Tag Archives: outreach

What is wrong with the world?

by Shane L. Larson

Social media circulates witty pictures, quotes and videos like a pandemic virus spreading to envelop the world.  In a recent round on the interwebs, an image was circulated showing two celebrities.  On the left was Carl Sagan, sporting his infamous turtleneck look, and on the right was Jersey Shore star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi.  The image was overlaid with text that read: “If you don’t know who this is” (over Carl) “and you do know who this is” (over Snooki), “Congratulations! You’re what’s wrong with the world!”

I suspect this sentiment resonates with scientists, but in this case we don’t have a Planck mass of legitimacy to agree with this opinion.  What is the problem with the world?  Scientists.  We created the technology that allows the global village to communicate, but we promptly went back to our laboratories and let it become populated by all manner of nonsense, not the least of which is anti-scientific rhetoric, endless noise fueled by ignorance of even the basic principles of science, and of course plenty of gossip and twittering about Snooki and Lindsay Lohan and Tim Tebow and Charlie Sheen.  This week was the anniversary of Carl Sagan’s death, and it passed by with barely a whisper.  Carl passed way 15 years ago, and the scientific world has failed to step up and fill his shoes.  We hide in our labs, we discourage brilliant young minds that want to be engaged in reaching out to the public (that isn’t what “serious scientists” do), so of course the world knows who Snooki is and not… whoever we should have had filling Carl’s shoes!

It is easy in this day and age to tweet the problems of the world to the blogosphere in a quick soundbite or pithy image that can be shared to all your Facebook friends.  In a perhaps sad bit of irony, I’m doing that right now, using this blog as my soapbox to complain about the profession that I have made myself a part of.  But I am particularly irritated by the fact that we have dropped the torch that Carl carried so effectively.  Why?  Because I know the power of Carl’s message.  I am a scientist today because I heard Carl’s message at an impressionable age.  During the fall of 1980, I breathlessly waited every week for each episode of Cosmos to air, enthralled by a journey in the mind to the far reaches of the Universe.  Yes, I wanted to be an astronaut; yes, I wanted to be a scientist.  Yes, I worked at NASA and eventually became a physics professor.  But what I really want, the innermost desire of my heart even today, is to be like Carl.

Of course, it wasn’t just Carl knitting the neurons of my brain into the tangled web of craziness it is today.  My intellectual thirst was pushed by Jacob Bronowski’s brilliant series, “The Ascent of Man” and I descended to the unexplored frontiers of the Earth’s oceans on “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.”  Perhaps most importantly I learned my most valuable skill as a scientist, connecting seemingly disparate ideas from different disciplines together to learn something new about Nature, from James Burke’s outstanding series “Connections.”

This is not to say that we don’t have great science shows today.  “Mythbusters” captures the antics and curiosity driven desire to experiment in a highly engaging and entertaining format, but they aren’t teaching science, they are debunking myths (arguably a needed and necessary endeavour, though they sometimes come to conclusions that could still be dispelled with more careful experimental techniques).  Morgan Freeman hosted the very popular series “Through the Wormhole” on cable television, and Alan Alda hosted the excellent “Scientific American Frontiers.”  Arguably these examples promote science as much as the shows of my youth did.  So to paraphrase my father, what am I bitching about?  I’m lamenting the lack of participation by scientists.  Sagan, Cousteau, Bronowski and Burke were all scientists (technically, Burke was a science historian) committed to engaging the world in science.  They were role models for a whole generation of scientists, my generation of scientists.  The hosts of today’s science shows are arguably committed to teaching us something about science, but they are entertainers, not scientists.

Why does it matter?  Gus Grissom, at a press conference a few weeks before he died in the Apollo 1 fire, famously accepted the risk of exploration, saying, “The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.  Our God-given curiosity will force us to go there ourselves because in the final analysis only man can fully evaluate the Moon in terms understandable to other men.”  Gus in an off-hand way was debunking the myth that a picture is worth a thousand words, instead promoting the notion that the only way for the human species to deeply connect with and understand the magnificent desolation of the Moon was to be able to hear about the experience in the visceral and emotional recounting of someone who had been there.  So it is with science as well.  If we really want the world to appreciate science and its power to transform our lives, then it is our responsibility as scientists to bring our passion and emotion to the table and explain it for everyone else to understand.  Only scientists understand the nuances of modern scientific research.  Only scientists can explain the subtleties of what is and what is not understood.  Only scientists can tell the truth as it is known.

There are, of course, great science communicators today.  Bill Nye is a huge celebrity.  Brian Greene is almost a household name, as is Stephen Hawking.  But if you look around and consider the current state of affairs on planet Earth and the level of what we call “science literacy,” there is only one, inescapable conclusion: the world needs us.  As our society becomes increasingly technological, and as the world and its resources become increasingly taxed by the burgeoning numbers of homo sapiens, there is a desperate need for scientists to actively participate in the education of the masses and future planning for the species.  Every single one of us should be engaged in this game, and at a much deeper level than we are today.

