“Does the fact that most of us know the names of mass murderers, but have never heard of Jan Oort, say anything about us?”
That was Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson (Cosmos, Episode 3), making me squirm uncomfortably in my otherwise comfortable couch. He might as well have slapped me across the face*. I had never heard of Oort clouds or Jan Oort (shown on the right) until then. Indeed, what does that say about us? About me?
As good questions always do, that one still ricochets in my brain, spawning more questions. What kind of social atmosphere would that be where we gave scientists the level of attention we reserve for celebrities? What would that society be like where scientific discoveries would be discussed, analyzed, debated over, blogged and tweeted about and made near-permanent in the public consciousness to the same extent as reality television, entertainment news, or political scandals? “[A] significant minority of scientists are concerned about what they see as the American public’s general ignorance of science, mistrust of scientists, and disinterest in scientific topics.” (Source) Every phrase bothers me as I unpack that sentence. Some politicians may elicit “mistrust”, but the public pays close attention to what’s happening in politics today. The public’s “general ignorance” of the intricacies of law does not make real-life court cases any less pertinent of reel-life courtroom dramas any less riveting. So why the “disinterest in scientific topics”? (Also, why were only a significant minority of the scientists concerned? What about the rest of them?)
Science is embedded in almost everything that public is interested in. If your iPhone 6 is surprisingly bendy, the problem and the solution are both rooted in materials science. We have been entertained for over a century through the magic of movies made possible by the reduction/oxidation of silver halides. Interested in pizza? Then note that ordering a larger pizza may make gustatory as well as mathematical sense (unless you are worried about negative marginal returns).
Or take sports for example. In the dying minutes of the 2001 World Cup qualifier, David Beckham curved the ball into the top right corner of Greece’s goalpost in an impossible-looking 30 yard free-kick, prompting the commentator to shout, “I don’t believe it… Give that man a knighthood!”
But at the heart of that seemingly physics-defying feat was … well… physics. The air on the two sides of a spinning ball is at different pressures. That difference in pressure causes a spinning ball to curve. Create that pressure differential at the right moment and you may mend a nation’s broken heart. (This video explains why that goal was special and cathartic. Goosebumps every time.) That same pressure differential also also explain curveballs, in-swinging yorkers and the air-spinning table-tennis shots that leave me slack-jawed. (Table tennis has been the only sports that I have played (read: survived) without being put out of commission due to lack of adequate muscle mass.) What’s an in-swinging yorker, you ask?
Cricket may feel like baseball on sedatives, but a few seconds of it won’t kill you. Watch the ball swing in the slow-motion replay at 35 seconds. Bernoulli’s principle never looked so beautiful.
Science is interesting to the public. But how we present science matters. As a member of the public, I may get interested in the physics of air-flow if you (the scientist) show me how it explains in-swinging yorkers. But if I, as a scientist (don’t laugh, this is just for sake of example) start with vector diagrams and Bernoulli’s principle, and say, “For an inviscid flow of a nonconducting fluid, an increase in the speed of the fluid occurs simultaneously with a decrease in pressure…”, I will probably squelch any interest I could have sparked in you about the physics behind throwing a wicked curveball. There is an art to engaging someone in science. It is hard work. It is inclusive and participatory. When done right, something magical happens – some may even call it learning. Last weekend, coffeemug and other VTSuN members got to experience some of that magic at the first Virginia Science Festival…
(The Virginia Science Festival started on October 4. It is currently underway in several parts of Virginia, and will continue through October 11. I will post Part 2 of this post after the science festival. Here’s a glimpse of what’s coming.)
*Actually getting slapped by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson would really hurt. He was a wrestler in his younger days. He even had a wrestling move called Double Tidal Lock, based on the astrophysics of the moon and the earth.
Watch the rumble between him and Brian Greene. Bill Nye joins the action too.
Man, this make science so interesting. ‘Wrestlemania in Academia’ – that should surely enliven those afternoon sessions in seminars and conferences when the postprandial torpor kicks in.
Ecklund, E. H., James, S. A., & Lincoln, A. E. (2012). How academic biologists and physicists view science outreach. PloS one, 7(5), e36240.
Jan Oort, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson pointing (feature image): Wikipedia
Dr. Tyson from his wrestling days, Double Tidal Lock: http://now.uiowa.edu/2013/04/neil-degrasse-tyson-visits-ui-campus
Hand that’s slapping coffeemug (feature image): Microsoft Clipart
Arm wrestling photo: coffeemug
Coffeemug (feature image): Drawn by coffeemug.