The New York Times
More scientists are using video footage in the course of their research on everything from battling hummingbirds to the physics of popcorn. In our ScienceTake series, we bring that footage to Times readers.
When it comes to attention-getting video subjects, you can’t go wrong with battling hummingbirds. That’s why we chose them for this week’s ScienceTake, a series of short science videos I host at nytimes.com, with a new episode every other Tuesday. This week, alongside stunning glimpses of the birds fighting, we tell the story of how evolution has turned the beaks of some hummingbirds into fierce and effective weapons.
Video is more important than ever in multimedia journalism — in some cases an essential part of the story. It doesn’t hurt that readers and viewers like it.
The ScienceTake series started in 2013, as much because of changes in science as changes in journalism. From the start, it was built on raw footage provided by the scientists themselves, which had become increasingly available. As the quality of video cameras had improved, the price had gone down and more scientists were making video part of their research. The result was that readers and viewers could see science at work and get glimpses of the world that hadn’t been seen before by anyone.
Scientists were using video to understand the movements of cheetahs, the slap shot strike of a frog’s tongue, the physics of popcorn, tool-making cockatoos and helpful dogs. The results were often fascinating to look at.
Christopher Whitworth, the ScienceTake producer, and I are constantly combing through scientific journals and news releases to find studies or experiments that used video in the course of the research. For hummingbirds, the original research was published in Integrative Organismal Biology in an article titled “Shifting Paradigms in the Mechanism of Nectar Extraction and Hummingbird Bill Morphology.” It was also the subject of a news release from the University of California, Berkeley, that emphasized the evolution of the beaks of some hummingbirds into weapons, something like dueling swords.
And there was plenty of video. There are two prerequisites for a ScienceTake. Chris has to decide that the video is interesting enough and I have to decide that the science is interesting enough. The researchers are almost always delighted to share their video and have their work featured. I can’t remember any instances where someone said no.
One of the things scientists love is that the videos seem to reach an audience that would never read a journal article and would not even be attracted to science news articles. But the beauty and strangeness of the videos capture their attention. I’ve had researchers tell me that after they were featured in ScienceTake, they heard from relatives who said, “So that’s what you do!”
In the case of the hummingbird research, both the video and the science were irresistible.
Hummingbirds fight a lot. Scientists know this, as do people who put out sugar water feeders to attract the little birds. But with high-speed video, the main researcher, Alejandro Rico-Guevara, was able to see exactly what was going on in these battles — stabbing, biting and what looked very much like the thrust and parry of fencing. The video had beauty, romance, violence and new scientific information.
And, from my point of view, there was a great evolutionary story, which only got better when I talked to Dr. Rico-Guevara.
Interviewing the researchers who do the science we cover in ScienceTake is the best part of the job. Dr. Rico-Guevara, like many of the scientists I talk to, had an interest in the natural world from a young age. But I also found out that his father-in-law got him into fencing, with the modern version of a dueling sword, the épée. I also fenced, with the épée, and so we talked about whether his experience as a fencer had perhaps subconsciously led to his interest in the battling birds and my interest in his scientific work.
The more I talked to him, the more I became interested in the science itself, which led me to talk to more scientists who studied hummingbirds and evolution, particularly the kind of evolution called sexual selection.
That’s what was going on with the hummingbirds he studied. Most hummingbirds have beaks adapted to the flowers that provide them with nectar. But in a few species, the males have beaks that are more like swords than devices for nectar drinking.
For every ScienceTake, Chris edits the video and together we construct the basic story and what the script should say. I write the script. Then we send it back and forth. Chris changes it, I change it back, he changes it again, and so on, until we finally have no time left and actually have to record the video.
At the same time, I write an article that is paired with the video online, and which appears in print. Usually these articles are short, but the tale of the hummingbirds was so good it ended up on the cover of this week’s Science Times section, in Tuesday’s paper.
Hummingbirds are tiny, but they contain multitudes; this week, there was plenty of story to tell in print, online and in video.