I had the good fortune to be a postdoc at Caltech when Alan Alda gave the commencement speech in 2002.  In his speech, he chided the graduating class for listening to the status quo and neglecting their obligation to communicate with the world.  “I’m asking you today to devote some significant part of your life to figuring out how to share your love of science with the rest of us.  But not just because explaining to us what you do will get you more funding for what you do… although it surely will… but just because you love what you do.  And while you’re explaining it, remember that dazzling us with jargon might make us sit in awe of your work, but it won’t make us love it.  Tell us frankly how you got there. If you got there by many twists and turns and blind alleys, don’t leave that out. We love a detective story. If you enjoyed the adventure of getting there, so will we.  Most scientists do leave that out. By the time we hear about their great discoveries, a lot of the doubt is gone. The mistakes and wrong turns are left out…  and it doesn’t sound like a human thing they’ve done. It separates us from the process.  Whatever you do, help us love science the way you do.”

Scientists are what is wrong with the world.  We sniggered and made fun of Carl for being famous and wearing his passion on his shirt sleeves, for having the desire and the ability to communicate with others.  We actively discourage brilliant young scientists from careers as teachers and communicators.  As a result, we live in a world where people can recognize Snooki on sight, and might be hard pressed to name even one scientist.

But all is not lost.  Go home, and watch Cosmos again, until you hear Carl’s voice every time you open an astronomy book.  Go watch Connections again and remember how cool it is that the manorial system that grouped peasants on common working plots in the Dark Ages lead directly to the invention of the internal combustion engine.  Then cowboy up, and do what Alan told you to do: tell the story of your day at work, how you unravelled the secrets of Nature and why its important for tomorrow.  Learn how to communicate better.  It will be hard, likely harder than it was to get your doctorate.  But trust me: it is far more important.

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Imagination, Zombies & the Trappings of Science

by Shane L. Larson

I am often asked by worried parents and struggling students what is the most important quality in a successful scientist — stunning math ability? frightening intelligence? inscrutable intuition?  I usually go with the old classic, “Imagination.”  Einstein himself famously thought the same thing, having told the Saturday Evening Post in 1929, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

As a scientist, I find imagination is an essential tool for problem solving.  When faced with a puzzling conundrum posed by an interesting experiment, it is the imaginative side of my brain that makes connections to the stew of scientific knowledge that has been poured into my brain as part of my continuing education.  In astronomy, imagination is among the most powerful tools a scientist can use to understand the Cosmos.  Why?  Because the size and scale of the Cosmos are, for the most part, on scales that are beyond our everyday experience and challenge the limits of ordinary human comprehension.

Imagine you and I wanted to embark on a voyage of discovery.  We agree to meet next Saturday in Salt Lake City, and plan to drive to the Florida Everglades to collect the most exquisite flower we can find.  We take your 1963 Dodge Dart to insure we obey the speed limit.  The Everglades are 2570 miles away from Salt Lake City, so if we average 60 miles per hour on our journey, it will take us 86 hours to journey to that far-away place and return home to tell the tale.  The following week we decide to embark on another grand voyage of discovery, this time to bring a rock back from the Moon.  As the astronomer Fred Hoyle once noted, “Space is only an hour away, if you could drive straight up.”  And indeed it is; the boundaries of the fragile skin of air that covers the Earth, the shores of the Cosmic Ocean, are just sixty miles over our heads.  The Moon is our closest cosmic companion, but it is still much farther away.  To drive there at 60 mph (in your magic flying Dodge Dart) would take us 166 days one way.  To reach the Sun, 93 million miles away, would take 177 years.  And the stars are farther away still.

There are few places in the Cosmos that we can visit.  Our contemplations of the Cosmos are in many ways limited to what we can imagine, informed by what we can observe.  All we can do is observe the Universe around us, and then imagine how what we have seen can be explained by the laws of Nature.  The mysteries of what we see challenge the limits of what we understand, but over time more observations reveal Nature’s grand design and our knowledge grows by a small measure, expanding the legacy of our curious species.

My imagination works in other ways as well.  For instance, I suffer from a well known academic malady known as “impostor syndrome.” If you have this affliction, you imagine that you are unworthy of the job, position or status that you hold.  You have convinced yourself that you are an intellectual fraud, and that you have put on the smarmiest used-car salesman schtick imaginable to arrive at your position in life today.  The smallest piece of data reinforces the conviction of your impostor status: a colleague or department head fails to return an email, a grant proposal is rejected, on your teaching evaluations you only score 3.5/6.0 on the question “Professor remembers to wear matching socks.”  As a consequence, you try work your ass off for fear of being discovered for the fraud and joker that you are.  This makes your more frazzled and likely to be discovered, and on your next teaching evaluations you score 2.5/6.0 on the question “Professor lectured on physics not social justice in pre-revolutionary France.”

