"I wanted to jump out of the small circle of a
certain subject and have a wider view of the scientific world," Ji says.
"During my part-time work on campus, I found popular
science can reach more people. When it brings me a little success, I feel a
responsibility to do the work."
He opened the blog to a wide range of popular science
topics and it now has 80 to 90 part-time writers, mostly science reporters,
researchers, and university and institution students.
In late 2008, they published the book "When Colorful
Sound Tastes Sweet," a collection of their most popular work.
Ji wants to see people talking science in the
restaurants, cafes and bars, and at home.
Although Chinese traditionally have a high regard for
science, they fail to see its influences in daily life, he says.
"The public have shut science out of their lives.
Many people believe in astrology and blood type analysis," Ji says.
He cites the story of human resources staff at a
major Chinese website who consulted the editors of its astrology section when
It's a far cry from the days after the founding of
the People's Republic of China in 1949, when scientists had prestige. Many
scientists were sent to rural areas to teach farmers about pest control and
increase crop yields during the "Great Leap Forward" from 1958 to 1961.
During the "Cultural Revolution" from 1966 to 1976,
scientists were persecuted and more than 100 science magazines were closed.
But science saw another heyday from 1979 to 1988,
when more than 20,000 books on popular science were published, along with about
250 magazines and 1,000 films.
The science fiction novel "Little Smart Traveling to
the Future" by Ye Yonglie was published in 1978, and has since sold 3 million
But the last two decades, driven by the market
economy, have seen many magazines closed, few films on popular science and few
people, especially individuals or groups outside the government, engaging in the
To the chagrin of Ji and other science writers like
Fang Zhouzi, "pseudoscience" and "superstition" are making a comeback.
Fang has been waging war against fraud in scientific
research and fake science on his website, New Threads. He argues that the
"extrasensory perception fervor" in the 1980s and the "Fengshui craze" have
wasted social resources and hindered the country's development.
"The essential reason is the lack of public
scientific spirit," says Fang.
He says one of the goals of science popularization in
China is to help advance the process of the country's modernization.
"A scientific sense should become the mainstream of
the society if China wants to be modernized," he says.
But Fang disdains the approach to popular science
taken by the Science Squirrels, who are aiming to create five "star writers"
with the good looks and presentation skills needed for public promotions.
Fang says the Squirrels are making a mockery of
science by being "too tolerant of fake science" and "not serious and not precise
"In China, pseudoscience and superstition have a
great influence, therefore, science popularization work should not only includes
spreading the new (scientific knowledge), but also fighting against the fake,"
He argues that the public look down on popular
science writers. "When scientists or researchers write popular science articles,
people think they are incapable of real science work."
That attitude must be eradicated, he says, and he
wants the government to encourage popular science with more facilities and free
Ji insists that the five "idol writers" will attract
more readers and encourage other scientists to engage with the public -- and be
more adept at using modern media. "The younger generation knows more about the
Internet and can use it to influence, so we can expect a better and broader
future for popular science than the traditionalists."
Ji admits the blog has deliberately avoided
"sensitive" topics. "Practical topics that common people care about, rather than
specialist fields, like theoretical physics, will attract more readers at this
"When we are strong enough, we will also spend more
time fighting fake science."
His biggest challenge, with his limited resources, is
trying to reach out to those people beyond the Internet.
"There are other groups in more urgent need of
popular science, such as the children and the elderly, but we can only target
educated young urban people at the moment as we generally rely on the Internet,"
In April, The Squirrels set up Squirrels Group as a
company to use the resources they have to make money to support the non-profit
"We're doing everything we can to make science
popular," he says.