How Have Science Communicators Helped You? July 21, 2009

How Have Science Communicators Helped You?

Despite what some *cough* recent books *cough* may say, science communication is just as good today as it always was. It’s only getting better.

Chris Hallquist feels that some people have been saying otherwise:

… I get the impression [Unscientific America] revives the current-science-communication-is-worthless line that Mooney, Nisbet, and their ilk have been using for awhile. This line is nonsense, and I know it’s nonsense because I know I’ve benefitted a lot from already-available popular science, and I’ve talked to other people who’ve benefitted from it.

Thus, I propose a blog project, a sort of one-shot carnival: write a blog post thanking popular science writers for whatever they’ve done for you…

Personally, I got into science-writing after reading Richard DawkinsThe Ancestor’s Tale. It was well after I became an atheist, and his few jabs at religion didn’t bother me at all.

That’s not a very interesting story, though, so I’ll tell another. It’s about a great science communicator whose name I don’t remember.

During my senior year of high school, my anatomy class went on a field trip to listen to the Man (I have no idea who he was) talk about the “latest science discoveries.”

This was just after the Human Genome Project made headlines. They had just announced the sequencing of the human genome, but beyond that headline, I didn’t understand many of the implications.

The Man who spoke explained to the audience of high-school students that we now knew approximately how many genes we had — far fewer than anyone had predicted. Our gene count wasn’t very different from that of corn. We shared many of our genes with mice and chimpanzees. It was overwhelming and incredible all at once.

The Man also spoke about theoretical approaches scientists were taking to “cure” or slow down the HIV virus.

After hearing that talk, my close friend Sacha was so inspired, she decided right then to become a pharmacist. (And she did!)

Science communication at its best involves passionate speakers, using terms everyone can understand, and inspiring them to learn more.

Carl Sagan did it. Neil deGrasse Tyson does it. The Man from my field trip did it.

Who inspired you? Share your story and let Chris know.

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  • Alex Malecki

    Carl Sagan’s work in The Demon Haunted World was what first made me appreciate the role of science in society, and as a way by which to world the world, in a purely naturalistic way.

  • My 7th grade general science teacher is who made me interested in science for the first time. He made science exciting and fun – he was our own personal Bill Nye. He also went the extra mile to nurture students who were particularly interested in a certain topic. His class was where I first learned about genetics, and now I’m a geneticist. And when I was first learning about evolution and I was having some creationist thoughts, he took the time to explain to me how evolution really works and linked me to Talk Origins. He could have been like other teachers who just go through lesson plans, but he really cared about his students. Hell, he was diagnosed with a very serious form of cancer and he still teaches because he loves doing it so much.

    He taught me genetics and evolution. He taught me that science was fun. And he taught me how to think critically, which ultimately solidified my atheism. I have a lot to thank him for!

  • Sid

    here are my “thank you’s” –

    1. I always hated physics and even failed it in undergraduate (horrible professor and a lack interest are a nasty combination); however, I picked up a copy of Brian Greene’s Elegant Universe out of curiosity. It opened a new world for me and I have, since then picked up other books on theoretical physics. In fact, the more I have read and learned, the more I have become aware of questions regarding Greene’s theories. But, isn’t that the point of the popularization of science? Not that one will necessarily latch onto a particularly popular author, but rather that you will want to read and learn more. Greene did that for me with regard to physics.
    2. For evolutionary theory, there can be no doubt … Richard Dawkins and his Selfish Gene. Does anything more need saying?
    3. As a psyschologist, I have an inherent interest in the brain and mind; however, there are two phenomenal authors who have written works that made me want to delve even deeper into cognitive neuroscience: Joseph LeDoux and Antonio Damasio. I’ve even had the privilege of listening to presentations by these men.
    4. Finally, there is Scientific American, a great magazine that addresses science for a popular audience without dumbing it down.

