Time to embrace cool science

Some believe scientists need to do whatever's necessary to draw an audience, and if that requires a little showbiz, then so be it. This impressive exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York is neither elephant nor showbiz prop, but it's certainly cool.
Picture: Alan Duggan
Date:7 August 2014 Author: Alan Duggan Tags:, , , , ,

I have a problem. Before anyone responds with a smartass comment, let me explain: the problem relates to the dismissal of science as “nerdy” by people whose grasp of reality (we won’t go into cognitive skills, because that’s probably a bit rude) has been overwhelmed by the siren song of celebrity news, Facebook updates and personal grooming/relationship advice. Glamour magazine, for instance, offers a useful piece titled “25 things that keep him hooked and happy“: if this constitutes a genuine slice of reality, shoot me now.

So what is “cool science”? I’d be inclined to start with the stuff that explains how our bodies work (and how to fix them when they break); the stuff that allows us to communicate at the speed of light; the stuff that takes us to other planets or assorted celestial bodies (and in some cases, back again); the stuff that makes our world work (and actually keeps it working, albeit in ways that sometimes defy belief).

What to do about this? I think we need to change the mindset. Let’s persuade our friends and families that science is by no means the exclusive preserve of nerds (and here I’m not being dismissive of nerds; they are reputed to make excellent friends and neighbours) and people with no visible means of support. They need to embrace the idea that science can be fun and interesting – and no, I’m not talking about filling time during the school holidays by shlepping the kids to the local science centre. I’m talking about you, the grown-up.

Sadly, and inexplicably, too few of us are embracing opportunities for engagement with those who actually do science – people who thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to describe their work in such a way that everyone can understand it. The deconstructionist approach has long been one of PM’s guiding principles, as evidenced by one of our earlier pay-off lines – “The way the world works”. (It may also explain the encouraging fact that PM is South Africa’s best-selling science and technology brand.)

Okay, so here’s the plan: the next time you see an ad in your local paper announcing a Darwin lecture, sign up and go along – yes, even if it happens at 6.30 pm in mid-winter, when you would rather be in front of your fire at home, or in the pub. You will definitely learn something. The next time you get an e-mail inviting you to a presentation by a renowned expert on dinosaur mating habits, diarise it and go; dinosaurs will always be cool and interesting. The next time a friend invites you to join a fossil-hunting weekend up the Cape West Coast, commit to it – and be amazed.

Then again, it cuts both ways. Over the years, I have received many invitations (to undoubtedly interesting events) that are couched in language seemingly designed to catapult the recipient into a coma, or at least a troubled sleep. Note to scientists: make it sound interesting, dammit, and if your academic alarm bells are triggered by anything that resembles showbiz, get over it.

If you’re planning a talk about ancient sharks that make today’s Great Whites look like minnows (okay, a slight exaggeration), take along a fossilised Megalodon tooth and pass it around. (I have one myself, and it’s awesome.) After all, you’re looking for an audience, not an excuse for lamenting the short attention span of the Great Unwashed. If you’re promoting solar energy, think of something odd or counter-intuitive that can be powered by the Sun, then demonstrate it on stage. Starting to get the picture?

Full disclosure: Not all of my friends in the scientific establishment agree with me on this strategy. Some believe it risks trivialising science by focusing on crowd-pleasing “special effects” rather than the science itself. They may have a point, but I believe the end justifies the means: once you have your audience hooked, you are able to educate them, whether they like it or not. And here’s the thing: they’ll leave knowing a little bit more, and probably with smiles on their faces.

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