Spokesmen for science


Neil deGrasse Tyson, a prominant astrophysicist has gone a bit viral recently. My favorite is the video above, a part of a documentary, in which he laments the downturn of NASA. Since that youtube clip went up 3 days ago, it has gotten over 100,000 views, and has spawned the twitter hashtag, #Penny4NASA.

Interestingly, deGrasse Tyson has been reappearing in the various media I consume quite a bit lately. He crops up on NPR rather often, and was a guest on Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist podcast (mature audiences only, but don’t let that scare you, the episode is both hilarious and wonderfully nerdy) back in November. He acknowledges in this podcast that much of his job, these days, is to be the public face of science, and he does not shirk from this duty. On top of his duties at the American Museum of Natural History (my FAVORITE museum since I was a child), he not only hosts tv shows, podcasts, and is a frequent guest on other shows and podcasts, but also tweets on a regular basis, and has done 3 AMAs (ask me anything) on reddit.

This has me wondering about what other scientists really put themselves out there to the public. I perused through the wikipedia entry on Popular Science, and asked myself who I recognized in the list of “English populizers of science”. Try it yourself. Those that I recognized fell into 2 general categories:

1) Practicing scientists who happen to be vocal in popular science:

Biology/Medicine – Thomas HuxleyRichard DawkinsSteven Jay GouldSteven Pinker, Richard Leakey, VS Ramachandran, Oliver Sachs

Physical sciences – Richard Feynman, Brian Greene, Steven HawkingIsaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson,

2) Media: people whose primary jobs are not as scientists – David Attenborough, Bill Bryson, Christopher Hitchens, Jamie Hyneman, Adam Savage, Steve Irwin, Robert Krulwich, Bill Nye, Carl Zimmer

I also looked through the Time top 100, years 2009-2011, and while there were some fabulous scientists doing incredible work, only one of them, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, does much work in the public eye.

I think, if we had more eloquent scientists like deGrasse Tyson willing to put themselves out there, the public might be more inspired by science, rather than frightened of it. This is especially the case for stem cell biology. After all, I do feel that we study science to better ourselves, the human race as a whole. People need to know that.

It takes someone charismatic, but relatable, to make scientists seem (as they are) human. deGrasse Tyson does this wonderfully. I wish there were a biologist out there who could pull off that feat. Why does it seem all the really famous scientists out there are physicists? (or is there a biologist that I am just blanking on who fills that role?)

Edit: March 13, at 1:20pm. My Canadian labmate enlightens me to the existence of David Suzuki, who used to be a genetics professor at UBC in Vancouver, but now spends his time as a climate change activist, and hosts The Nature of Things, which sounds like the Canadian equivalent to NOVA.

Edit: March 15, at 11:45am. My father in law (a project manager at JPL who works on AIRS) writes

You may also want to add James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He’s a very outspoken in the field of “global warming,” now referred to as climate change. He’s often been cited as an ultimate authority or a crackpot, depending on your point of view. See:http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/ and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Hansen

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4 Responses to Spokesmen for science

  1. zinc says:

    I heart Steven Novella and his crew at Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe. Also, Robert Sapolsky (Stanford!) is gaining momentum as a science writer, I met him and we had a great talk about Toxoplasmosis when the rest of my labmates just sat there like dumb-bunnies. There’s also Francis Collins I suppose.

    I think what you are lamenting is due to :
    1) diversification of biological scientists writing books and
    2) the most publicly active biologists getting wrapped up in atheism/skepticism, making them unfit for mainstream public love

    PS) Gould is not practicing because he’s dead.

  2. Ah, Sapolsky. I thought of including him in here, but wound up restricting it to the entries at Wiki and Time. Last year I was going to sneak into some of Sapolsky’s lectures, since my undergrad research assistant was enrolled in his class and could tell me when he would actually lecture, but something always got in the way.

    I like your point 2, but it seems that physicists are immune to that one. Perhaps because, if you are willing to swallow that the universe is billions of years old, you’ll overlook religion, whereas biology is so inherently wrapped up in evolution etc…. I’m not too sure.

    Yes, several of the practicing scientists are dead (noteably Huxley, who was Darwin’s contemporary)… I listed them as practicing because that’s what they do/did as their primary vocation. I guess technically you might stick the Crocodile Hunter as a practicing scientist, but so much of it was in front of a camera that I erred on the media side for him.

  3. Pingback: Fear factor (spokesmen for science, cont’d) | Wedge Wonders Why

  4. Pingback: Science in the media, redux | Wedge Wonders Why

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