    Mooney and his company are wrong in their accusation that science fails to reach out to the public. Quite frankly, its not just a matter of science not reaching the public, but almost all academic fields. Doesn’t Harold Bloom lament the “dumbing down” of literature? And, don’t the numerous books on linking philosophy to the latest popculture trend (e.g., Harry Potter and Philosophy) speak to the lack of public interest in philosophy? Unfortunately, at least at this stage, America seems to be a anti-intellectual nation, not just an “unscientific one.”

  • Tony

    I have ordered A Demon Haunted World on reading your recommendation.

    I think that the writing in Discover magazine from the UK got me on to science again in a big way. I’m pretty auto-didactic though and have been reading in depth on numerous subjects for decades including history and politics.

  • My own father influenced me more than anyone else. When I was quite young, he told me all the competing cosmology theories of the universe when other kids my age were probably getting bible-picture books read to them.

    I also remember a science class (I can’t remember whether it was middle school or high school) that went through the history of astronomy with the competing theories of things being Earth-centered or Sun-centered and the position of “The Church”. I remember having fun even back then redoing the calculations of determining the size of the Earth based on simultaneous shadow measurements at the same time in different cities near the equator. This reinforced the concept that it is possible to figure out things without relying on authority figures just telling you how things are. The fundamental premise of objective science.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Science communication is available to those who want it, more so today than ever. There are still books and magazines, but the biggest difference is the World Wide Web. Honestly, you kids today have it so easy…

    Where was I? Oh yeah, so there is no shortage of science communication. The biggest problem I see is that certain religious types actively insulate themselves and their offspring from science. The brainwash them against Teh Evolution from an early age in Sunday School. Why not put the blame where it belongs – on these creo-tards, and not try to blame Richard Dawkins or PZ Myers?

  • SarahH

    Bill Nye FTW!

    Also, oddly enough, The X-Files. I was always super curious to find out what was hypothetically possible and what was just complete awesome BS on the part of the writers. Sci-fi is great like that, and while I appreciate the authors who lay out all the explanations in their books (Clarke and Heinlein both did this sometimes), I enjoy stories even more if they make me wonder what parts might be possible – and then I go look it up on my own.

  • Gordon

    I have a sizeable colection of Isaac Asimov’s science essays and they never fail to inspire me.

  • My father. He introduced me to the scientific method around the time I started grade school. He was a Humanities professor, but had been interested in science throughout school (I’m on a similar trajectory). His continued enthusiasm for and true wonderment in science was contagious. He taught me that scientific fact is usually more amazing than the explanations given through myth and religion.

  • Amber

    It definitely started with my parents. My dad was always reading popular science books and my mother is a zoologist. Right from the start I had been taught about basic evolution, astronomy, chemistry and physics, among other things. When I was in high school one of my teachers got me interested in physics (he loved teaching and was great with kids). Since then I’ve been fascinated with many branches of science, but my current obsession is with physics (in fact it’s likely to remain a lifelong love affair, hehe).

    Oh yes, and of course Bill Nye kept things interesting when school was boring 🙂

  • zoo

    This book by Vinson Brown was probably the biggest influence on me before graduating high school. Didn’t do any of the animal collecting, but after I decided there was nothing to study in chemistry (I was 15. . . I know better now :P, but it worked out since I passed my required chemistry but I didn’t like it much), it was one thing that helped get me outside, asking questions about what I saw. Still have a list of some right here (and the good-sized pile of notes I made): why are only yellow wildflowers present in November? why are there no plants with hooked seeds present on a well-used trail (nothing to brush off on, probably)? does the presence of epiphytes deter woodpeckers from pecking at trees? Don’t know the answers to most of them, but since I went on to get a biology degree and got quite a lot of chances at fieldwork in labs and as an undergrad RA I know much better how to find out. Several professors in the UCF bio department get the credit for making sure I learned what evolution is and isn’t, how we know, and why it’s important.

