Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Connecting People with Science


Attention all aspiring bloggers and writers.

Have you ever gazed transfixed at the intricate crystal of a snowflake and thought about its molecular structure. When you look up to the stars, do you start picturing immense orbs of hydrogen gas burning trillions of miles away? Do you ever think about the net forces acting on your bicycle while you pedal around town? Do you have a love of science that you just have to share with the world?

You're not alone! Science is fascinating and everywhere you look and something you just can't keep to yourself. But spreading the word and getting people to listen about the amazements of science can be hard.

It's ironic that today's society hinges on science and technology, but at the same time much of the public feels woefully disconnected it. Yesterday the National Academies held their annual communications fair with speakers from a huge variety of scientific and communication fields, who all work to help bridge that gap between the public and science. The speakers' backgrounds ranged from a political consultant to a Hollywood film writer and the head of the Exploratorium in San Francisco among others.

The talks were illuminating. What was really interesting was how even though the backgrounds of the speakers differed greatly; everyone had basically the same message: In order to make people interested and care about science, you have to make it relevant to their lives somehow. This includes more than just tacking a sentence one the end of an article about how the latest discovery could be used to cure a disease or make computers faster.

Kelly Stoetzel, producer of the hugely popular TED Talks, said simply, "What we really encourage our speakers to do is to tell a story or make it personal."

James Kakalios, a physicist from the University of Minnesota and author of The Physics of Superheroes said that starting out with something people are familiar with is a great way to help get people engaged. "When people are eating their superhero ice cream sundaes, sneak in some science spinach."

In fact one whole panel of the event was devoted to science in the movies. Moderated by Airplane director Jerry Zucker who is also a member of the newly founded Science and Entertainment Exchange, the speakers all talked about bringing in a more positive portrayal of science into Hollywood.

"We really had to do something to turn things around…to create more positive images for science," Zucker said, "We're trying to have more positive images of science in film."

The way science is portrayed in film has a tremendous effect. Ann Simon, the science consultant for the TV show The X-Files, said that Agent Dana Scully in the show has been a tremendous influence on many of her students.

"She used science to get at the truth…she wanted real evidence," Simon said, "They were portraying scientists in a positive light and I hadn't seen it before."

People connected with Agent Scully, because she was something so new. Studies have shown that when asked to picture a scientist, people most commonly conjure up images of workaholic, socially inept, nerdy male loners, exactly what the character of Agent Scully was not. People could connect to her character and be inspired in ways that just aren’t possible with Jerry Lewis's absent minded professor.

The next time you read or see a story about science that really moves or inspires or interests you, stop for a second and ask yourself "why?" What was it you connected with in whatever you just experienced?

One of my all time favorite books is First Light by Richard Preston. It's the true story of teams of astronomers who study the skies at the Palomar Telescope in California. It's an oldie but a goodie. What really sets the book apart is Preston really gets to know each and every astronomer he meets. He talks about their discoveries, but also their motivation, their drive, why they do what they do. He also writes about their odd habits, their quirks and their personal stories. As readers we get to see the scientists as real people and by the end of the book, I feel like I've met every one of them.

So that's how I connected with my favorite science book. Post what some of your favorite science stories are, and what you connected with in them.

2 comments:

  1. I actually first thought about majoring in physics because of the X Files. I liked Scully because she was super smart yet normal and I thought that was awesome. It was the first time I had seen a scientist like that. When I found out her character had majored in physics I thought that I might see what physics was like.

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  2. I want to grow up and be just like Jeff Goldblum.

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