The chemistry community of the University of Turin (Italy) has seen an opportunity in the International Year of Chemistry to try an experiment in science communication specifically focused on chemical sciences.
Chemistry fills quite a negative place in the collective imagination as it is often associated with environmental damages, pollution, toxic substances, etc. Common people rarely realize that chemistry plays a role in every aspect of daily life, somehow or other, and that a life without chemistry would not be possible.
Such attitude is partly due to the limited efforts that the chemistry community puts into outreach activities, aimed at showing what chemistry is for, how it permeates our lives and what chemical research really means.
So the Chemistry Department of the University of Turin decided to launch a monthly chemistry journal, available in printed and electronic format, aimed at showing the multiple relationships between chemistry, civil society and daily life. The journal is called “L’alambicco, distillato di notizie tra chimica e società” (The alembic, distilled news on chemistry and society) and it is published by the University of Turin.
In its printed version (8 pages, 4000 copies/month), Alambicco is freely distributed to the network of public libraries in Turin and to the people attending “Giovedì Scienza” (an annual series of scientific conferences with a well established public of several hundreds people). The journal is also available at different university departments in Turin and at the Museum of Natural Sciences.
The electronic version is distributed by e-mail to the whole network of the Italian schools (from primary schools to colleges, about 10.000 e-mail accounts) and to several mailing lists, where most important are those of the Italian Chemical Society and of the University of Turin. Particularly significant is a list of several hundreds subscribers who replied to our free subscription offer, thus providing a way to monitor the appreciation of Alambicco by the general public.
The journal has also a web site (www.alambicco.unito.it) that reports all articles with, in addition, a selected bibliography. A pdf file of the printed journal is available, to allow people to print it out on their own. Several web sites have created links to the Alambicco’s site.
The target reader of Alambicco is anyone interested in chemistry at various extent. Its primary target are students of various school levels: both the language and the topics selected in each issue are meant to be accessible to such readers and to rouse their curiosity.
Each issue focuses on a main topic (e.g. Chemistry&Health, Materials&Nanomaterials, etc.); the editorial project envisages 8 issues/year during school periods (from October to May).
A specific column (called “Elementare!”) dedicated to simple chemical experiments that may be carried out by children, has recently been introduced in the journal upon request of teachers at primary school.
Another column, aimed at explaining some basic chemistry concepts such as: pH, substance, chemical reaction, etc. has been recently launched.
A questionnaire available on the Alambicco’s web site has allowed us to sketch a profile of the Alambicco’s readers: over 46% are school or university teachers, 14% are students and 37% are workers belonging to different categories (professionals, factory workers, housewives, etc.).
In order to catch the attention and stimulate the curiosity of such a varied readership, Alambicco relies on a captivating graphic, an accurate iconographic choice, an accessible (but not obvious) language and a choice of topics that are strictly related with the common experience of readers. Beside the articles devoted to the monthly topic, the journal includes contributions on other subjects and some fixed columns. “Il sassolino” (The pebble), hosted in the front page, deals with provocative topics treated in an ironical fashion (e.g. superstitions related with chemistry, urban myths, etc.). “Casa dolce casa” (Home sweet home) talks about the chemistry we find in our homes (e.g. paints, detergents, cooking, etc.). “Accadde oggi” (It happened today) commemorates some important dates in the history of science; “Notizie Brevissime” (Short news) reports recent and curious chemical news published on scientific journals.
The impact of the initiative is evaluated by: i) monitoring the web site access; ii) reading the comments sent by readers to the journal’s e-mail address; iii) analysing the answers to a questionnaire available on the web site.
I) the web page has been accessed over 18000 times/year. 96.1% contacts are from 532 places in Italy and ~4% are from 292 foreign places. Detailed statistics on the accesses to each issue and article are also available (see supporting material).
II) Readers appreciate the ability to conjugate language accessibility with a high level of information; the credibility and reliability of the journal as a source of information on chemistry; its liveliness and ability to arouse the curiosity of laypersons on chemistry; the ability to present chemistry in an enjoyable fashion; the widespread distribution to schools; the focus on the connections between chemistry and society; the graphic design.
III) 65% readers read the journal on the web; 35% has access to the printed version; most readers belong either to the 15-29 or 40-60 year-old ranges. They have suggested several topics that they wish to see treated, and detailed statistics on the degree of satisfaction with respect to the treated topics are available (see supporting material). Most teachers uses Alambicco as a teaching support.
We believe that a good deal of originality is found in an attempt to present chemistry as a discipline that connects with other disciplines, both scientific and humanistic, and to highlight its entanglements with important aspects of reality, such as sociological or ethical issues.
The journal is supported by the University of Turin and other institutions (e.g. the San Paolo Bank Foundation; the Centro Scienza, a science communication organisation; and the Italian Chemical Society). We are also trying to establish partnerships with the industrial world. The journal is freely accessible on the web and printed copies are distributed free of charge.
The editorial team includes: L.Cerruti, E.Ghibaudi, E.Laurenti, F.Turco, P.Davit, G.Ieluzzi, C.Motta and S.Tumbiolo.