  • ThatOtherGuy

    I don’t have a blog, so I’ll tell here: Bill Nye is most certainly responsible for my interest in science since age… maybe 5-7 somewhere? Was my favorite show on TV, and got me interested… now I’m a total science geek 😀

  • I was very lucky as a child because my parents took us to museums, national parks, and other educational places. There always seemed to be science related books around, but I especially remember “The Emergence of Man” Time-Life series.
    I remained interested in Biology and Archaeology in spite of my teachers, but at least they didn’t teach creationism. Steven Jay Gould’s books, discovered in college, made me really understand evolution.
    Today, with the creationist fifth column everywhere, I think the first job of every science communicator is to teach kids to be objective, empirical observers and problem solvers. That’s the best armor against BS.

  • Thilina

    Do doubt that the work of Carl Sagan, and Richard Dawkins had a huge effect on me but what first got me interested in science was an astronomy book my father got when i was really young. It was quite an advanced book on astronomy (considering how young i was at the time) but i loved learning about the planets and stars and over the years that curiosity has only gotten bigger as i keep finding out more about the universe.

  • Richard Wade

    Few here are old enough to share this memory, but I vividly recall how electrified I was by Dr. Frank Baxter, whose science films were shown in grade schools in the 1950’s and 60’s. They included Our Mr. Sun (1956), Hemo the Magnificent (1957), Gateways to the Mind (1958), The Unchained Goddess (1958), and The Alphabet Conspiracy (1959) Although he was not himself a scientist, his wonderful ability to make science accessible to young people made him an icon of the time as the scientist whose clear, careful thinking would lead us to a better world. He was as great a learner as he was a teacher, and I admired him and wished I could be like him.

    Three careers later, I got my wish. In my smaller way, I am a science communicator. I travel around giving science talks to children, lively, interactive shows about dinosaurs, or volcanoes or astronomy. The emphasis is on fun and on how science knows, rather than just what science knows. I love what I do, and people have me come back year after year. I hope I’m like a Johnny Appleseed for science, linking it with fun in kids’ minds, and leaving a few future scientists in my wake.

  • EdWest

    Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World” and Douglas Adams’ “Last Chance to See” were literally life-changing reads for me. It is a great regret of mine that I cannot ever thank either of them in person.

  • I think it’s truly rare for an accomplished scientist to be able to talk about science in a way that connects with people. A way that makes them care about science.

    People like Feynman, Sagan, Tyson, Hawking, Dawkins, etc; their value simply cannot be overstated. Their contributions as educators, inspirers, eclipses anything they could ever hope to accomplish in a laboratory.

    Every day I thank non-existant phoney-baloney god for what they have shared with me. It’s changed my life, changes me, continually and I don’t ever want it to stop.

    Sometimes Feynman still makes me cry a little but don’t tell the guys in my motorcycle club.

    Edit: Venter kind of rocks my science world these days too.

  • And let’s not forget… DON HERBERT. Don, you were awesome and science loves you.

  • Stephen P

    The people who made the biggest contribution to getting me interested in science were Patrick Moore and David Attenborough. I grew up in a village without street-lights – a privilege very few people have – and at age 11 I knew pretty well all the northern constellations. David Attenborough rescued my interest in biology after it suffered at the hands of a very mediocre school teacher.

  • Plainfieldrob

    I come late to the game…and books have awoken me of late. (though pop-science guys like Bill Nye and Robert Krulwich primed the pump if you will)

    Neil Shubin’s book “Your Inner Fish” really moved me. Who knew that stuff about hiccups?

    Sean Carrol’s “Remarkable Creatures” was inspiring too. Really great book…

    And now I’m going retro and watch Sagan and Attenborough…awesome stuff all around.

  • Ed

    though pop-science guys like Bill Nye and Robert Krulwich primed the pump if you will

    My GOD… er, wait, MY REASON! How could I have possibly forgotten Bill Nye??

  • textjunkie

    That’s a really good question. I am actually a scientist by profession, but I’m not sure when that interest developed or how… I always liked science fiction–every kid wants to be an astronaut–but not Scientific American or non-fiction essays (for all my folks were trying to encourage me to read them). Childhood trips to the various Smithsonians (Air and Space! Natural History!) probably helped too. Elementary and junior high science teachers didn’t hurt either, growing fungus in petri dishes (cool!), dissecting goat lungs, and such things.

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