It is this destructive form of imagination that is perhaps the most interesting.  Imagine that while on our long voyage in your Dodge Dart we decide to watch movies to pass the time. Many scientists have difficulty watching movies that ignore fundamental scientific tenets, or have logic holes in the plot.  I do not suffer from these difficulties; I am perfectly happy to suspend my disbelief and watch any movie you want to watch (except “Beaches”).  Curiously, however, some movies freak me out, and others don’t.  I can totally watch zombie movies without worry and when I’m done, turn out the lights and sleep peacefully.  However if you plunk me down in front of a Wes Craven nightmare movie, then I think harder about the wisdom of turning any light in the house off, and make sure the blankets are securely tucked up around my neck to protect my jugular from any bloodthirsty beasts from the Abyss that might be invisibly roaming around my house.

What gives?  Why don’t zombies freak me out, but ghosts plunge me into a paroxysm of fear?  Because there is an ostensible “scientific” explanation for the emergence of the zombie apocalypse — typically a virus, an identifiable biological agent discovered by scientists.  In the current vogue, zombies are a consequence of something real and understandable.  But consider a movie like Dracula.  Count Dracula has crazy supernatural powers; he can fly, he casts no reflection in mirrors, he can turn into mist or into a bat.  This is crazy stuff well outside the boundaries of science — “supernatural.”  That scares the crap out of me because I can’t understand it.  In the absence of the solid foundation of science, imagination runs away on its own and degenerates into fear and superstition.

Of course, the real observation here is this: there are some damn imaginative people out there, making up all these stories about zombies and ghosts and vampires.  People with stunning imaginations.  And their audiences love these movies because they have robust and healthy imaginations that they love to set free, to wander far from the confines of everyday life.  This reveals a lovely conundrum: why is science literacy today widely regarded (by scientists, and a few economists) as one of the pre-eminent problems of our time?  If imagination is one of the most valuable tools in science, how can such vast segments of our highly imaginative society be scientifically illiterate?  Science is also a doorway to wonder, escapism and distant vistas crying to be explored.  But it doesn’t grip the world the way movies and novels do.  Why?  Perhaps it is because we have failed to imbue science with a deep connection to the core of the human psyche; perhaps it is because we’ve distilled science down into the five points of the scientific method and beakers full of polysyllabic organic compounds and mathematical formalism.  We hide behind the trappings of science, pretending to be dispassionate observers and all-knowing skeptics.  But at night, when no one is looking, we secretly listen to Bill Nye the Science Guy, and read Timothy Ferris, and watch reruns of Carl Sagan.  When we’re alone, we revisit the reasons we all became scientists in the first place: because science is full of adventures that dazzle us and tickle our imaginations into wondering what secrets Nature might hold.

If we want the world to be more science literate, we should revisit why each of us became scientists in the first place.  Scientists are born problem solvers — we should be able to imagine solutions to the problems of science literacy.  Many do, and have somehow touched that innermost part of our psychology that makes something important to beings such as we.  There are exceptional books like Craig Bohren’s “Clouds in a Glass of Beer,”  Richard Muller’s “Physics for Future Presidents” and Robert Banks’ “Towing Icebergs;” there are fantastic outreach programs, and citizen science programs like Protein Folding @Home and GalaxyZoo.  These are prominent and successful efforts, but they are not the norm and only engage the smallest fraction of our society.  As a whole, our community does not participate broadly enough in an activity which frankly we are the most qualified to do: using our imaginations to engage society in science.

Of course identifying a problem is one thing, but to imagine a solution one has to imagine what we want the world to be like on the far end.  This is the crux of the whole “science literacy” problem — we know we want more science literacy, but we don’t really have a uniformly agreed upon definition of what that means.  For the community of scientists as a whole, we recognize science literacy (or more likely, science illiteracy) when we see it.  For me, I propose the following personal goal for science literacy: I want non-scientists to enjoy indulging their curiosity about the world around them, and appreciate the fact that it is possible to figure things out.  I don’t care if people can actually do a calculation with the Universal Law of Gravitation — if you’re a dentist, I hope you can appreciate the way science works, but don’t care if you know the inner workings.  If you could compute the delta-v needed to make the transfer orbit from Earth to Mars, you’d be an astrophysicist not a dentist!

How do we encourage science literacy?  We imagine solutions!  Solutions that each of us as individual practitioners in science or education could implement, expand upon, and teach others to do.  Solutions that are simple, grass roots movements that are infectious by their simplicity and “fun factor”, which are casually introduced to the world around us and then spread like a vast plague, unleashing the science zombie in everyone.  There is only one global solution for science illiteracy: scientists must actively work outside their laboratories and classrooms to improve the understanding of science.  There is no silver bullet to save our society from the pit of ignorance.  The only solution is the sum of thousands of small solutions, built up by each one of us in our own sphere of influence — educating our neighbors, the post office employees, the night shift at Taco Bell, the city council, the president of the University.  For more than 30 years, we have bemoaned the state of science literacy in the United States.  If anything science illiteracy is getting worse as it becomes fashionable and (for some) politically correct to be science illiterate.  How can we possibly imagine that?