Friday, May 23, 2008

Geek chic, or right-brained science

In a story this week entitled "Geek Chic: A Scientific Renaissance," ABC news claims that, after decades of marginalization, scientists are once again shining in the public spotlight.

ABC's evidence:

The popularity of urban science clubs and Stephen Hawking books, and an explosion of science and technology cable programs and Web sites.

Science club popularity may indicate little beyond the fact that real science--as opposed to that taught in many grade schools--continues to be popular with those who like science, and that the Internet has made it easier to organize clubs like Dorkbot, which brings together about 100 people per month to various cities to do "strange things with electricity."

As for the science one sees in popular books and cable programs, much of this focuses on what theoretical physicist Brian Green calls "the Mr. Wizard kind of approach to science":

There are many people who think that the only way you can bring science to kids is to blow things up, to bring balloons and confetti and bulbous letters and lots of exclamation points.

Greene's own bestseller, The Elegant Universe, addresses cosmology and string theory, two of the sexiest topics in science today, even for those who haven't a clue. How many of Greene's many readers, I wonder, work their way through the section on Calabi-Yau Manifolds?

A more recent best-seller is Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku, another theoretical physicist. Kaku is now promoting his book to sell-out crowds, and his website crashed last month at 300 visitors per minute. His topic? In ABC's words: "how seemingly impossible ideas like time travel and telepathy are realistically being explored by physicists and Hollywood screen writers."

Next up: the World Science Festival, which opens in New York on May 28th. Its special features? ABC touts "a dance performance that interprets string theory" and "a screening of The Bourne Identity, followed by a discussion about brain function and amnesia."

Like the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, which recently dropped "science" from its name, the assumption throughout is that one can only attract people to science by making science less scientific: diluting it with dance, cinema, and cheap thrills.

But as even Greene, one of the organizers of the World Science Festival, notes, "it's a big mistake when one underestimates what kids can take on board."

While best-seller Kaku insists that "We scientists have to blame ourselves for not engaging the people about our work," I can't help wondering whether we might attract more people to science not by changing science, but by teaching it properly. Instead of The Lorax, how about tree physiology and photosynthesis; instead of time travel, special relativity; instead of ecologically-friendly lifestyles, ecology.

Then, just possibly, we'll interest more students in actual science, and better prepare them for the college-level courses that deter too many people, not because they aren't interested, but because they are so poorly prepared.

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