Saturday, July 16, 2011

Things I like: Science Popularizers

I like science without having to be convinced to like it. But I'm not necessarily the common audience. That's why I'm a big fan of those scientists and authors that are able to 1) bring science down to the level of the non-scientist without being condescending and 2) make it interesting in the process.

I grew up in the age of one of the best science popularizers ever, Carl Sagan. His knowledge of physics and astronomy was perhaps only exceeded by his enthusiasm for the same. He made it semi-cool for a nerdy kid to run around saying "billions and billions". OK, even he couldn't have made me cool. But at least I was interested in science.

As I got older, others including Stephen Hawking became popular. When my wife, who could not care less about science, is aware of a scientist like Hawking, then you know someone has entered pop culture.

Despite the obvious anti-intellectualism that seems rampant in society, I still think we are in the heyday of science popularizers and that gives me hope. And maybe we are not as anti-science as it appears. There is a very vocal segment of society (much of Congress, all of FOX News) that has a high moral regard for the Dark Ages, but maybe they are just a loudmouth minority and don't represent most of society. That is what I hope.

If society is going to be brought back from the brink, minds such as these will play a big part:

Brian Cox, broadcaster, musician and physicist
Paul Davies, physicist, author and broadcaster
Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and author
Daniel Dennett, philosopher and cognitive scientist
Jared Diamond, evolutionary biologist, physiologist, biogeographer and author
Brian Greene, physicist
Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist and author
Christopher Hitchens, author, journalist and essayist
Jamie Hyneman, special effects artist and television personality (MythBusters)
Lawrence Krauss, physicist and author
Robert Krulwich, broadcaster
Bill Nye, broadcaster and mechanical engineer, known as the "Science Guy"
Steven Pinker, experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist and author
Adam Savage, special effects artist and television personality (MythBusters)
Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and author
... and many others

I've had the fortune to have seen a couple of them in person, Richard Dawkins, Paul Davies, and Lawrence Krauss (and spoke to Krauss).

What makes many of them so relevant is not their knowledge, but their willingness and ability to use that knowledge to educate. Please don't get me wrong. I don't anyone to have to dumb themselves down. But, let's be honest ... if people like Hawking and Greene were to talk to us as they speak to each other, they might as well be speaking ancient Greek. And this is coming from someone who took 5 college level calculus courses, calculus-based physics, and astrodynamics.

deGrasse Tyson, for one, is funny and very active on the talk-show circuit, having appeared on the Daily Show and Colbert repeatedly, plus he has podcasts and a PBS show called Nova Science Now that I regularly watch with my son. Just yesterday he was on Jimmy Fallon:

Pointy-headed academicians are not going to be the ones that convince Joe Schmoe of the dangers of climate change, the importance of pure research, and why we should continue the space program. It will be through people like deGrasse Tyson that sway the common man with humor and a sense of awe. One can hope that a sense of wonder will replace fear and mysticism. We'll see.

1 comment:

wunelle said...

I have to believe that as a country we're simply not so anti-science as we are portrayed. Shows like Mythbusters get a lot of traction and are awesome for kids because they show linear thinking and problem-solving and teach us to make provisional conclusions based on observation and trial.

I think the anti-science crowd gets a lot of press because we all love to watch a train wreck; and some of us are prone to believe anything. (Look at advertising and infomercials at off-hours and you get some idea of what a segment of the population can be led to believe).

All this anti-science stuff is propagated by those who will benefit from our misguidance.