Cartoon by Edward Forbes
Cartoon by Edward Forbes (1855)

In 1971, the department of chemistry at Stanford University produced a short educational film unlike any made before. If you’ve taken a college biology course (since 1971) the odds are good that you watched this film in class – and that you remember it. The video begins with a formal introduction by Nobel Prize winning chemist Paul Berg, but soon thereafter the mechanisms of protein synthesis are demonstrated using interpretive dance, performed by a dozen willing – and definitely groovy – Stanford undergrads. Furthermore, the sober introduction is replaced by a narrative adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky. [If you haven’t seen it, here it is for your viewing pleasure].

In the past two decades, the internet has allowed science educators and artists to use digital multimedia for science education in many new ways. For instance, the American Association for the Advancement of Science now hosts a yearly “dance your dissertation” video short competition, and comic artist Jorge Cham (of PhD comics fame) has an ongoing project (with grad student collaborators) in which he uses digital animation to present contemporary scientific research in an accessible format (he has even put together a few “history of science” shorts). It has also been said that we are living in a new “golden age” of radio. The art of storytelling has been re-invigorated by the invention of podcasts. This is evidenced by the widespread popularity of public radio shows like This American Life, Radiolab, or 99% Invisible, all of which make frequent use of both science and history in order to help us better understand our world. In terms of academic podcasting, the environmental history research community in Canada has led the way with their ongoing series Nature’s Past, produced and hosted by York university environmental history professor Sean Kheraj.

Media projects such as these can reach a much larger audience than standard forms of academic communication. Most advantageous of all, digital media can be used both inside and outside the classroom. So, shouldn’t we, following the lead of our colleagues in the sciences, try our hand at communicating our work using alternative media formats? With this in mind, I will be teaming up with University of Washington oceanography graduate student, and science-comics artist, Michelle Weirathmueller, to experiment with video animation as a means of conveying historical narrative. [Check out Michelle’s previous work on her blog: The Waveform Diary] We hope to produce a series of short animated videos, approximately 5 min in length, on selected topics in the history of oceanography. The working title of our first project is “Edward Forbes and the Dredge” which will explore the work of Edward Forbes and his ill-fated Azoic theory. When completed we will make our videos available on YouTube or Vimeo.

We welcome your input as we move forward into this “un-sounded” territory. What topics in the history of oceanography do you think could best be communicated through animated film shorts? What are the potential pitfalls of this form of communication? And, how do you think we might best convey historical and scientific information in a narrative format? Finally, what successful examples of narrative history multimedia might we look to for inspiration?